When the 22 year old George Gissing (1857 -- 1903) published his first novel in 1880, he was in the midst of a troubled life. A scholarship student at Owens College, Gissing had been expelled and served a month in prison after he had been caught stealing to support a young prostitute, Nell. Gissing then lived in the United States unhappily for a year. He returned to England and married Nell. With Nell's alcoholism, illnesses, and prostitution and the couple's repeated moves from one dreadful apartment to another, the marriage was deeply unhappy. Gissing wanted to support himself as a writer. He worked fervishly on his novel during 1879. It is, in part, a fictionalized account of his relationship with Nell.
Gissing first called his book "Far, Far Away" after a street-song of the London slums quoted during the story. He later adopted the more evocative title "Workers in the Dawn." The novel was rejected by several publishers before it was accepted on condition that Gissing pay the publication and printing costs. He did so using the proceeds of a small inheritance. The book sold poorly and was not reprinted until an American edition appeared in 1935. The book was reissued in 1985 and has now been reissued again in this new edition published by Victorian Secrets, edited and introduced by Debbie Harrison, and with a Preface by the leading scholar of Gissing, Pierre Coustillas.
"Workers in the Dawn" was a young man's book and a first novel. It is a long and wordy book of 600 pages. Although there are some highly impressive passages much of the book is written in a prolix and sometimes stilted writing style. The plot is complex and implausible in places, relying a great deal on coincidence. Some of the climactic scenes in the novel fall flat. There are a great many characters in the book of varying degrees of development, most of whom owe a great deal to Dickens. Gissing's own voice in the story, with his observations, editorializing, and preaching tends to be intrusive. Thus, there are reasons for the neglect of this novel.
With all its faults, I would not part with this book. The book is the first of a series of novels in which Gissing examined the lives of the London poor. The work is written in a tone of seriousness. It is in part a novel of ideas with broad reference to religious and social issues. It captures a degree of rootlessness and restlessness in its characters that has a somewhat modern tone and that Gissing would develop in his subsequent works. The book deals frankly with issues of sexuality. It is the story of people who are essentially loners. Gissing explores the tensions between a life devoted to art as compared to a life devoted either to social causes or to commercial success. The novel is deeply pessimistic in tone. It was all told a good effort by its struggling young author.
The novel tells the story of a young man named Arthur Golding beginning with the death of his dissolute father in the London slums when the boy was 8 until Golding's suicide by throwing himself into Niagra Falls at the age of 23. When Golding's father dies, a friend, a country minister named Edward Norman of skeptical tendencies, accepts responsibility for the boy an attempts to educate him in a peaceful rural setting. But Arthur escapes and runs back to London to search for the grave of his father. He becomes irremediably involved in low life. Consumptive and weak Edward Norman dies young without finding Arthur again, but he leaves Arthur a subsequent bequest in his will which the boy is to receive upon turning 21. After returning to London, Arthur is rescued a life on the streets by a poor printer named Samuel Tollady who esssentially adopts him, teaches him a trade, educates him and encourages the boy in his obvious artistic gift. Arthur ultimately studies art with a friend of Edward Norman, Gresham, who is a successful society painter and the guardian of Norman's daughter Helen.
There are two primary women in Golding's life. The first is Helen Norman, Edward's daughter, a wealthy, idealistic social reformer, and the second is Carrie Mitchell, a working girl and a young prostitute. Early in the book Helen and Arthur develop a romantic interest but they lose track of each other following Tollady's death. Arthur meets and becomes involved with Carrie while she is carrying a child out of wedlock who soon dies. Arthur saves Carrie's life and marries her, but the two do not get along, as Arthur cannot resist trying to improve Carrie by educating her and Carrie turns inexorably to alcohol and to prostitution. When Carrie leaves Arthur, Helen and Arthur begin a relationship which Helen ends abrubtly when she learns that Arthur is married. A broken man at the age of 22, Arthur sails to the United States where he wanders aimlessly for a year before killing himself at Niagra Falls.
Gissing is at his best in this novel when he writes of what he knows well: the streets of the London slums and its people, some of the characters, and the plagued relationship between Arthur and Carrie. Gissing has a feel for the life of the poor in London in the 1860s and 1870s. In this book, he describes their lives with passion. In "Workers in the Dawn" Gissing seems to advocate education, of the type Helen Norman tries to carry on, and social activism as a slow but possibly effective cure for the evils of slum life. Arthur's suicide is told dramatically and effectively. The scenes when a young Helen Norman studies philosophy in Germany and develops her social idealism also are told well and effectively. Helen's ideals of a life of moral activity without religion are central to "Workers in the Dawn." The sections of the book set in rural England outside London and in the middle upper class areas of London tend on the whole to drag. The love affair between Helen and Arthur, and Helen's moral probity and rigidity, tend to be awkward and unconvincing.
This is a book that demands a devoted reader eager to work through it. It will be of most interest to readers with a passion for Gissing: those who have read several of his better-known books and who know something of his life and preoccupations and who wish to see him at his literary near-beginning. Although this book is in a class by itself in some ways, many of Gissing's themes are stated in "Workers in the Dawn." I would not willingly have passed by this book and new edition.
Following "Workers in the Dawn", Gissing would not publish his second novel, "The Unclassed" for four years (1884). The latter book is also set among the London poor and includes a young man of artistic ambitions torn between his feelings for a prostitute and for a prim woman as its main character. But the tone of the book differs significantly from the earlier novel. Gissing would proceed with a series of several additional proletarian novels before moving to other social settings later in his life.
The publication of "Workers in the Dawn" by Victorian Secrets making it easily accessible to current readers was an event. This small publisher will be issuing several other rare early novels by Gissing and other neglected Victorian writers in the next few years. Besides the prefaces and notes, this book includes a useful chronology of Gissing's life. The book also includes a map called "Arthur Golding's London" which shows the reader the places Gissing mentions in his story. Many of the landmarks of the London poor quarters were demolished after Gissing wrote. The map is a valuable addition to a volume I will treasure.