Gissing was born on 22 November 1857 in Wakefield, Yorkshire, the eldest of five children of Thomas Waller Gissing, a pharmaceutical chemist, and Margaret née Bedford. His siblings were: William, who died aged twenty; Algernon, who became a writer; Margaret; and Ellen. His childhood home in Thompson's Yard, Wakefield, is maintained by The Gissing Trust.
Gissing was educated at Back Lane School in Wakefield, where he was a diligent and enthusiastic student. His serious interest in books began at the age of ten when he read The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens and subsequently, encouraged by his father and inspired by the family library, his literary interest grew. Juvenilia written at this time was published in 1995 in The Poetry of George Gissing. He was also skilled at drawing. Gissing's father died when he was 12 years old, and he and his brothers were sent to Lindow Grove School at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, where he was a solitary student who studied hard.
In 1872, after an exceptional performance in the Oxford Local Examinations, Gissing won a scholarship to Owens College, forerunner of the University of Manchester. There he remained solitary, continued his intense studies, and won many prizes, including the Poem Prize in 1873 and the Shakespeare scholarship in 1875.
Gissing's academic career ended in disgrace when he fell in love with a young woman Marianne Helen Harrison, known as Nell. She is often described as a prostitute, but there isn't any evidence for this. It is reported that he gave her money in an attempt to keep her off the streets, but, again, there is no hard evidence for this. What is known, is that when he ran short of money he stole from his fellow students. The college hired a detective to investigate the thefts, and Gissing was prosecuted, found guilty, expelled, and sentenced to a month's hard labour in Belle Vue Gaol, Manchester in 1876.
In September 1876, with support from sympathisers, he travelled to the United States, where he spent time in Boston and Waltham, Massachusetts writing and teaching classics. When his money ran out he moved to Chicago, where he earned a precarious living writing short stories for newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune. He lived in poverty until he met a travelling salesman in need of an assistant and Gissing demonstrated his products. These experiences partially inspired his 1891 novel, New Grub Street.
In September 1877, Gissing left America and returned to England.[nb 1]
After returning to England, Gissing settled in London with Nell, writing fiction and working as a private tutor. He failed to get his first novel Workers in the Dawn accepted by a publisher, and so published it privately, funding it with money from an inheritance. Gissing married Nell on 27 October 1879.
His one close friend in London was fellow author and Owens College alumnus Morley Roberts, who wrote a novel based on Gissing's life The Private Life of Henry Maitland in 1912. He was friends with Eduard Bertz, a German socialist with whom he became acquainted in 1879. Gissing spent much time reading classical authors at the British Museum Reading Room, as well as coaching students for examinations. He took long walks through the streets of London observing the poor. In his reading, John Forster's Life of Dickens particularly interested him.
According to his pupil Austin Harrison, from 1882 Gissing made a decent living by teaching, and tales of his fight with poverty, including some of his own remembrances, were untrue. The issue of his supposed poverty may be explained by Gissing's attitude to teaching, which he felt robbed him of valuable writing time which he limited as much as possible and by poor management of his finances.
Gissing's next novel, Mrs Grundy's Enemies, remained unpublished, like the first, although it was bought for publication by Bentley & Son in 1882. George Bentley decided not to publish it despite Gissing making revisions. Before his next novel, The Unclassed was published in 1884, Gissing and his wife had separated, although he continued to support her financially until her death in 1888. Between his return to England and the publication of The Unclassed, Gissing wrote 11 short stories, although only "Phoebe" was published at the time, in the March 1884 issue of Temple Bar.
The years following the publication of The Unclassed were a time of great literary activity. Isabel Clarendon and Demos appeared in 1886; Demos marked the beginning of a relationship with publishers Smith, Elder & Co., who were his publishers until New Grub Street in 1891. The novels written at this time depicted the life of the working classes. Gissing used the £150 proceeds from the sale of The Nether World in 1889 to fund a trip to Italy, which he had wanted to make for some time as a result of his interest in the classics. His experiences in Italy formed a basis for the 1890 work The Emancipated.
On 25 February 1891, he married another working-class woman, Edith Alice Underwood. They settled in Exeter, but moved to Brixton in June 1893 and Epsom in 1894. They had two children, Walter Leonard (1891–1916) and Alfred Charles Gissing (1896–1975), but the marriage was not successful. Edith did not understand his work and was prone to fits of temper and violence. In April 1896, Walter was sent to stay with Gissing's sisters in Wakefield, to prevent him being a victim of Edith's violence. As well as his marital difficulties, Gissing developed health problems in the 1890s. The couple separated in 1897; in 1902, Edith was certified insane and was confined to an asylum. At this time he met and befriended Clara Collet who was probably in love with him, although it is unclear whether he reciprocated. They remained friends for the rest of his life and after his death she helped to support Edith and the children.
Gissing's literary work began to command higher payments. New Grub Street published in 1891 brought him £250. In 1892 he befriended fellow writer George Meredith, who influenced his writing. In the 1890s Gissing lived more comfortably from his earnings, though he had health issues which limited the time he spent in London. Novels from this period include Born in Exile in 1892, The Odd Women in 1893, In the Year of Jubilee, 1894, and The Whirlpool in 1897. From 1893, Gissing wrote short stories, some of which were collected in the 1898 volume Human Odds and Ends, and other collected volumes were published after his death. In 1895, he published three novellas, Eve's Ransom, The Paying Guest and Sleeping Fires, reflecting the changing tastes of the reading public, which were moving away from three-volume novels.
In 1897 Gissing met H. G. Wells and his wife, who spent the spring with him and his sister at Budleigh Salterton. Wells said Gissing was "no longer the glorious, indefatigable, impracticable youth of the London flat, but a damaged and ailing man, full of ill-advised precautions against the imaginary illnesses that were his interpretations of a general malaise."
Soon after separating from Edith, Gissing made a second trip to Italy in 1897-1898, which is recounted in his travel book By the Ionian Sea (1901). While in Siena, he wrote Charles Dickens: a Critical Study. In Rome he met H.G. Wells and his wife and did research for a romantic novel set in the sixth century, Veranilda. The Town Traveller, written in the final months of his marriage in 1897, was published while he was in Italy. After a short stay with his friend Bertz in Potsdam, he returned to England in 1898 and moved to Dorking in Surrey.
In July 1898, he met Gabrielle Marie Edith Fleury (1868–1954), a Frenchwoman who approached him with a request to translate New Grub Street. Ten months later, they became partners in a common-law marriage as Gissing was unable to divorce Edith. They moved to France, where he remained, returning to England briefly in 1901 for a six-week stay in a sanatorium in Nayland, Suffolk. The couple settled in Paris, but moved to Arcachon when Gissing's health deteriorated. The final years of his life were spent in the villages of Ciboure, near St Jean-de-Luz, and Ispoure, near Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Gissing's relationship with Fleury provided inspiration for his 1899 novel The Crown of Life. He wrote several novels during his third marriage, including Among the Prophets, which remained unpublished and no longer survives, Our Friend the Charlatan (1901), and Will Warburton, which was published posthumously in 1905. Gissing worked on a historical novel Veranilda, which was unfinished when he died. In 1903, he published The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, written between 1900 and 1901 which initially appeared as a serial entitled "An author at grass" in the Fortnightly Review. It consists of a series of semi-autobiographical essays written from the standpoint of a struggling writer who inherited a legacy enabling him to retire in the countryside and brought much acclaim.
In addition to fiction, Gissing followed his critical study of Charles Dickens with further writings including introductions to editions of Dickens' works, articles for journals and a revised edition of John Forster's biography of the author.
Gissing died aged 46 on 28 December 1903 after catching a chill on an ill-advised winter walk. Veranilda was published incomplete in 1904. In response to a Christmas Eve telegram, H.G. Wells came to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to be at Gissing's side in his final days and helped nurse him during his last illness. Will Warburton was published in 1905, as was his final publication, the short story collection The House of Cobwebs. Gissing is buried in the English cemetery at Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Gissing is given prominent space in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. Gissing's conservatism was rooted in his aristocratic sensibility. After a brief flirtation with socialism in his youth, Gissing lost faith in the labour movements and scorned the popular enthusiasms of his day. In 1892, he wrote to his sister Ellen, "I fear we shall live through great troubles yet ... We cannot resist it, but I throw what weight I may have on the side of those who believe in an aristocracy of brains, as against the brute domination of the quarter-educated mob." In The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, Gissing reflected: "To think I once called myself a socialist, communist, anything you like of the revolutionary kind! Not for long, to be sure, and I suspect there was always something in me that scoffed when my lips uttered such things." In his fictionalised biography of Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland, his friend Morley Roberts commented: "He had once, as he owned, been touched by Socialism, probably of a purely academic kind; and yet, when he was afterwards withdrawn from such stimuli as had influenced him to think for once in terms of sociology, he went back to his more natural despairing conservative frame of mind. He lived in the past, and was conscious every day that something in the past that he loved was dying and must vanish. No form of future civilisation, whatever it might be, which was gained by means implying the destruction of what he chiefly loved, could ever appeal to him. He was not even able to believe that the gross and partial education of the populace was better than no education at all, in that it must some day inevitably lead to better education and a finer type of society. It was for that reason that he was a Conservative. But he was the kind of Conservative who would now be repudiated by those who call themselves such, except perhaps in some belated and befogged country house."