‘Do I Have Time to Read Gibbon?’ and Other Conference Concerns

Gareth Reeves is a final year PhD candidate in the English department at Durham University. His research explores the value of self-education in fin-de-siècle London, chiefly in the novels of George Gissing. He can be found on Twitter @GarethReeves4

I am in the throes of hammering out a conference paper on George Gissing’s much-neglected, unfinished historical novel, Veranilda (1904), for the Literary London Society’s next conference on 11–12 July 2019. My paper looks at the novel’s presentation of lost imperialism as manifested in images of urban decay. I am close to the end of my PhD and have presented at more than five conferences, so I am not too nervous about it; however, each paper/conference comes with its own issues, and this one is no exception.

First off, the conference itself. Each year the LLS try to include a ‘Gissing panel’; this year’s comprises three papers (including mine), and the papers not only focus on traditional themes associated with cities but also pay homage to the late, great Pierre Coustillas, the doyen of Gissing studies who sadly passed away last summer. It is no exaggeration to say that his vast work on Gissing made modern Gissing studies. Among other things, he brought about the publication by Harvester Press in the 1970s and 1980s of almost all of Gissing’s novels (a first since their original publication, and the first uniform critical edition), most of which he introduced and edited; he collected criticism and reviews for the Gissing Critical Heritage volume, he doggedly tracked down rare pieces of fiction and non-fiction, he helped collect all of the author’s letters for a massive nine-volume edition, he collected all of the short stories (another first) in a handsome three-volume edition for Grayswood Press, and his three-volume biography (1,000 pages of small print text) is second to none. My paper therefore has to reflect upon Coustillas’s achievement as well as the novel.

Luckily, I have access to Coustillas’s critical edition of Veranilda, which comes with an introduction, copious notes and textual information. In reflecting on the book, I can make references to Coustillas’s excellent scholarship. I have also set myself the task of reading his gigantic biography of Gissing before the conference. As researchers, we tend to read secondary texts piecemeal, but sometimes it is necessary to tackle a tome in its entirety, and this is one of those occasions. Two-thirds of the way through, I am now reading the final volume, which is most relevant to the text I am discussing. 

As for recent secondary materials, Veranilda has, except for an excellent (and intimidatingly comprehensive) article by Dr Tom Ue, generally been overlooked. The main reason for this is obvious. Gissing is famous today as a realist, author of brutally honest renderings of contemporary urban life in The Nether World, New Grub Street, The Odd Women, and The Whirlpool; at the height of his career, he was often mentioned in the same breath as Emile Zola and George Moore. Readers therefore do not associate him with historical fiction; when we think of Roman historical fiction, in particular, we think of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s much earlier The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) or later (and much better) novels like Robert Graves’s Claudius books (1934/35) or Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951). Gissing was, however, an exceptionally gifted classicist and had been planning a novel on ancient Rome for at least half of his career. The novel he finally wrote was set in sixth-century Rome, when the Gothic king Totila was slowly taking over Italy and the Roman emperor Justinian was defending his country, and concerns an unlikely romance between a Roman, called Basil, and a Goth, called Veranilda—perhaps a bit like a more mature Romeo and Juliet, but apparently nothing like New Grub Street!

One of the main obstacles to producing a good paper, then, is to convince my audience of the relevance of this apparent anomaly to the rest of Gissing’s oeuvre. My argument is that, despite the differences in time and place, it belongs to a loose trilogy of books on the theme of empire—the other two being The Whirlpool and The Crown of Life. This theme became quite strong in Gissing’s later work (yet not entirely absent from his earlier work); he was anti-imperialist at a time when most people were expected to celebrate the British Empire. In arguing for Veranilda’s inclusion in this trilogy, on the basis that there is a harking back to the Roman Empire, I am interrogating phasic categories created by Gissing scholarship. Indeed, Coustillas’s three-volume biography partly reflects this tripartite categorisation: the novels up to and including 1888, those written between 1888 and 1897, and then everything he wrote before his death in 1903. Of the thematic trilogy that I have construed, however, The Whirlpool is considered to belong to the second phase, whereas The Crown of Life and Veranilda belong to the third. My personal problem here is lack of familiarity with the middle novel, which I read at speed many years ago. Do I have time to reread it? Will I be able to convince my audience that this is indeed a thematic trilogy, despite the obvious differences between Roman and British imperialism, not to mention the fact that Veranilda is set one hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire?

Another question: do I have time to read Gibbon? Veranilda is set in the sixth century ad, and many of Gissing’s English and German sources are impossible to get hold of, at least for me, but Gibbon was one of his richest sources (and one of his favourite books). I would only need to read about fifty pages from the second volume (Penguin edition), so this is do-able. The question then will be whether it is useful. My paper concentrates on the theme of urban disintegration, and Gibbon is necessarily useful for this, since images of urban decay pepper his history. My goal is to show the significance of this in Veranilda. 

Gissing also wrote a travel book on Italy towards the end of his life, By the Ionian Sea. It is rife with scenes of poverty and decay. Again, I read it many years ago, but luckily it is a short work, so there is time for me to incorporate some descriptions from that, if required.

Finally, my commitment to reading Coustillas’s biography in its entirety has led to the chance discovery that Gissing had admired a painting when he visited the Louvre in 1888, Thomas Couture’s Les Romains de la decadence (‘Romans of the Decline of the Empire’). This will need to feature in my PowerPoint presentation, of course. I hope I have time to sit and admire it myself, as it will doubtless prove highly suggestive.

This post has been re-published by permission from the BAVS Postgraduates Blog. Please see the original post at https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2019/05/20/do-i-have-time-to-read-gibbon-and-other-conference-concerns/