New Grub Street - George R. Gissing
It's a truism to talk about how much the English 19th-century class system dominated and limited the lives of those who lived it, but few books have made me feel the effects as well as this one. It focuses on the lives of those whose position in the privileged part of society was not secure, and makes their painful preoccupation with money and status all too comprehensible. Gissing presents many arguments that this has a detrimental effect on good impulses, and also shows how mismatches in wealth and status undermine marriages, which romantic love cannot stand up to. Gissing's case studies are drawn from the literary world, which he knew first hand, but certainly would have their counterparts in other sectors. (The purely literary aspects, which are less compelling to me, are discussions about "pure" art, ephemerality, and vulgarity.) Gissing lamented this bad state of affairs but had no thought of changing society. Also, no one in this book has any liking for "the vulgar", and I'm sure Gissing didn't either.

For the first few pages, I thought the novel would be tedious, but then I got really interested in the characters. They're almost all worth paying attention to. I hope that Edwin Reardon, the unsuccessful novelist, was not a self-portrait of the author, because his attitude toward his wife was quite selfish and demanding; but I suspect that that aspect of him, at least, wasn't autobiographical. Reardon's practical wife Amy, the ambitious Jasper Milvain who's very generous when it doesn't cost him much, Jasper's level-headed, kind-hearted sister Dora, the young Marian Yule who has to do some painful growing up, Marian's embittered, self-pitying father Alfred Yule, the idealistic, starving writer Harold Biffen (who makes the most dramatic contributions to the novel), various literary hacks -- all different, but not wildly caricatured; these and more enliven the pages. I also respect the author for pulling off a plot that has incident without seeming contrived.