George Gissing, “The Odd Women”

Odd as in, not one of a pair. As in, wouldn’t fit on Noah’s Ark. As in, unmarried. George Gissing was a late-nineteenth century English novelist who had come from the lower middle class and knew better than most of his colleagues the fine-grained miseries of the attempt to survive respectably on very little money. He himself had married a prostitute who became an alcoholic, and struggled to earn a living by writing. His best-known novel is probably New Grub Street, which explores the delicate dance between literary integrity and material survival.

The Odd Women is Gissing’s exploration of The Woman Question. Must women be subservient? Can they be intelligent, educated, self-supporting? What will hold them back? (Easy answer: men.) Gissing focuses on two sets of women. There are the three Madden sisters, “ladies” (which means something very specific) who were left poor, single, and untrained to earn money by their ineffectual father. The two elder must settle for barely-paid drudgery as companions and governesses, while the youngest and prettiest “may marry.” The other set of females are New Women: Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, who together run an organization that trains respectable girls to work in offices and become self-supporting. Rhoda gets entangled romantically with Mary’s scapegrace cousin Everard and this large portion of the book is pretty tedious. He wants to subdue her; she wants to manipulate him; they actually contemplate entering into a “free” relationship but pride and miscommunication come between them. Plus, they are both faintly self-righteous and annoying, so I didn’t care what happened to them.

JS Sargent's portrait of Vernon Lee, an "odd woman"

Far more interesting to me was the dilemma of the sad Maddens. It’s a saga of furnished lodgings, shabby clothes, bad food and not enough of it. This is not the world of Henry James, though James and Gissing were friends. These women would have been invisible to Isabel Archer. Gissing is eloquent about the energy required to retain middle-class status; it’s a matter of how you speak, your perceptions, how you spend your free time. Above all, though, for a young girl, being respectable means fending off predatory men at every hour of the day. Gissing is also eloquent about boredom, the inevitable companion of this kind of poverty. If you can’t afford to eat, you certainly can’t afford a lending-library subscription or train fare to a pretty park or even the shoe leather for a walk around the block.

Here’s a passage I marked: “With extreme care she had preserved an out-of-doors dress into the third summer; it did not look shabby. Her mantle was in its second year only; the original fawn colour had gone to an indeterminate grey… Yet Virginia could not have been judged anything but a lady. She wore her garments as only a lady can (the position and movement of the arms has much to do with this).” I’m sure the permitted “movement of the arms” was extremely limited, like the options for these odd women. It’s no wonder that the last lines of the book, addressed to an infant girl, are “Poor little child.”

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
This entry was posted in anglophilia, classic, Victoriana and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to George Gissing, “The Odd Women”

  1. Pingback: A Cup of Tea with That? « Book Group of One

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