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Intriguing, cool-eyed account of late-Victorian literary scene
on 21 May 2014
I find myself wavering about this novel. Half of me thinks it’s only medium good—standard, intelligent, late-Victorian/Edwardian fiction, without Stevenson’s quicksilver eye and prose, or even Arnold Bennett’s dogged lyricism. The other half thinks it’s actually rather powerful in the relentlessness of its vision, and almost brutal, in an interesting way —in particular, with what it does with its not-quite heroine Marian Yule.
<i>New Grub Street</i> opens on a note of literal gallows humor, when we see the young Jasper Milvain winding up his sisters by expressing his liking for reading about executions (“There’s a certain satisfaction in reflecting that it is not oneself.”) Jasper has plenty of opportunities to enjoy this charitable sensation as he pursues his arduous path to literary success. His rise is accompanied on all sides by the spectacle of less “adapted” writers (Darwin is definitely a subtext) descending into poverty, sickness, and despair.
This makes the novel sound depressing, and it should be, with this subject matter. In fact, it’s actually quite an enjoyable read. If I can say this without sounding too disparaging, it has something of a soap opera feel about it, with a fairly broad cast of flattish characters choreographed into satisfying moral and emotional geometries. The setting is very interesting and vividly realized: the half-gentlemanly, half-cutthroat world of journalism and literary publishing in 1880s London, with some details curiously reminiscent of today. The appealing minor character Whelpdale finally makes his career with a vanity school for would-be authors—“novel-writing taught in ten lessons”—and a periodical made up of articles measuring no more than two inches in length, with every inch broken into at least two paragraphs, for readers “incapable of sustained attention.”
Some of the historical detail in the book I found fascinating. There’s a weird account of a morning in a smog-filled interior (“The thick black fog penetrated every corner of the house. It could be smelt and tasted … ”). And I loved it when three characters had dinner in an “à la mode beef shop” —perhaps the 1880s equivalent of St John? Sometimes the pleasure in these details is made up of dramatic irony. In this genre, I particularly enjoyed the reference to “one of the most shocking alleys in the worst part of Islington.”