Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 22, 2011

The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1902), by George Gissing

George Gissing (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

O, the marvel of the Kindle and the internet! As a teenager reading my way through the family collection of classics, I never imagined that in the 21st century I would discover yet more treasures from the 19th century through the agency of the digital age!   George Gissing (1857-1903) is a writer I had never heard of until I read Ouyang Yu’s The English Class, but I have been spared an arduous search through second-hand bookstores and Op shops.  The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft landed in my Kindle in less time than it takes to read this paragraph!

Gissing was an English novelist of realism who never succeeded in making a comfortable living. Wikipedia  tells me that he wrote twenty-three novels, with two, New Grub Street and Born in Exile now included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The theme of both these two books (says 1001 Books) and of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft is the writer’s struggle for recognition and just reward.

The  Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft purports to be the papers of a recently-deceased writer; aspects of it are autobiographical. The narrator who is tidying up his dead friend’s estate wonders why the hack writer had never written the novel he wanted to, and thinks it might be because ‘Ryecroft’ could not decide on the form.

I imagine him shrinking from the thought of a first-person volume; he would feel it too pretentious; he would bid himself wait for the day of riper wisdom. (The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft  Kindle edition.)

What the ‘papers’ allow Gissing to do is to share what he has of wisdom, some of which is too reminiscent of the BBC Grumpy Old Men series for my taste. (That program is made for people who don’t already have tiresome old relations to bore them witless with opinionated harangues about the evils of the modern world. It is deeply depressing to see that Germaine Greer has joined them for the female version of the series.)

Anyway, the papers of Henry Ryecroft are grouped together by his executor into the four seasons and while Summer and Autumn are mostly rants of one sort or another, they do shine a light on the period Gissing writes about, and Spring is well worth reading. It’s about the travails of a writer who has come into a small inheritance and has, for the first time in his life, security of income and the wherewithal to buy a comfortable cottage in the country for his retirement. He writes movingly about the struggle to survive extreme poverty – about being cold and hungry and ashamed of his shabby clothes, and – what seems for him to be worse than anything – about not having enough money to buy books.

After ‘Spring’, Winter is my favourite of the four chapters. As an old man conscious of impending death he writes about the fire that warms his ageing bones. Wood fires require too much attention, he says.  Let hotels and flats warm their residents with ‘the wretched modern contrivance of water-pipes or heated air’. He likes the cheering glow of coal. He begs the reader to forgive his profligate use of it when England is burning all its coal, because he cannot bear to make ‘cheerless the last winter of his life’.   He relishes having not only enough money to satisfy his own simple needs but also enough to give some away to others less fortunate than himself. ‘How good it is to desire little; he says, and ‘to have a little more than enough’.

He remembers one bleak and foggy day when he didn’t have enough oil for the lamp to read at night. Now he has leisure to read and to think, to take sensual pleasure in a cup of tea, and to be scornful about vegetarianism, because now he can afford a bit of beef. He enjoys the winter sunshine and waxes lyrical about English comfort (as distinct from style). It comes as a shock to realise that he is writing about the end of his life at the age of only 54, an age now considered only middle-aged. But in the 19th century many men died before their fifties, and he worries that he doesn’t have enough time left to learn all that he wishes to know before he dies. (He’s still buying books!)

He feels he has, through no fault of his own but merely circumstance, wasted some opportunities, and wishes he could have a second chance.   Alas, he does have a rant here and there, about everything from English prudery to Old Testament beliefs, but the book concludes on a peaceful note, the author reconciled with his life and the world he lives in.

Author: George Gissing
Title: The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft 1903
Publisher/Source: Project Gutenberg 1463 Download from here.


  1. Oh, I must read this. I read New Grub Street a few years ago and enjoyed it a lot. An interesting late Victorian novel with a debt to Dickens. I think you’d like it because it’s about writers and art versus commerce thereof (as I recollect).

    It’s astonishing really, how many writers there are out there … we think we MUST have at least heard of them but they keep on cropping up don’t they?


    • Grub Street will be next, then! I like the sound of that:)


      • Yes — it’s fascinating for the social history for a start so I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.


        • I’ve just been reading elsewhere about the value of historical fiction for learning about an era – and that’s true (if the book is well-researched) but I do think that there’s no substitute for reading the fiction of the time. Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy – and now Gissing, shivering in his London garret – these writers have shaped my ideas about C19th Britain as no other writers have.


          • I agree, though of course with all fiction you have to realise it’s fiction and so history isn’t its goal. With that in mind though you can glean a lot, particularly from works of the time, as you say.

            (Just like The slap will tell people next century all about Melbourne now! LOL, couldn’t resist that. I’m naughty that way!)


  2. This review prompted me to re-read my own (long-ago) thesis on Gissing. I wrote about his female characters and focussed on topics such as marriage, sexual mores, and the fate of single women. In particular The Odd women, The Whirlpool and In the year of Jubilee all seem to have made a big impression on me and I would like to commend them to readers. It’s true that he didn’t deal in high tragedy – no Tess of the d’Urbevilles – but his shop girls and secretaries are equally interesting and illustrate Gissing’s perplexity over the ‘New Woman’, that wonderful phenomenon of the late nineteenth-century!


    • *chuckle* Even though I’ve only read The Private Papers, I can just imagine his perplexity, Ros! I certainly intend to read more of him and have already downloaded Grub Street to my Kindle.
      How did you come to choose him for your thesis?


  3. I saw some George Gissing quite recently, in a second hand book shop. And didn’t snap it up. Oops. Wonder if it’s still there?


    • Scamper back.
      But if it’s gone, download Kindle for PC and then scour or project gutenberg. How I love the people who put their time and energy into making these resources freely available!


  4. […] a nod to George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, the narrator, who is a fictionalised Flanagan telling us about his travails as a ghost writer for […]


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