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  George Gissing

The 'Summerhill' Connection

George Gissing (1857-1903) was a late-Victorian English writer best remembered for his novels 'New Grub Street' and 'The Odd Women' but these are the highlights of a career which, though short, was marked by relentless industry: he wrote another 21 novels, more than a hundred short stories, a travel book, literary criticism (on Dickens), essays, and enough letters to fill nine volumes. The details of his private life, which for much of his time was very unhappy, have fascinated generations of readers.

We have been contacted by Dr Bouwe Postmus, who is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Amsterdam, and he informs us that he has written a number of books about the English novelist. We have since discovered that even today George Gissing has a large international following, that he befriended Thomas Hardy, George Meredith and H.G Wells and that in the twentieth century George Orwell was a great admirer of his work.

But it was from the collected letters of George Gissing that Bouwe Postmus brought to our attention the historical connections that George Gissing has with Summerhill Road.

There follow some extracts from the information provided by Bouwe Postmus:

It was in December 1878 that George Gissing read the following advertisement in the Personal columns of a leading London newspaper.

"Wanted, human companionship. A young man of four-and-twenty wishes to find a congenial associate of about his own age. He is a student of ancient and modern literatures, a free-thinker in religion, a lover of art in all forms, hater of conventionalism. Would like to correspond in the first instance. Address E.B. City News Rooms, W.C."

Intrigued by the tone of the notice, Gissing answered it and received a quick reply from Eduard Bertz (1853-1931). Bertz was a German political refugee, whose radical socialism brought him to the attention of his government's watch-dogs, who arrested him as a dangerous agitator. He was given the choice of either renouncing the Party and being freed or sticking to the membership and being jailed with the loss of German citizenship. Bertz managed to flee to France first and picking London as his next refuge, where he settled in 1878

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'Eduard Bertz'

Although Bertz enjoyed the proximity of Gissing in London, in February 1880 he moved to a cheap ground floor apartment in a Tottenham cottage. Five letters written by Bertz in the first six months of 1880 to one of his German friends have survived and they were all written from the same address: "Parmenter Cottage, Summerhill Road, West Green Park, Tottenham, Middlesex, England."

I quote a passage from a letter written by Bertz in German and dated 4 March 1880:

"I have a new address; since three weeks. I have been living right in the country; Tottenham lies a few miles north of London. I decided to move here, because it would save me 208 German Marks annually in rent and because I prefer rural tranquillity to the noise and dark brown fogs of London; I hardly ever go into town, though I could get there very quickly by train. I would probably have moved farther out of town and settled somewhere on the coast, if it had not been for my dear English friend, George Gissing, who twice a week visits me at Tottenham in the evening from London. I have a lovely small detached cottage in a large garden, which I may freely use...It is surrounded by open fields and fresh air, which have greatly contributed to the state of my health. I have never yet in my work enjoyed such absolute quiet."


1864_summerhillroad.jpg (42020 bytes)   This extract from an 1864 map of Summerhill Road Tottenham shows the location of ' Parmenter Cottage'

and from a Letter from Gissing dated, 9 May 1880.

"The other day Bertz & I took a long walk, starting from Tottenham, passing through Chingford, thence through Epping Forest (which is not a forest at all, & where, you will remember, lies the scene of "Barnaby Rudge") to Chigwell, where we went a long way out of our road to see the "Maypole Inn." Alas! We found it was a mere gin-palace, built the day before yesterday, & came away proportionately disappointed and enraged."

And a passage from another letter from Gissing dated 30 May 1880.

."I fancy my own health is -- as you put it -- rather horsish than otherwise...Two days in the week you know I walk out to Bertz [at Tottenham], but the other days I have seldom inclination to wander on a vague constitutional about the streets. The two evenings, however, are precious to me; it is on the walk out & back that most of my happy ideas come to me. If I am puzzling long about some knotty point, I generally conclude by putting it off to one of those evenings, when I am sure to have the matter settled ambulando [=by walking]." 

Dr Postmus added his personal comments regarding the above extract:

" With regard to the second passage I must admit I had not realised before that Gissing covered the distance (roughly 7 miles) between Hanover Street, Islington, where he lodged and Parmenter Cottage, Tottenham, on foot. I had assumed he would have travelled by train, but then I should have known better: Gissing had very little money to spend at the time and he was a great walker, so walk it he did: all 14 miles"

And from a later letter written by Bertz (30 August 1880):

"This summer I have been enjoying my daily dip in the river Lea, which separates Middlesex from Essex. With my fully-grown, healthy, clever, good, faithful and splendid dog I am swimming downstream side by side in the early hours of the morning."

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'George Gissing'

In one of Gissing's novels (The Nether World, 1889) he actually has a character by the name of "Pammenter" and you wonder whether he was in any way remembering his regular visits to James Parmenter's Tottenham cottage in 1880, when he created the character of a genial farmer in chapter 19 of his novel.

We know that, in order to be closer to his friend Gissing, he moved from Tottenham to a room in Wornington Road, Westbourne Park, about the middle of March 1881, so he had only just vacated Parmenter Cottage when the census people knocked on the empty premises in April 1881. His stay at Tottenham therefore can be dated with some precision: he was there from c. 17 February 1880-17 March 1881. Thirteen months in all.

One of the more remarkable incidents during Bertz's stay in Summerhill Road is related in a letter from George Gissing to his two sisters in Wakefield (dated 20 June 1880):

"I can tell you a story which will give you a little amusement. The other day, a friend of mine [Eduard Bertz] was walking by the side of a river, where there were some boys bathing. One of these boys was at a little distance from the others, & my friend, noticing something curious about him, soon saw that he was on the point of being drowned. Without waiting to throw away his hat or take off his gloves, at once he jumped headlong into the river, & succeeded in swimming to land with the half-drowned boy! I should like to have seen him as he walked home; he must have looked remarkably like a water-rat on its hind legs."

One of the more fanciful bits of information that we discovered about George Gissing was the suggestion that he was once considered a suspect in the 'Jack the Ripper' murders that occurred in Victorian London.

The terror that befell London's Whitechapel district in the Autumn months of 1888 remains unparalleled in the annals of crime. Jack the Ripper, a faceless predator whose infamy and guile would be renowned and feared to this day, has become virtual folklore to the people of the East End. More than a century has passed since Jack the Ripper stalked the fog filled, cobbled streets of London, but still latter day detectives continue to speculate as to the identity of the notorious "Whitechapel Murderer".

The first time the rumour of Gissing's involvement appeared in print was in Richard Whittington-Egan's A Casebook on Jack the Ripper (London: Wiley, 1975) -- this is the authority cited by all other authors.

It would appear that no-one was above suspicion and over time there have been many suspects that have included  Prince Eddy (Duke of Clarence), Sir William Gull (Royal Physician), John Netley (A Royal coachman) and the artist Walter Sickert. Although time has allowed hindsight, and numerous suspects have been presented, many are too ridiculous to be considered a viable culprit and this includes George Gissing. 

In 1897 it was first diagnosed the Gissing was suffering from emphysema that was eventually to end his life so prematurely. After the turn of the century Gissing’s illness grew acute and he moved restlessly from place to place as a semi-invalid always sure that happiness was to be found elsewhere. George Gissing died in a rented villa in south-west France on 28th December 1903, and is buried in the English Cemetery at St Jean de Luz on the Bay of Biscay.

There is no doubt that in Victorian England George Gissing was among the more thoughtful and idiosyncratic writers and his brief association with Summerhill Road in this period just adds to the historical interest.

Editors Note: We are hoping to trace a copy of the local newspaper in June 1880 to see whether it features an account of Eduard Bertz saving a youth from drowning in the River Lea.

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