I suggested Gissing’s The Odd Women to my book club as our follow-up to The Murderess: though the two novels are drastically dissimilar in style and setting, they are fairly near chronologically and, more to the point for my book club, extremely close in the problem they address: the hazards of being a “redundant” woman in a society that sees unmarried women as either aberrant or burdensome. “But I ask you, do there really have to be so many daughters?” asks Papadiamantis’s anti-heroine Hadoula — and the same question launches The Odd Women, where in the first chapter we meet Dr. Madden and his six daughters: Alice, Virginia, Gertrude, Martha, Isabel, and Monica. Dr. Madden has the best intentions for his girls, but when he dies suddenly and uninsured, they are thrown into a world for which they are woefully unprepared: “it never occured to Dr. Madden that his daughters would do well to study with a professional object.”
By the second chapter, Gissing has — with Hadoula’s ruthlessness — killed off three of the sisters. But there are still too many for the doctor’s small legacy to support, and the work the remaining ones can find is grueling and poorly compensated. Alice and Virginia look to younger, prettier Monica to fulfill what they still believe is a woman’s real destiny: “Thank heaven, she was sure to marry!” Monica, worn out from long hours in a draper’s shop, has much the same ambition for herself, though the men she meets in the ordinary course of things are hardly good economic prospects. When she makes the acquaintance of Mr. Widdowson on one of her afternoons off — “an oldish man, with grizzled whiskers and rather a stern visage,” but well-dressed, with a gold watch and other signs of prosperity — he seems like a solution to her (and her sisters’) problems.
One of Gissing’s central concerns in The Odd Women is precisely the way financial exigencies like the Maddens’ lead to moral compromise because women had so few ways to support themselves. The uncomfortable proximity of a “good marriage” to prostitution is a theme often touched on in Victorian fiction (think of the narrator in Vanity Fair, for instance, reflecting on poor Rose Crawley, who sold her heart “to become Sir Pitt Crawley’s wife”: “Mothers and daughters are making the same bargain every day in Vanity Fair”). That a woman would invest her beauty for a good financial return might shock in a novel like Lady Audley’s Secret, but it was easier to gloss over or defend when other “career” options for women (at least for middle-class women, which is where most novels focus their attention) were both rare and not obviously necessary (except for their intrinsic satisfactions, of course, but that’s rarely the point). The context is different in The Odd Women, though, and so too are the arguments. The novel directly confronts a widely-discussed statistical imbalance between men and women addressed in other works such as W. R. Greg’s essay “Why Women Are Redundant,” and it proposes a more radical solution than Greg’s preference, emigration: independence!
In counterpoint to the faltering Maddens — raised to fulfill an ideal of womanhood that is repeatedly shown up as both outdated and unnatural — Gissing gives us two feminist activists, Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, who run a training program that prepares girls for office work. Both are single, and Rhoda in particular has set herself against marriage: “I maintain that the vast majority of women lead a vain and miserable life just because they do marry,” she replies when Mary proposes that marriage remains a better alternative than some more degrading ones. She disdains “the sexual instinct”: “women imagine themselves noble and glorious when they are most near the animals.” Rhoda prides herself on the stringency of her principles, though Mary cautions her that “the ideal we set up must be human.” Cue Mary’s dashing cousin Everard, who finds himself increasingly fascinated, first by Rhoda’s mind (“His concern with her was purely intellectual; she had no sensual attraction for him”) — but then with everything she represents (“Rhoda might well represent the desire of a mature man, strengthened by modern culture and with his senses fairly subordinate to reason”). As his interest in her grows into passion and a desire to see her “yield herself,” Rhoda also becomes caught up in feelings that greatly confuse her and test her commitment to living up to her surname.
It takes Gissing a while to get all his pieces on the board and into position, but the game that plays out after that is fast-moving, dramatic, and consistently surprising. Hardly anything turns out quite as you expect, from Monica’s disintegrating marriage to Widdowson (another highly suggestive surname!) to Rhoda and Everard’s “romance” (which, trust me, deserves the scare-quotes). The plot twists that bring about the final crises are precisely those of a farce or comedy of errors, but they are anything but funny. And though there’s not one main character that is easy to like or admire wholeheartedly, even the worst characters are hard to blame for their failings, which arise from expectations ingrained in them from early on — poor Widdowson, for instance, who is driven to Othello-like rage and violence because he really believes Ruskin’s “Of Queens’ Gardens” is a good guide to women’s roles. Ironies abound: for example, that Monica’s brief exposure to Rhoda and Mary’s ideas (which at the time she disdains in favor of Widdowson’s proposal and her idea that marriage is the easy way to a comfortable life) turns out to have planted seeds that take root and grow into theories of and demands for equality once she experiences the oppressive subordination of actual marriage to him. There are no easy solutions to any of the problems Gissing highlights: though some new standard for relations between the sexes seems urgently needed, one that acknowledges women’s right to “live a life of her own” (as Monica comes to advocate), nobody in the novel seems to know what it could be, or to be ready for it. The most rapturous love scenes leave the partners discontented; desire clouds judgment; new compromises emerge that seem no more satisfactory than the old ones.
I’ve assigned The Odd Women several times, usually in the upper-level seminar I offer on “The Victorian ‘Woman Question.'” It has been a few years since I offered that class, though, and thus since I read it through. I remembered its plot very clearly, along with the ways I’ve come to read its central themes, but I had forgotten how emotionally intense it is and also how strange it feels, because it refuses to sort anything out nicely for us. Even Jude the Obscure at least gives us the cathartic satisfactions of tragedy, but the griefs of The Odd Women are more sordid. It’s possible (we debated this last night) that Rhoda’s story has elements of triumph in it, but at the very least they are equivocal. I don’t consider Gissing much of a prose stylist, but another thing we discussed last night is how specific he is, especially about money, or its lack, and the difference this makes: as one of my friends observed, The Odd Women has a lot in common with Pride and Prejudice, including this economic preoccupation and its focus on the precarity of women’s lives absent good matrimonial prospects — The Odd Women is what Pride and Prejudice would be if Mr. Bennet died before Bingley ever came to Netherfield. Suddenly Mr. Collins doesn’t look so silly, just as Mr. Widdowson looks pretty good when you’ve been standing for 18 hours at a shop counter.
Another aspect of The Odd Women that we discussed was the confusion around men’s roles as well as women’s in it. Our interest in the ways its men were sometimes “womanly” and its women “manly” led us, eventually, to choose Woolf’s Orlando as our next book. The only part of that novel I know well is the wonderful riff on the arrival of the 19th century:
The damp struck within. Men felt the chill in their hearts; the damp in their minds. In a desperate effort to snuggle their feelings into some sort of warmth one subterfuge was tried after another. Love, birth, and death were all swaddled in a variety of fine phrases. The sexes drew further and further apart. No open conversation was tolerated. Evasions and concealments were sedulously practised on both sides. And just as the ivy and the evergreen rioted in the damp earth outside, so did the same fertility show itself within. The life of the average woman was a succession of childbirths. She married at nineteen and had fifteen or eighteen children by the time she was thirty; for twins abounded. Thus the British Empire came into existence; and thus — for there is no stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork — sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and little trifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten or twenty volumes.
When I read the whole novel, years ago, I think I was not ready for Woolf in general, or for it in particular. I’m looking forward to giving it another go. I’m also looking forward to working through The Odd Women again in the fall, as I’ve assigned it for the Victorian fiction class.