The Odd Women
George Gissing, Oxford World’s Classics
You’ve got to be curious about a book called The Odd Women, haven’t you? When novelist Vivian Gornick described it as her comfort read, and said that there was a time when she read it every six months, I had to find out why.
It did not disappoint. Although it’s a novel with several points to make, the verve of the narrative means that it never feels preachy. And if you’re someone who likes to know not only your characters’ innermost thoughts, but also what they had for breakfast, you’re in for a treat.
Published in 1893, this is Gissing’s contribution to the question of the New Woman. It probes the nature of marriage, women’s work and their place in the world through the fates of three poor but genteel sisters, contrasting them with two resolutely entrepreneurial women committed to the cause of independence and meaningful employment for women.
The battle of the sexes rages through the pages and marriage emerges from the book looking rather threadbare. The beautiful Monica escapes the drudgery of life as a shop girl by marrying a comfortably-off older man, but it’s a disaster. Coercive control may only have been recognised as a thing in recent years, but its mechanisms are clearly exposed here. Listen to Widdowson, Monica’s husband, explaining why he doesn’t like the company she keeps: ‘I want to keep you all to myself. I don’t like these people – they think so differently – they put such hateful ideas in your mind… I had rather you were dead than that you should cease to love me.’ Elsewhere a desperately sick man is abandoned by his flighty wife as she finds the health-giving sea air he needs stultifying compared to the smoggily invigorating atmosphere of London.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the book is seeming inconsistency – at least to modern eyes. Gissing promotes independence and worthwhile work, but only for middle-class women. Their working-class sisters are apparently irredeemable. And although he creates the splendid character of Rhoda Nunn – intelligent, principled and energetic – he nevertheless subscribes to the popular notion that too much mental effort damages women’s health.
It’s hard to remember that Monica’s older sisters are only in their thirties, such are the wrecks that Gissing describes: ‘Her cheeks were loose and puffy… her lax lips grew laxer…‘ and so on. Poverty does for your looks, and one of the most moving episodes in the book (and the only happy marriage) occurs when Micklethwaite, an impoverished maths teacher, comes into enough money to wed his fiancée of 17 years. Here Gissing abandons the wry, detached narrative tone of much of the book to describe how Micklethwaite’s love blinds him to the fact that his bride is now ‘wrinkled, hollow-cheeked, sallow, [with] indelible weariness stamped upon her brow… and all this for want of a little money.’
One of the joys of this book is the amount of detail about income and expenditure. For the reader, being privy to the characters’ finances in this way is a rare treat, since it’s a subject on which we are all very guarded in real life.
In fact, Gissing excels at detail. If you are Londoner, the accounts of our protagonists criss-crossing the city by various means will be fascinating. And anyone who regularly asks the question ‘And what did she say to that?’ when listening to an anecdote will be happy: every conversation is pursued to its conclusion, so you can follow the shifts in power, the concessions, the unguarded self-incrimination. Rhoda’s sparring matches with her equivocal suitor Barfoot are intensely satisfying.
I think what I’m trying to say is, I loved it.