George Gissing, The Odd Women

George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women, published in 1893, evinces an ambivalent and sometimes distinctly odd attitude to the hot topic of the time: the ‘woman question’, and more particularly that of female emancipation from the cloying paternalism of late Victorian society. On the one hand he takes seriously the desperate economic plight of women of the lower classes who, if they don’t inherit enough to live on, are condemned to a life of ‘barrenness and bitterness’. In this novel such women are represented by the three Madden sisters, who almost starve as low-skilled teachers, companions or governesses, or else work in slave-like conditions for little pay in a London shop.

If they fail to make a ‘good marriage’ – that key theme in so much Victorian fiction – there is little prospect of their ever living much above the bread line. The youngest sister, Monica, escapes into a loveless marriage with a much older wealthy man (ominously named Widdowson), who takes the Ruskinian view of women (domesticity, motherhood, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually weak and stunted) and becomes violently jealous of any contact she has with other people.

This plot intertwines with dramatic consequences on the other in the narrative.

My two editions: Oxford World's Classics on the left, and Penguin

My two editions: Oxford World’s Classics on the left, and Penguin

This involves the titular ‘odd’ women – Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn – so called because they are among the half million women who are unmarried – ‘no making a pair with them’, explains Miss Nunn:

“The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally – being one of them myself – take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve.”

She and Miss Barfoot have set up a kind of training academy for young unmarried women to ‘make [them] hard-hearted’ as Miss Nunn puts it – hence that curious military metaphor. This takes the form of clerical-secretarial work – so still not exactly intellectually or spiritually rewarding, but less stultifying than the kind of low-paid drudgery noted earlier. When young Monica protests at this brutal formula, saying that ‘married women are not idle’, Miss Nunn retorts contemptuously:

“Not all of them. Some cook and rock cradles.”

She has become a radical, militant feminist, fiercely opposed in principle to marriage as a desirable goal for women. Gissing doesn’t portray her in a flattering light – she’s unsympathetic to a young protégée named Bella who leaves the academy to live with a married man; when she repents and asks to come back to them, Rhoda is adamantly opposed: she’ll set a bad example to the others. Once girls like Bella have ‘fallen in love’ – an expression she considers sentimental claptrap – they’re irredeemable. Her hard-heartedness doesn’t waver when the poor girl later kills herself – to the horror of her softer friend, Miss Barfoot.

When Miss Nunn (the names aren’t particularly subtle in this novel) is first introduced aged 15, visiting the Madden sisters in Clevedon, Somerset, she’s described thus:

Tall, thin, eager-looking, but with a promise of bodily vigour…[full of] nervous restlessness, and in her manner of speaking, childish at times in the hustling of inconsequent thoughts, yet striving to imitate the talk of her seniors. She had a good head, in both senses of the phrase; might or might not develop a certain beauty, but would assuredly put forth the fruits of intellect.

A budding bluestocking, then. She’s said to treat the younger girls ‘condescendingly’, favouring ‘intellectual talk’ (how unwomanly!), and speaking of gaining an education in order to earn her own living, speaking with ‘frankness peculiar to her, indicative of pride.’

Gissing’s hostile attitude towards her is clear from the start: she has only a ‘certain beauty’ to look forward to. Career aspirations in a person like her indicate not strength of character but ‘pride’.

This unflattering portrait is vitiated when the narrator goes on to tell us that she’s ‘fallen in love with’ a local widower called Smithson, 35 and with a consumptive daughter. Remember how sardonically (and hypocritically) she later dismissed that sentiment when told of the fate of Bella.

Young Rhoda is impressed by Smithson’s ‘aggressively radical’ views and parrots them proudly, such as the belief that women should be allowed to sit in Parliament. Dr Madden – father of the sisters – dismisses such views as unfortunate signs of the influence of her ‘objectionable friend’.

Rhoda Nunn next appears a few chapters and several years later, in the scene mentioned above, as Monica Madden pays her a call for the first time since that Clevedon scene, and Rhoda quizzes her about the hideous conditions in which she has to work in a London shop. Although she sympathises, she disapproves of her having succumbed to social pressure, rather than making a stand and precipitating reform:

“I wish it were harder [she says, when Monica had said how hard it was for a girl to find work]. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at.”…Tolerance was not one of the virtues expressed in her physiognomy.

Her apparently unrequited love for the radical Smithson when she was younger has hardened her. Gissing is often considered a supporter of women’s rights, and it’s true that he does show sympathy with this cause in this novel. But it’s a highly ambivalent support. Miss Nunn is shown here and in the rest of the narrative as intolerant, little short of a fanatic.

She has little sympathy with the lowest classes (a trait Gissing tended to share). She tells a lady philanthropist that she has no interest in working for the reform of girls from ‘the lower classes’. These ‘uneducated people’ and ‘servant girls’ are beyond redemption in her view – they’re literally incomprehensible.

Where Gissing problematizes his position on feminism is in his portrayal of the potential love interest for Rhoda. Her unflagging commitment to asceticism and celibacy and her scorn for love (“a sickening sameness of vulgarity” she dismisses it as to Mary Barfoot), the ‘sexual instinct’ and marriage are tested by the profligate, idle Edmund Barfoot, Mary’s playboy cousin. Although he admires Rhoda’s strength of character and intellect, he ultimately wants to subjugate her, and is excited by the prospect of ‘taming’ this shrew. His thoughtless rejection of a working-class girl who he’d made pregnant – because in his view she deserved her fate, having thrown herself at him – reveals his amoral selfishness. Generally (like Gissing) he finds women ‘barbarous’. His tepid support for his cousin’s cause is largely because he feels educating women will benefit men.

So where ultimately does Gissing stand in this novel of shifting, oscillating sympathies? He seems to favour a sort of ‘soft’ feminism of the more ‘human’, less ‘fervid’ kind shown by Mary Barfoot – that stops short of fanaticism. “Your zeal is eating you up,” she says accusingly to Rhoda when they fall out over Bella. “Don’t enrage yourself.”

Yet Gissing portrays several kinds of masculine supremacy over women as reprehensible. Meanwhile he deprecates the ‘evils of celibacy’, and describes several marriages as disastrous for the husbands because of the stupidity of the wives. There’s much debate and discussion of what is connoted by the terms ‘womanly’ and ‘manly’, and some tilts in the direction of free love as an alternative to the social trap of conventional marriage.

And a rousing speech to her trainees by Mary Barfoot on the theme of Woman as an Invader (of the male sphere).

It’s not the role of the novelist to answer the difficult questions posed in novels that dramatise these complex issues. That Gissing poses them in such interesting – sometimes infuriating – ways is much to his credit. That Rhoda emerges from her encounters with Edmund a better and wiser woman is perhaps the main message.

‘It’s good enough for the market!’ George Gissing, ‘New Grub Street’

‘Ed Reardon’s Week’ is a cleverly funny comedy series on BBC Radio 4. Its protagonist is a grumpy, disillusioned writer whose highest achievement was the scripting an episode of the cheesy early-80s BBC TV series ‘Tenko’ – an achievement on which he still dines out. Since then he’s scratched a living as a writer of hack pieces, while teaching a desultory evening class in creative writing to a group of jaded, equally cynical pensioners.

When I discovered that this opinionated failure was based on the central character of George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed. It’s deeply moving, and a scathing portrait of the lives of struggling writers in Victorian London, striving to make a living in a literary world, like Ed Reardon’s, which seems to be run by ignorant plutocrats supplying crass product for an undiscerning, low-brow public of equally ignorant consumers.

New grub street Penguin C editionIt relates two parallel, intertwining stories: we first meet Jasper Milvain (Jaz in the radio show), a cynically ambitious, moderately talented and clever writer whose lazy selfishness is matched by his ruthless determination to study what the literary ‘market’ wants and provide it, dismissing anyone with literary pretensions as hopeless romantics; this is revealed in many of his discussions with his family and friends. Here he’s pontificating to his long-suffering sisters, whose meagre allowance he sponges from their mother:

People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads – that one mustn’t write save at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business… There’s no question of the divine afflatus; that belongs to another sphere of life. We talk of literature as a trade, not of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare… I don’t advocate the propagation of vicious literature; I speak only of good, coarse, marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar… I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes.

His plan is to milk his family’s small financial resources – his sisters will have to fend for themselves by becoming hack writers also (for the children’s market, naturally, as they are mere ignorant girls!) – in order to network with important literary and journalistic contacts, flattering and flirting with the rich and influential. Authorial merit has little to do with commercial success; ‘modesty helps a man in no department of modern life’, he declares.

His polar opposite is Edwin Reardon. After some modest success with his first few novels (traditional three-deckers) his star is waning. He receives less money for each successive book; if it weren’t for the small fees he earns for earnestly academic articles he publishes in literary journals he’d already be penniless. He’s headed for penury. As his plight worsens, his wife’s support declines. Amy, a beauty, had married him mostly because she relished the prospect of being feted as the wife of a successful author – and of being rich.

Eventually they separate; she can bear his blocked, sullen artistic sterility and refusal to compromise no longer. He meanwhile is rendered unable to work because of her hostility, and the pressing urgency to produce fiction just to pay the bills. Inspiration has deserted him, as poverty has dried up his source of stories.

The main interest in the novel rests in the painful decline of poor idealist Reardon. As it reaches its climax this plot pitilessly traces his tortured inner struggle: should he compromise his artistic soul and sell out, as Milvain, Amy and others repeatedly urge him to do? The answer has tragic consequences for him.

This desperately heart-rending story is counterpointed by the career of Milvain, whose tactics work so well that his success is as stellar as Reardon’s downfall is crushing. After a brief dalliance with Marian, who briefly becomes an heiress, he’s forced to make a critical decision. As with Reardon, the outcome is cruelly exposed in Gissing’s unstinting prose.

This is so much more than a critical attack on the petty squabbles and liaisons of the moderately talented literary figures of the time; it’s more a serious examination of what it is that drives people to become authors, to expose their most intimate and sensitive selves to public scrutiny, often to meet with derision, dismissal, or, worst of all, indifference.

As a portrayal of that part of late Victorian London it’s fascinating, emotionally draining (in a good way) and powerful. As a three-decker itself it’s probably 200 pages too long (it has 551 pages in my Penguin Classics paperback, bought at the Oxfam shop near Chiswick Park underground station when I was visiting friends last month). There are longueurs; Milvain and Reardon are given far too many speeches in which they reiterate their philosophies at wearying length; there are some colourful minor characters, but they fail to enrich the narrative as inventively as Dickens’, for example, in whose shadow this novel inevitably falls. It is perhaps a little too relentlessly dour; the talented few are dashed down, fail, while the greedily talentless thrive. The romantic/sensational elements of the plots descend into the cartoonish and clichéd at times.

New Grub Street is, nevertheless, a classic, and worth persevering with. I urge you to read it, and would love to hear what you think. Let me finish with one of the most evocative, moving descriptions of a blocked author struggling to write that I’ve ever encountered:

 For two or three hours Reardon had been seated in much the same attitude. Occasionally he dipped his pen into the ink, and seemed about to write: but each time the effort was abortive. At the head of the paper was inscribed ‘Chapter III’, but that was all. And now the sky was dusking over; darkness would soon fall…[O]n his face was the pallor of mental suffering. Often he fell into a fit of absence, and gazed at vacancy with wide, miserable eyes. Returning to consciousness, he fidgeted nervously on his chair, dipped his pen for the hundredth time, bent forward in feverish determination to work. Useless; he scarcely knew what he wished to put into words, and his brain refused to construct the simplest sentence.  The colours faded from the sky, and night came quickly. Reardon threw his arms upon the desk, let his head fall forward, and remained so, as if asleep.

 Familiar plight!