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.

19 thoughts on “George Gissing, The Odd Women

  1. How desperately hard it must have been for women back then, when their options in life were so limited. This sounds like an interesting exploration of various aspects of this theme…

    • Gissing is very good on the struggles women had to undergo in the face of discrimination, the degradations they endured. Despite his misgivings about radicalism, and some unsympathetic attitudes to democracy and the working classes, he does a pretty good job

  2. I really really liked this book.

    It is remarkable that British writers questions the condition of women in their books and we can be grateful for novels like The Odd Women or Miss McKenzie (please show me the equivalent in the French literature of the time!)
    The same could be said about RK Narayan’s Dark Room.

    I also thought that Rhoda was a caricature. It’s easy to find her extreme or ridiculous but the cause was so difficult to fight for and the walls to knock out were so tall and solid that I wonder if being an extremist wasn’t the only way to go through them.

    • I agree – and that’s Gissing’s unflattering view of her. He couldn’t quite countenance radical feminism- too ‘unwomanly’ for him perhaps. Is there really nothing like it in French Literature?

      • Not that I know of.

        The great 19thC writers were quite sexist, I think. (see how women are painted in Flaubert, Maupassant…)

        Balzac might have shown a little bit of empathy and Zola has great heroins but they never really question the fact that society discards half of its brain power because it belongs to females or sympathise with the fate of unmarried women.

        • Flaubert’s Emma B isn’t entirely unsympathetic, I suppose, and her taste in men is similar to that of the women characters in Odd Women – their choices are either hedonistic egoists like Edmund or bigoted, deranged sexists like Widdowson. The Micklethwaite marriage – Edmund’s former teacher – is an interesting exception, but this is shown as pathetically blighted by their having to wait decades until they can marry – ‘all for want of a little money’. When they do finally marry they are too exhausted to exist with much emotional fulfilment.

          • True, but women’s education was rudimentary preparation for domesticity and motherhood- an intellectual woman was ‘unwomanly’, ‘aggressive’, a threat. Admittedly Flaubert’s sympathy wasn’t profound, and Emma was silly

    • I agree with Emma. The writers of the time of Gissing’s novel, the French Decadents were generally openly misogynist. It poisons their writing.
      This is part of why Colette is such an important figure especially once she declares independence from the odious Willy. But that is a decade or more later.

      I kind of remember New Grub Street as being the Gissing novel thirty years ago, so The Odd Women has really recovered or increased its status. I should read it.

  3. Excellent post! I think you are right that the novel is more about provoking us to think about these hard questions in their ‘modern’ (ie late 19thC) form than answering them. Gissing does a good job showing how much easier it is to take what seems like a strong position in theory than to live up to it in practice! And he certainly indicts commonplace views of marriage as a refuge for women even if he isn’t sure what else, or what new form of it, should come next.

    • Thanks, Rohan. Widdowson’s patronising views on women are certainly exposed ruthlessly: he sees them as ‘born to perpetual pupilage’ (men the teachers, of course – he is intent on ‘ruling’ Monica); ‘imperfect beings’; ‘To regard [Monica] as a human being was beyond the reach of his intelligence;’ ‘Women – so said the books – are adepts at dissimulation’ (as a consequence of their limited intellectual power) – etc. I suppose GG was also intent on writing a counter blast to the New Woman novels that provided a romantic fantasy as an alternative to marriage. I thought your post on the novel was perceptive, particularly the point about the Bennett sisters, who would have been in a similar plight to the Maddens if their father had died earlier, leaving them almost penniless. As you suggest, there were no easy solutions to the problems of gender relations at that time (many of which still persist, in some form).

    • PS to Rohan: “You have hardened your heart with theory,” Rhoda is admonished by Mary B. “Your utter coldness – it seemed to me inhuman.” Mary was appalled at Rhoda’s inability to show ‘compassion’ for poor Bella. At least Mary is shown capable of both humanity and theoretical rigour (her speech to the trainee young women is a rousing indictment of the patriarchy: ‘we ourselves are escaping from a hardship that has become intolerable…at any cost – we will free ourselves from the heritage of weakness and contempt!’).

    • I found some of GG’s anti-feminist statements unpalatable, yet they’re accompanied by genuine sympathy for the disadvantaged and poor. It’s a strange combination. Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll take a look at the Spence post.

  4. Really interesting post, Simon, and it’s interesting how even the apparently liberal authors of the time still deal in stereotypes and can’t conceive of a non-battleaxe having a fulfilling life without a man. And I actually think that Radical Feminism still has a bad name nowadays but don’t get me started! Nevertheless, I do have this somewhere and *will* get to read it eventually!

    • Even HJ in The Bostonians had a pop at Olive Chancellor- though the New England Fourierist/mystical/feminist ethos he critiques is very different from the English advocates of emancipation descended from Barbara Bodichon and the Langham Place group

  5. “A strange combination”. This novel really embraces the ambivalence of the period it was written in. A complex work by a complex man. Such a wide range of characters, experiences and points of view ! It’s a pity GG wasn’t much of a stylist though.
    Widdowson reminded me of Trollope’s Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right, only Gissing’s message is more political than Trollope’s.

    • I don’t perceive a fixed point of view in this novel – but it does explore a complex set of issues concerning gender, class, economic and social inequities, marriage v. Celibacy, family dynamics and so on. Agree that GG isn’t much of a stylist – he can be pretty turgid. But yes, he creates some memorable and complex characters (and some not so)

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