Grub Street (London)


New Grub Street is a novel by George Gissing published in 1891, which is set in the London literary and journalistic circles of the 1880s.

Until the early nineteenth century, Grub Street was a street close to Moorfields, one of the last pieces of open land in the City of London. After the 1666 Fire of London, refugees from the calamity evacuated to Moorfields and set up temporary camps there. In the early eighteenth century, Moorfields was the site of open-air markets, shows, and auctions. Homes nearby Moorfields were places of the poor, and the area had a reputation for harbouring highwaymen in hiding from the law. The area was notorious for soliciting prostitutes and cruising gay men. Much of Moorfields was built over in 1777, when Finsbury Square was developed; the remainder followed soon after.

Grub Street became famous for its concentration of poor hack writers, aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers. It was pierced along its length with narrow entrances to alleys and courts, many of which retained the names of early signboards. Its bohemian society was set amidst the neighbourhood’s low-rent apartments, brothels, and coffeehouses. According to Samuel Johnson (who had lived and worked himself on Grub Street early in his career) in his Dictionary the street was inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems – ‘whence any mean production is called grubstreet’. The street name no longer exists, but Grub Street is still used as a pejorative term writings of low literary value. In fact, the name had already disappeared when Gissing published his novel. However, hack-writing certainly persisted. In the novel, the author contrasts the careers of two central characters a pair of writers: Edwin Reardon, a shy but talented novelist with limited commercial prospects; and Jasper Milvain, an ambitious but unscrupulous young journalist with cynical views about the craft and value of writing.