Like Ingmar Bergman films and Tori Amos albums, you have to be in the right mood for Gissing. His bleak tales of poverty and thwarted ambition aren't for the faint-hearted and as with Hardy, it's sometimes hard to commit yourself to a narrative where the outcome seems predetermined from the first chapter.
But I'd forgotten how funny Gissing can be, in spite of his übermiserabilist credentials . I'd also forgotten how good he was at capturing the mood of late Victorian Britain, outwardly comfortable and complacent, but inwardly racked with tensions over issues of sex, class and religion.
With its gentle social satire and absence of grim melodrama, Our Friend the Charlatan sometimes feel more like an abridged Trollope novel in which the verbose digressions have been removed by a foward-thinking editor. Like so many Victorian stories, there is an elderly aristocrat, a young man on the make, a question of inheritance and a dilemma between marrying for love or money. But these familiar elements are merely a device for Gissing to create something where the sum is far greater than its parts.
Dyce Lashmar, the improbably-named main character, is a young man whose Oxford education has given him ideas above his station. Blessed with no discernible gifts except an unwavering confidence in his own abilities, Lashmar is horrified when his two sources of income - an annuity from his improverished father and the tuition fees he earns from instructing the son of a young widow - suddenly come to an end.
However, when the daughter of a former family friend tells Dyce that she is a secretary to a wealthy philanthropist, he sees an opportunity to cultivate a patron who will sponsor his glittering career.
Like Vanity Fair, this is a novel without a hero and all of the main characters are highly flawed individuals, but none more so than Dyce Lashmar, whose ability to recycle the ideas of an obscure French book on sociobiology convinces others that he is a 'coming man':
"All I know is, Dyce, that you might be the coming man, and you're content to be nobody at all."
"The coming man! Well, perhaps, I am; who knows? At all events, it's something to know that you believe in me. And it may be that you are not the only one."
A master of self-delusion, Lashmar soon believes that the Frenchman's ideas are merely a crude prototype for his own sophisticated philosophy and this genuine convinction successfully gains him a growing number of supporters. Only one person sees through him and their mischievous intervention adds tension to what could have been a rather plodding story.
Dyce Lasmar is clearly a vehicle for Gissing to explore the growing frustrations of the emerging middle class at the ruling aristocracy:
What, in deed, did such titles mean nowadays? They were a silly anachronism, absurdly in contradiction with that scientific teaching which rules our lives. Lashmar, of course, was right in his demand for a new aristocracy to oust the old, an aristocracy of nature, of the born leaders of men.
In Our Friend the Charlatan, it is Darwin who has changed everything, not socialism. Even Dyce's father, an impoverished rector, agrees:
The Rev. Philip was in his sixty-seventh year; a thin, dry, round-shouldered man, with bald occiput, straggling yellowish beard, and a face which recalled that of Darwin. The resemblance pleased him. Privately he accepted the theory of organic evolution, reconciling it with a very broad Anglicanism; in his public utterances he touched upon the Darwinian doctrine with a weary disdain.
Later in the story, Gissing mentions that Lashmar and a friend have become interested in Nietzsche and in a passage that is remarkably prescient for a novel published in 1901, they discuss their reservations about his philosophy:
"He'll do a great deal of harm in the world," she said, this same afternoon, as Dyce and she drank tea together. "The jingo impulse, and all sorts of forces making for animalism, will get strength from him, directly or indirectly. It's the negation of all we are working for, you and I."
"Of course it is," Dyce replied, in a voice of conviction. "We have to fight against him." He added, after a pause, "There is a truth in him, of course; but it's one of those truths which are dangerous to the generality of men."
Nietzsche's views are, of course, the symptom, not the cause and Gissing clearly feared certain aspects of the fin de siècle culture that was replacing the old order:
Mrs. Toplady had always wished for the coming of the very hero, the man without fear, without qualm, who should put our finicking civilisation under his feet. Her god was a compound of the blood-reeking conqueror and the diplomatist supreme in guile. For such a man she would have poured out her safe-invested treasure, enough rewarded with a nod of half-disdainful recognition. It vexed her to think that she might pass away before the appearance of that new actor on the human stage; his entrance was all but due, she felt assured. Ah! the world would be much more amusing presently, and she meanwhile was growing old.
Mrs Toplady, a woman in early middle age, would have probably lived long enough to see her wishes come true, albeit in a rather different guise. Gissing didn't even reach his 50th birthday.
Gissing's novels about the lower middle classes, educated beyond their means, trapped in lives of genteel poverty on trifling annuities, will have resonances for many modern readers and their obscurity is ill-deserved.
Today, only New Grub Street is widely read whilst others like The Nether World, In the Year of Jubilee and The Odd Women are merely admired. This is a great pity, as few writers have managed to create such a vivid panorama of late Victorian society. His descriptions of suburban London in In the Year of Jubilee are so well written that the sights and sounds almost become a false memory of something actually experienced.
Perhaps Gissing would have attracted more readers if he'd emulated Hardy, moving his stories to a more attractive rural setting where he could begin each novel with a portentous topographical description of the local area. I'm glad he didn't.
In Our Friend the Charlatan, the narrative is dominated by dialogue. This makes it very easy to read but suggests that this is a slight work, produced in a hurry. Some of the characters are a little two-dimensional and the Lady Bracknell figure feels all too familiar. However, I found it fascinating.
Gissing's portrayal of the plight of someone of limited means whose ambition was inversely proportional to their talent, is extremely entertaining. But, more importantly, it provides an insight into a society that was hurtling towards civil unrest and world war. This novel does not deserve its current status as an obscure, linkless item on Wikipedia. I hope that in the age of the blogosphere, Gissing's time will come.