May 11, 2010

The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women by George Gissing

George Gissing’s 1893 novel tells the story of the Madden sisters, Alicia, Virginia and Monica. Their father’s death leaves them in poverty and forces them to seek ways to support themselves – this at a time when career options for genteel women were close to nonexistent. The two elder sisters find work as governesses or lady’s companions and just barely manage to make ends meet, living lives of respectable poverty and quiet starvation. In addition to this, the fact that they have to work has of course social consequences, one of them being that it bars them from the career followed by most Victorian women: marriage. Monica, the youngest of the Misses Madden, works as a shopgirl, and her youth and beauty make Alicia and Virginia hope that she’ll escape becoming one of the odd women the title refers to – “odd” both because as single women they were regarded as strange, and because they remained unpaired.

The Odd Women
is also the story of Rhoda Nunn, a childhood friend of the Misses Madden. Rhoda Nunn and her friend Mary Barfoot run an institution in Great Portland Street, and their lifework is to teach young women the skills they weren’t normally taught at the time: self-reliance, independence, and specific job qualifications such as typing and how to do clerical work; all so that marriage didn’t have to remain their only option. Rhoda Nunn reminded me of the women I read about in Singled Out, as it’s very much her belief that a single woman’s life doesn’t have to be one of emptiness and misery. There are actually many other characters and plotlines in The Odd Women, but as they’re introduced as the story progresses, I’ll end my synopsis here.

The Odd Women is a sensitive and insightful account of the plight of unmarried women in the Victorian age, as well as an interesting and serious account of the struggles of early feminists. Although what is ostensibly its main theme – the lack of career options for women – is an area in which we’ve fortunately made much progress, one of the things that hit me the most about theThe Odd Women is how absolutely modern it feels. This goes both for the topics its deals with and for how it reads: anyone who’s wary of the Victorians’ customary verbosity and old-fashioned syntax needs to give George Gissing a try.

The most contemporary thing about The Odd Women was its treatment of romantic relationships and of the role and meaning of marriage as an institution. It was fascinating to see these Victorian women and men ponder personal, social and political questions that still matter so much to us today – namely the impact that the socioeconomic roles we associate with traditional marriages can have even on private relationships, even for those who don’t necessarily care for the conventional arrangement of the man as the breadwinner and the woman as exclusively a homemaker. Rhoda Nunn’s story actually reminded me a little of Harriet Vane’s: it’s not that the two are necessarily similar, but both women struggle with the intrusion of gender politics on their personal relationships, and they both fear – with good reason – the costs that a romantic relationship could have for their intellectual, creative and professional lives.

The Odd Women is also extremely modern in its treatment of the consequences of jealousy and power games; in its portrayal of an unhappy marriage; in its dealing with the concept of “weakness” and its acknowledgement that even the most well-meaning feminists can pressure women to live up to unrealistic standards; in its treatment of the questions of whether “femininity” is a natural or a social construct (suffice to say that Gissing is a man after my own heart), and of why those who try to naturalise gender differences do so; and in its acknowledgement that even though it’s undeniable that men held the power and were infinitely privileged, ideals of “manhood” also limited, then as now, what individuals were allowed to do, feel, think or be.

George Gissing treats Rhoda Nunn and Mary Bradfoot’s feminist ideals with nothing but seriousness and respect, but he also denounced the harshness that they tended to slip into. Early (and sadly not so early) feminists were often guilty of being completely blind to other forms of privilege, and such is the case with these two when it comes to class:
‘But surely you don’t limit your humanity, Miss Barfoot, by the artificial divisions of society.’
‘I think those divisions are anything but artificial,’ replied the hostess good-humouredly. ‘In the uneducated classes I have no interest whatever. You have heard me say so.’
‘Yes, but I cannot think—isn’t that just a little narrow?’
‘Perhaps so. I choose my sphere, that’s all. Let those work for the lower classes (I must call them lower, for they are, in every sense), let those work for them who have a call to do so. I have none. I must keep to my own class.’
‘But surely, Miss Nunn,’ cried the widow, turning to Rhoda, ‘we work for the abolition of all unjust privilege? To us, is not a woman a woman?’
‘I am obliged to agree with Miss Barfoot. I think that as soon as we begin to meddle with uneducated people, all our schemes and views are unsettled. We have to learn a new language, for one thing. But your missionary enterprise is admirable.’
This blind spot is lamentable, but it was all too common. Another pitfall that Rhoda Nunn just barely manages to avoid is becoming so hardened as to be insensitive towards those who don’t live up to her own ideal of strength and independence. This was a particularly dangerous tendency when it came to judging other women’s romantic or sexual choices – Rhoda Nunn seems to feel that doing anything other than behaving absolutely above reproach and being continuously “respectable” will compromise everything that she fights for. But—well, I don’t want to give the whole story away, so I’ll just say that she’s too complex a character to be reducible to any sort of stereotype of the lonely, embittered single woman. Still, the ideas she expresses early in the novel are a good example of the differences between Victorian feminism and feminism as we know it today—and of the similarities too.

The Odd Woman is a thoughtful, provocative and extremely engaging novel. I wasn’t completely happy with how some of the subplots turned out (it seems that even Gissing can’t resist the urge to punish wayward women), but in the face of everything else this novel has to offer, this is only a minor complaint. I must read more of Gissing’s work as soon as possible

Interesting bits:
Never had it occurred to Widdowson that a wife remains an individual, with rights and obligations independent of her wifely condition. Everything he said presupposed his own supremacy; he took for granted that it was his to direct, hers to be guided. A display of energy, purpose, ambition, on Monica’s part, which had no reference to domestic pursuits, would have gravely troubled him; at once he would have set himself to subdue, with all gentleness, impulses so inimical to his idea of the married state. It rejoiced him that she spoke with so little sympathy of the principles supported by Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn; these persons seemed to him well-meaning, but grievously mistaken. Miss Nunn he judged ‘unwomanly,’ and hoped in secret that Monica would not long remain on terms of friendship with her. Of course his wife’s former pursuits were an abomination to him; he could not bear to hear them referred to.
‘Woman’s sphere is the home, Monica. Unfortunately girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish. You shall read John Ruskin; every word he says about women is good and precious. If a woman can neither have a home of her own, nor find occupation in any one else’s she is deeply to be pitied; her life is bound to be unhappy. I sincerely believe that an educated woman had better become a domestic servant than try to imitate the life of a man.’

Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief. Therefore the blessedness of household toil, in especial the blessedness of child-bearing and all that followed. Intimacy with Monica had greatly affected his views, yet chiefly by disturbing them; no firmer ground offered itself to his threading when he perforce admitted that his former standpoint was every day assailed by some incontestable piece of evidence. Woman had individual characters; that discovery, though not a very profound one, impressed him with the force of something arrived at by independent observation. Monica often puzzled him gravely; he could not find the key to her satisfactions and discontents. To regard her simply as a human being was beyond the reach of his intelligence.
Reviewed at:
Of Books and Bicycles
Sassymonkey Reads

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Another thought provoking review. You always give me so much to think about--or in other words, you educate me.

  2. You seem to find the most amazing books that depict the Victorian era. I have never considered how families coped when the main breadwinner passed away. It must have been devasting to live in those circumstances when you have only been brought up to think of marriage as your only career. Fantastic revew Ana.

  3. Another wonderful review! This was one of the books I had in my hands at the Strand and put back on the shelf... sounds like it was the wrong decision :-(

  4. I have to echo the sentiments of previous commenters - you always find the greatest books, and then write the greatest and most educational reviews! You always find so much to discuss in each book - I can't wait to read one and see how much I would miss without your review showing me the way.

    This book sounds like another excellent one that I need to add to the wishlist. I especially love the last quote you include about Widdowson having to recognize that women have individual characters. Shocking! Too funny.

  5. i loved the gisling i read ,grub street years ago ,must read more of his books this sounds great as well ,all the best stu

  6. This book sounds very interesting, I would love to read it just to see how women struggled in Victorian time and learn about the struggles of early feminists, the topic sounds very thought provoking! Thank you Nymeth :)

  7. Amazing review. I'd never heard of this tile before but I'll be sure to search it out now!

  8. Oh, I want this one so much now. Thanks so much for this amazing review. I never heard of this book!

  9. This sounds excellent -- I'd heard of New Grub Street but not this book. I'm really enjoying your reviews (and I'm adding lots of books to my to-read list!) So many good Victorians!

  10. This sounds like a classic I might actually enjoy. ;) Thanks for bringing it to my attention, and for making me want to read it. (as you always do!)

  11. I put this book on my wish list a couple of years ago and forgot about it till I read your review. Thanks!

  12. Thankfully we have made some progress in employment opportunities for women. My mother was born in 1927 and she said about the only career opportunities for women then were teaching and nursing. The book sounds thought provoking.

  13. From your description, this reminds me a lot of House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, except older and in a different country, of course.

  14. I love your reviews that remind of books that I've forgotten I wanted to read. Excellent thoughts on a much loved genre.

  15. I'm rereading The Eustace Diamonds (Trollope) and looking around for a new Victorian novel, so thank you!That time period is not the one of my work, so I don't know why I'm always attracted to it, unless it's that people then had so much patience for reading long works!

    Off to check the library for The Odd Women. (Takes one to know one?)

  16. It actually sounds like some of the ideas put forth in this book are more than a little radical for the times, though I am sad to hear that Gissing doesn't resist the urge to punish the forward thinking women as you have said. This is another book that I am going to have to read. Not only for the ideas espoused within it, but for the modern feel of the writing. Thanks so much for this wonderful review. I have already ordered my copy!!

  17. I've had George Gissing on my radar of "Victorians to try" but I had no idea where to begin. This sounds like a wonderful place to start.

  18. Never read this book; but it sounds wonderful. I am a big fan of Victorian novels - must certainly look at this one. Thank you!

  19. Great review, Ana! There IS a lot to think about in here, as others have said.

    This review makes me think a bit about the book I'm reading now, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I thought it would be a light, fun book about a Miss Marple-type character in Britain after WWII, but it's really quite sad for many reasons. Weirdly, I think you' enjoy it a great deal because it hits on how many marriages entered into during the war didn't work out well, how women felt after the war and generally about how it felt to be single at that time. I wish there wasn't quite so much about church and the like in there, and that it wasn't so sad, but I am enjoying the cultural learning part of it, and I think you'd really find a lot to marvel over in the story.

  20. I had exactly the same mission as you when I finished this book - I really just wanted more to think about from Gissing. I immediately picked up New Grub Street but haven't read it yet - i really must!

  21. Fabulous review, Nymeth! I LOVE victorian books and I have had my eye on this one for a while (and also New Grub Street - have you read that one yet?).

    I only recently found out that Gissing is from my home town of Wakefield in Yorkshire so all the more reason to pick one of his books up soon.

  22. You always recommend the most interesting books. I love the social commentary that the book gives us about the plight of women, especially single ones in Victorian times. I think single women are still judged by society as being less than married women in some places. I can't imagine how difficult it was to be unmarried in the Victorian age.

  23. This is fascinating. I've looked at New Grub Street a few times in the bookstore, but wasn't sure about it. This sounds even better.

  24. Oooh... fantastic. I haven't read The Odd Women, but I like the sound of it very much. I'll be looking for this!

  25. Oh gosh, all of these wonderful historical novels you've been reviewing lately make me want to travel back in time too. I haven't read a good victorian novel in a while but now I want one on my current stack!

    This is one is definitely going on my list.

  26. You find the most interesting books! I think I may have to just use your blog as a reading list Ana!

    On a side note, the language in this book seems delicately beautiful.

  27. You always find the most intriguing books that explore the role of gender in society and in history, and I look forward to your thought provoking discussions. This sounds like a book I'd really like.

  28. That sounds great. I like how progressive it sounds and how your quote shows that Gissing recognises the blindspots of early feminism. I am one of those scared away from a lot of Victorian fiction by the sentence structures so good to hear this is perhaps a bit easier to read.

  29. "how absolutely modern it feels." It did!

    I was so angry with all the characters in this book when I read it two years ago that it's hard to remember what I thought of it. For all her faults, I did think Miss Barfoot came off the best. I was able to take her views of class as a pragmatist's. She limited her sphere because she saw a need in society, saw she could do something, and assessed what were likely to be the the successful limits of her project, in her time. I like to think she was open minded enough that if she had lived a little later, she might have been a feminist of a different stamp. I came away somewhat in awe of Gissing. That he could describe everyone's pettiest motivations in such convincing detail without seeming to comment on them. From the essay it sounded like he was a bit like Everard in real life.

  30. Amy: Thank you! You do the same for me :)

    Vivienne: I think that in most cases the single daughters inherited enough to be able to support themselves on private incomes - but of course, that didn't always happen :\

    JoAnn: You can always get it next time ;)

    Amy: lol, I know. I loved Gissing's sardonic humour. And thank you so much for the kind words!

    Stu: New Grub Street is next on my list. It sounds excellent.

    Lua: I really loved the historical aspect of it.

    Claire, thank you! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Andreea: As a fellow Victorian addict, you MUST read this!

    Karen, thank you so much! I hadn't heard of it either until recently. It's a pity it's not more well-known, as it's such a great novel, and so relevant today.

    Heather: I definitely do think this is your kind of classic :)

    Bybee: You're most welcome!

    Kathy: It's amazing how long it took for that to begin to change.

    Amanda: Clearly I need to read House of Mirth asap.

    Elisabeth: Thank you!

    Shelley: lol, that they did ;) But Gissing is remarkably economical with his words for a Victorian.

  31. Thanks for pointing me to a great-sounding book that I might have otherwise missed. And yay for!

  32. Zibille: It's definitely radical for its time - I can only imagine the scandal it must have caused! Anyway, I definitely wouldn't say that Gissing punishes women for being progressive. The character that does meet a bad ending is not one of the most progressive one, and she's punished for deviating in a different way. Gissing portrays her with complete sympathy all through the novel, which was why the fact that he slipped into stereotype at the end disappointed me so much. I really can't say more without spoilers; sorry :P

    Rebecca: I thought it was a wonderful introduction to his work!

    Katherine: I hope you enjoy it!

    Aarti: As I was telling you on Twitter, Excellent Women does sound completely up my alley. Thank you for the recommendation!

    Meghan: New Grub Street is where I'm thinking of going next too.

    Boof: This was my first Gissing, but I do plan on reading New Grub Street, hopefully before too long. I think you'd really enjoy this! And how neat that he's from your home town!

    Kathleen: Yes, I absolutely agree. And if it's difficult now, I can't imagine then :\

    Carolyn: From what I hear, both would make excellent starting points!

    Emidy and Iliana, I hope you both enjoy it if you decide to pick it up :)

    Trisha: I did think the writing was great. Simple and straightforward, but beautiful too.

    Steph: Thank you! It's a topic that interests me, and I'm glad I haven't bored anyone of it yet :S

    Jodie: I honestly thought it read like a modern novel! I found another review that said that Gissing was condoning rather than denouncing the characters' classist views, but I didn't get that impression at all. Possibly it helped that a few years ago I read an excellent short story of his, "A Daughter of the Lodge", that was all about class prejudice. Also, I think that the fact that he has a character voice a view opposed to Miss Nunn and Miss Bradford's is significant - most Victorian prejudice is in assumptions that aren't ever questioned at all, I find.

    Trapunto: I was also in awe of the fact that he managed to be so neutral - a rare thing, especially for a Victorian! I was sad for many of the characters, but never actually angry. I even felt a little sorry for Widdowson - as the narrator says in one of the bits I quoted, his thinking just wouldn't go any further. But I completely understand being angry...perhaps I was just in a particularly benevolent mood :P

    Violet: yay indeed! Gutenberg was how I read it.

  33. I felt a bit sorry for Widdowson too, at the beginning. He was so desperate and not with-it. I suppose you are right about his thinking not being able to go further. But I think the one situation where you have to be willfully blind not to SEE the human being in front of you, is when you are married to her and living with her. And I guess I thought his own loneliness would have prepared him to be more perceptive of others' feelings, and to want intimacy rather than ownership in marriage. When that turned out not to be the case, I was just repelled. Though I still thought Gissing was kind of hard on him just for being old.

    Now I'm getting on shaky ground since I don't remember much in detail.

  34. I have New Grub Street which I started a while back and forgot to get back to (I recall the beginning was pretty good). But this novel sounds very interesting, especially since I've been reading a lot about women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I'm curious as to what you thought of the subject (4 women) being written by a male author?

  35. I do like Dickens even though he is not renowned for the economy of his expression but this Gissing chap sounds very attractive if he is more "economical" with the word count. I have to stop reading other folk's blogs - this really isn't curtailing my wishlist/TBR pile! ;-) thank you for another wonderfully insightful review. :-)

  36. Thanks for bringing this classic to my attention. I must admit I hadn't heard of it before. I added it to my TBR.

  37. Your book finds and reviews always amaze me and like almost any book you review, this one was added to my wishlist instantly.

    It is always fascinating to me how early femenists could overlook other power differences, but then again I'm never sure if I can really judge them because of it. The same goes for the men who were fighting for "Universal suffrage", while precluding women from the vote. Part of it is decided by their worldview, which is always easy to judge when looking back, but hard to see past when you live at the time itself.

  38. Trapunto: It's tricky, isn't it? On the one hand, if there were men living in the late nineteenth century who were not as blind as Widdowson was, then it surely it was possible to be more sensitive and perceptive than he was. So I do see what you mean by wilful blindness. On the other hand, I liked how Gissing made him well-rounded enough not to simply be monstrous, even though the way he treats his wife IS monstrous. I guess this is where my sympathy for him comes from. But I don't want to use his being a Victorian man as a get-out-of-jail-free card. I guess I go back and forth between being angry at him and not - I hope this made sense!

    Sakura: I loved that this was written by a man! I'm not someone who believes that men have any difficulty writing convincing female characters or vice-versa, but I loved it because it showed that in the early days of feminism, there were man who thought about this matters seriously and cared. Not that I didn't think there would be, but I love that there's a novel that proves it.

    Treez: Nooo don't stop reading me :P Gissing is certainly economical for a Victorian, but I don't mind even the long-winded ones :D

    Teddy Rose: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it :)

    Iris: I always find these conversations difficult because I'm never quite sure what people are suggesting that I do differently when they ask me to be less judgemental of past worldviews. I didn't find the characters' blindness to class issues outrageous, but as a contemporary reader, I couldn't help but notice it - and because I noticed it, I commented on it. My noticing it doesn't mean I don't realise how common those ideas about class were at a time, or how this fact would surely have influenced these particular characters. I do agree with you there, but I don't think that knowing this means that I shouldn't draw attention to it. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did when you get to it :)

  39. You do realize that Gissing was a woman, right?

  40. Nope. You must be thinking George Eliot, or possibly George Sand?


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