George Gissing’s The Odd Women

51jJQkcy6dL._SL500_AA246_PIkin2,BottomRight,-14,34_AA280_SH20_OU01_ The Odd Women is the first George Gissing novel I’ve read, and I’m now ready to learn more about him and read more of his work. What an interesting book this turned out to be! I wrote a post on the book when I was a third of the way through it, and everything I wrote there about how much I was enjoying it stayed true until the end.

It’s a good story with interesting characters, but for me the best parts were the debates the characters had about what women’s liberation means and how people should go about trying to advance it. What I liked best is that Gissing acknowledges how complicated the “woman question” is all the way through and never descends into preachiness or over-simplification. Two of the main characters, Mary and Rhoda, have long conversations about what approach feminists should take toward marriage: should they encourage young women to stay single because marriage is so often oppressive? Or should they acknowledge that women are going to want to marry anyway and instead focus on making sure they have some education and training so they can support themselves if need be? Should they reject marriage in favor of long-term relationships that don’t have the sanction of church and state?

The book gives a range of types of women with different life experiences, to illustrate some of the most common trajectories for women of the time. There are Mary and Rhoda who, even though they disagree now and then, are united in their revolutionary zeal and who devote their lives to improving women’s lot. There is Monica, who has the chance to receive the benefits of Mary and Rhoda’s education, but who rejects them in favor of marriage with a man she doesn’t love but who offers her a comfortable life. And then there are Virginia and Alice, Monica’s sisters, who never had the opportunity to marry, and when their father dies, find themselves on their own with no way to support themselves. The only skills they have are caring for children, so they take jobs as governesses and companions. They are lucky to find work at all, as there are many, many women in exactly their situation who desperately need work too, but the jobs are awful — ill-paid (if paid at all; sometimes they worked just for room and board) and with families who mistreat them. The other option is to work in a factory or a shop, another miserable life in exploitive conditions. This is what Monica does until the opportunity for marriage saves her — or so she thinks.

The forthright and complex treatment of feminism interested me and I was very much a sympathetic reader, but I found myself reading critically — meaning negatively — as well. For one thing, Gissing has some odd class issues. One bizarre conversation sticks in my mind, where two characters with whom I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to sympathize agree that many women need to be beaten now and then. The idea behind this is that those women of the lower classes who are foolish and uneducated and can’t control themselves need husbands to keep them in line. Their ideal of womanhood — and I think Gissing’s too — is seldom found in real life. Rhoda, in particular, looks down on the vast majority of women, those who can’t or don’t want to live up to her very strict standards of womanly behavior. Because of this, she is capable of harming the very people she claims to want to help. But Rhoda’s extreme views are balanced by Mary’s greater compassion and understanding, and these two characters together show just how difficult it was for women to figure out how to improve their lot in a world so thoroughly dominated by men.

There’s a lot to think about in this book. It’s not a perfect novel by any means, but it is a great way to get a glimpse of what life was like for women at the time and to think through just what it takes to launch a social revolution.

16 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

16 responses to “George Gissing’s The Odd Women

  1. I’ve read New Grub Street. It could have been a pity party about the sad, sad life of the poor, misunderstood writer. But the characterization is so complex, and so many different positions are represented, that it’s much more interesting than that.

    Your description of The Odd Women definitely reminded me of New Grub Street.

  2. Oh, excellent, Amateur Reader, I’m glad to know at least one other of his novels does something similar. I’ll have to read it when I can.

  3. Eva

    This sounds really interesting, although I must admit your example of classism horrified me.

  4. Upsetting class issues aside, this does sound like a very good read with lots of worthwhile food for thought. It seems that some of these questions are with us today, even if the consequences of our choices are not so dire. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

  5. musingsfromthesofa

    I liked The Odd Women too, although I did think it was a novel written to peg ideas on, rather than a novel that just happened to explore them. But that’s fine.
    I have New Grub Street if you want to borrow it. I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it was relentlessly grim in a way that Odd Women was not. But I found it very well written, and very interesting. Gissing is good on genteel poverty.

  6. This sounds marvelous. I’ve put both it and “New Grub Street” on hold at the library. I confess though that as I was reading your description of conversations between Mary and Rhoda about marriage and so on, I wondered if the creators of the Mary Tyler Moore Show might have been secret Gissing fans!

  7. Conversations on feminism and marriage… sounds most interesting. I remember stumbling across “New Grub Street” at some point and making a mental note to read it, but of course I forgot. Now I’ll keep an eye out for both these books.

  8. Could the comment about beating have been another of the ‘viewpoints’ Gissing gave to his characters to try out? Well, just a hope. This does sound interesting and shallow though it is, I love the cover painting!

  9. Are Mary and Rhoda independently wealthy? I’d be curious to know how they arrived at their mission to educate other women, and what experiences they had. What a difficult time to be a woman, unless you had wealth and the luxury of choice.

  10. Eva — it IS really interesting, and part of what made it so interesting was the way it evoked such mixed feelings in me. I was horrified at that section too.

    Teresa — you’re right that it feels very modern in some ways. I found the discussions of marriage particularly contemporary — lots of people are still discussing whether marriage or live-in relationships make more sense. It’s easy to forget that we aren’t the first ones to think of such things!

    Musings — I think it will be a while before I get to New Grub Street, but when I’m ready, I’d be happy to borrow your copy — thanks! I guess I like novels that are so idea-driven and I don’t mind at all if the ideas drive the story.

    Kate — I know, wouldn’t that be funny! I hope you enjoy the books.

    Biblibio — Gissing is someone who just recently came to my attention, and now I’m glad I’ve read him. I’ve got a mental note about New Grub Street now too.

    Litlove — I like it too, and I wish that’s the edition I read! My edition wasn’t quite as nice. I think it’s quite possible the beating comment wasn’t straightforwardly Gissing’s opinion and that he was having his characters play around with idea there. But there are quite a few classist comments and attitudes throughout that make me suspicious about his own views. But I don’t expect perfection, so that’s okay …

    Debby — they aren’t wealthy, exactly, but they do have enough money to support themselves. I don’t remember exactly what the book says about how they developed their views — it doesn’t really spend a whole lot of time on their backgrounds. But they are two fascinating characters. And yes, without wealth or some form of independence, women really had very little control of their lives.

  11. I am so glad the book continued good all the way to the end. It is interesting that a rather positive novel about feminism at the time was written by a man. I think class gets in the way of a lot of things and has been an issue in the feminist movement even in the 1970s. I will have to find a copy of this one for sure.

  12. I’m not at all familiar with George Gissing (though I’ve had New Grub Street recommended to me), so I had to look him up. He sounds like a pretty progressive Victorian. It’s interesting that he’s so open minded about women’s rights, but not all women–only those of the upper classes. Still, it sounds like an interesting read with lots to think about. I like those sorts of books that make you question things. I’ll have to keep an eye out for this one.

  13. I love the title and I love odd women. Once I knock a number of books off my pile, maybe I can hunt this one down. Moving has made me very aware of my unread books, so I need to dig into that.

    On another topic: I scrapped my car two months ago and have been cycling everywhere. I got drenched one time and occasionally have fatigue, but my legs are getting hard and my belt line has dropped a couple notches. For commuting purposes I bought a 200 dollar bike. The shifting is atrocious, the tires roll like lead, and the frame is heavier than my car; but I love it. I was unwilling to leave my road bike parked outside near the station overnight, so the new ride is a necessity.

    I haven’t been blogging much, but I hope your riding is going well.

  14. Stefanie — I was astounded that a man wrote this book at the time (although maybe I’m being unfair to men??). I think there are a wide range of interpretations out there of how feminist Gissing actually was, but overall I found the book very sympathetic. I’m not surprised to find some class bias — you’re right that it does tend to pervade everything.

    Danielle — I’m very new to Gissing too, and I’m curious to read more. It IS interesting to think about the ways he’s progressive for his time and the ways he’s not. The book feels very late Victorian to me — that is, it takes up issues in a very direct way that people writing earlier in the century wouldn’t have done.

    Bikkuri — your riding everywhere sounds great! Even with the rain and fatigue, it’s still a great experience, and I wish I could do it myself. Great exercise, right? My riding is going very well, thank you — I’ve had lots of good group rides and races and am having a lot of fun.

  15. George Meredith’s The Egoist (1879) is also a genuinely feminist novel. It’s long and dense (like Henry James, or extra-starchy Trollope), but a number of passages are truly excellent, and the way it seems to be one kind of book at the beginning and subtly turns into another book entirely (the feminist one) is ingenious.

    So there’s at least one other example from the same period. Still, I would not want to argue that you are being unfair!

  16. Amateur Reader — Well, I’m curious about The Egoist now! I think I’d like the kind of transformation you describe. In fairness, I have to add John Stuart Mill to the list of male feminists of the time — he wrote some great stuff about women.

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