In 2012, George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street made my Best-of-the-Year list, so in 2013 it was time to pick up The Odd Women, and after reading this remarkable novel which I can’t praise enough, I can easily say that George Gissing has become a new favourite author. Published in 1893, in late Victorian England, The Odd Women examines ‘The Woman Question’–the shifting roles of women in a world of social change, and given the topic, it should come as no surprise that the novel concentrates on the lives of several women who make various choices–some traditional and some courageously non-traditional. Under examination is the societal expectation that women will marry and move from their father’s economic cloak of care to suitable husbands who can take over that role. But what happens if there is no husband–by fate or by choice? What happens to these Odd Women (and there’s a double meaning here) who remain single?
So many odd women–no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives.
The novel opens in 1872 with the family of a widowed Dr. Madden who has six daughters ranging from 19 to 5 years of age. Although Dr. Madden isn’t an affluent man, he has tried to ensure that his daughters receive an adequate education–a decision he sees as “the next best thing to saving money,” and the assumption is that, if for some reason he can’t support his daughters or they don’t marry, then they will be able to seek genteel employment as teachers, companions or governesses. As the novel continues and leaps forward to 1887, we see just how this ‘genteel’ employment decimates the Madden girls.
The Madden girls are middle class with a marginal education, so when they are forced to seek employment, they are not skilled enough to seek positions with the upper classes. Instead, Alice and Virginia Madden find themselves accepting live-in positions with people barely above their own social sphere, and these are jobs in which they are overworked and sometimes receive ‘board and care’ and no wages whatsoever. Humiliations pile on to humiliations, and years later, in 1887, Alice and then Virginia, the latter who becomes an alcoholic, drift to a bleak London boarding house where they share a room. All their hopes and concerns rest on their youngest sibling, Monica, the beauty of the family, her health under threat, who works 6 exhausting days a week, typically 18 hours a day, as an underfed and overworked shop girl.
Enter Rhoda Nunn, a very determined young feminist “with zeal for womanhood militant,” who works at a business school which trains “young girls to work in offices,” owned by philanthropist, Miss Barfoot. Rhoda knew the Madden girls years earlier, and when she runs into them again in London, she’s shocked by what’s become of them, and she is determined to help the sisters rise out of their economic quagmire. Monica withdraws from the exhaustive, exploitive work as a shop girl and is enrolled at the school, but she’s courted by a much older, dour bachelor, Edmund Widdowson who loves her with an unhealthy, possessive fixation.
While the novel opens with the Madden family, Rhoda Nunn is at the novel’s centre. Rhoda, an extremely attractive and self-possessed young woman, is determined not to marry and believes that she needs to set an example to the school’s female pupils. Rhoda is more far radical in her attitudes towards men and marriage than Miss Barfoot, and some of their differences float to the surface after a former pupil, a Miss Royston, a young woman who ran off with a married man and was subsequently abandoned, writes to Miss Barfoot for assistance. Rhoda harshly and coldly insists that Miss Royston not be allowed to return to continue her abandoned studies whereas Miss Barfoot has pity for their former pupil:
“Personal feeling is misleading you,” Rhoda pursued. “Miss Royston had a certain cleverness, I grant; but do you think I didn’t know that she would never become what you hoped? All her spare time was given to novel-reading. If every novelist could be strangled and thrown into the sea we should have a chance of reforming women. The girl’s nature was corrupted by sentimentality, like that of all but every woman who is intelligent enough to read what is called the best fiction, but not intelligent enough to understand its vice. Love–love–love; a sickening sameness of vulgarity. What is more vulgar than the ideal of novelists? They won’t represent the actual world; it would be too dull for their readers. In real life, how many men and women fall in love? Not one in every ten thousand, I am convinced. Not one married pair in ten thousand have felt for each other as two or three couples do in every novel. There is the sexual instinct, of course but that is quite a different thing; the novelists don’t dare talk about that. “
Rhoda’s hard-line position comes under assault after she meets Miss Barfoot’s relative Everard Barfoot, a man of the world who is attracted to Rhoda and sets out to test her defiant declaration to abstain from any relationships with men. Barfoot has a bad reputation when it comes to women. Is that bad reputation deserved? Gissing is very clever about this aspect of this brilliant novel; he first introduces Barfoot as a bit of a cad, and then Barfoot later explains away what happened. But then later still, Barfoot gives his side of the story to his male friend, Mickelthwaite, and there’s something rather chilling about Barfoot’s cold delivery. Then there’s Barfoot’s relationship with Rhoda–at times he’s genuinely intrigued by Rhoda’s radical feminism, but his cold, calculated seduction of Rhoda suggests that she represents a challenge more than anything else.
Marriage and male-female relationships are under scrutiny in the novel, and so Monica and Widdowson’s miserable, disastrous marriage becomes the perfect late Victorian example of just how wedlock corrupts both partners. Monica realizes too late that she’s trapped in a suffocating marriage. This was a marriage that was supposed to free her from degrading servitude, but Monica discovers there’s a terrible price to pay. The very traditional Widdowson assumes the patriarchal role, and he seems genuinely confused when Monica refuses to obey him. For her part, Monica is unable to grasp her husband’s frustration. Monica has spent time with feminists and thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to sally forth in London alone; her husband, however, contends that he’s there to ‘protect’ his wife, and that basically translates to not letting her out of his sight. Unfortunately, Widdowson’s efforts to control his wife do not stop there; he also demands that she read certain approved books, and he sees her refusal to bend as “rebellion.” Widdowson somehow always misses the point. He suspects the wrong people of being a bad influence and he sees a threat in the wrong man. But there’s fault in Monica’s view too. She married for security and material ease but discovers that’s no enough. Where’s the love and the romance? Clearly Monica is not ready emotionally or mentally to keep the bargain she made, and Gissing hints at Monica’s frame of mind through her selection of reading material.
Similarly there’s an element in Barfoot’s relationship with Rhoda that demands a type of submission–a bending of her will to his seductive powers. So much for male-female relationships. Miss Barfoot, not so radical as Rhoda, has a sliver of romance in her heart, and she accepts that marriage, for most women, is inevitable and perhaps a better choice than the life of a spinster. Miss Barfoot’s goal is to train ‘genteel’ (middle-class) young women for careers that offer a reasonable alternative to virtual shop or domestic slavery, but for those who opt for marriage, Gissing gives examples which show that wedlock is a corrupting institution that forces a destructive, forced and unnatural relationship. Gissing lands on the idea, however, that marriage is a questionable state for all parties involved with no one sex more of a victim than the other. Mr Barfoot, whose own brother is a victim of his wife’s capricious whims, also holds his friend Poppleton up as another example of a victim of an impossible marriage. Poor Poppleton now resides in a lunatic asylum as a result of years spent under the same roof as his humourless, dragon of a wife. Then there’s Mr. Orchard “worn to skin and bones” who fled his wife when he became suicidal. Miss Barfoot, Everard Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn discuss these relationships one evening:
“Why will men marry fools?”
Barfoot was startled. He looked down in his plate smiling.
“A most sensible question,” said the hostess, with a laugh. “Why, indeed?”
“But a difficult one to answer,” remarked Everard , with his restrained smile. “Possibly, Miss Nunn, narrow social opportunity has something to do with it. They must marry some one, and in the case of most men choice is seriously restricted.”
“I should have thought,” replied Rhoda, elevating her eyebrows, “that to live alone was the less of two evils.”
Gissing seems to say that marriage, Victorian-era marriage at least, is an institution fraught with peril and difficulties–perhaps as Rhoda says, an institution best avoided, and it does not appear that one sex is to blame here. Marriage may claim its victims in The Odd Women, but Gissing offers us Micklethwaite and his middle-aged bride as a sort of consolation. After a seventeen-year engagement, Mickelthwaite can finally afford to marry (and blissfully so), and with this note of optimism, shrouded with bitter economic reality, Gissing’s novel lands firmly not against the vagaries of men or the narrow-mindedness of impossible wives, but on criticism of Victorian society and morality.
The Odd Women is also available FREE for the kindle.