The Odd Women is a brilliant exploration of the choices faced by young women in late Victorian Britain. While marriage to a wealthy man certainly remained one possibility not all women had the opportunity, and many did not have the desire, to pursue such an objective. There were fewer men in the country than there were women and so, as was often pointed out, even if all the women in the land had the looks of Helen of Troy and the ability to fascinate of Cleopatra, there would still have been a large number consigned to a life of spinsterhood. Given such a mathematically-unarguable situation was it not sensible for women to be educated for careers so they could support themselves? Besides, with attitudes changing and with the rise of the more independent New Woman, not every lady in the country saw a life as some sort of decorative arm-adornment for a man as being a worthy aim for her talents. The smell of freedom was in the air, and crinolines and bustles were, metaphorically at least, being burnt.
Gissing examines these alternative options - the pursuit of marriage on one hand and the pursuit of education with a view to being self-supporting on the other - along with the more typical roles women occupied such as those of governess or dress-maker, but he never casts his own opinions into the ring. Just when you think he is about to take a stance in the debate he will skillfully present, via the experiences of one of the women in his novel, the alternative side of the arguement. He holds a mirror up to the lives of his characters - in particular to Rhoda Nunn with her passion for independence and her school where women are taught skills with which they can search for relatively well-paid employment; and Monica Barfoot, young and beautiful and with an attentive (perhaps too attentive) admirer. The trials and choices of the two women, along with those of their friends and sisters - whether they be feistily independent; obsessed with the need for a marriage at all costs, or simply resigned to the life of the lonely and unloved - are all beautifully described but never judged.
It is a shame so little of Gissing's work is readily available in print. His descriptions of city life are tremendously powerful, although tinged with a bleakness that even Hardy might have envied, and his portrayal of men and women is compellingly sharp. Gissing is often described as being 'the English Zola' and there is much of Zola's intensity in The Odd Women - the frightening jealousy, and its consequences, of Monica's admirer being one example - but he remains at heart a very English novelist and one who clearly understood the times in which he lived. Few men wrote about the 'New Woman' - who was an object of ridicule for some, admiration for others and fear for many - with quite such balanced understanding regarding their hopes, desires and fears, and The Odd Women is all the more powerful, and all the more moving, as a result.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing. I was at my local library looking for George Gissing's novel about journalism, New Grub Street, and could not find a copy. This book by the same writer was on the shelf. I looked at its content and thought, why not have a go?
Being honest, I would not say that I expected much but having now read the book, I am very glad that I did.
The book is an exploration of the lot of women in late Victorian England, before the Welfare State and the emancipation of women. Most higher education was blocked to women and career advancement was virtually impossible. Furthermore, there was a fundamental demographic problem in that there were half a million more women than men in Britain,which meant that a large number of women would be unable to marry. This would lead to poverty for these 'odd' women.
The novel is about three sisters who move to London, two of whom had been working as a governess and a lady's companion for a pittance and fully expect never to marry. Their younger sister, Monica Madden, who is still pretty and more marriagable, is working a slave like existence in a drapers shop. In order to rescue her from this existence, they meet up with an old friend, Rhoda Nunn, who with Mary Barfoot,runs a college in Great Portland Street London to help middle class women to become useful and teach them office and administration skills so that they can make a living without marrying. I don't think it occurs to any character (except possibly the idealistic and uncompromising Rhoda Nunn) that there might be a matter of choice in all this - but is was a long time ago.
The novel unfolds through the intervention of two men who meet and fall in love with two of the characters, Edmund Widdowson, a middle aged bachelor who meets Monica in the park and Mary Barfoot's cousin, Everard who has a rather chequered past and who falls for Rhoda Nunn.
On the surface it does not seem too tempting a prospect but I would seriously say that I really enjoyed reading this book. It is very well written (not verbose in any way) and keeps you wanting to know what will happen next.
Ultimately, the book paints a rather sombre and bleak picture of humanity and the ending is not quite as a reader might hope or expect.
Good read though.
The novel opens in 1872, with Dr Madden and his six daughters living together in a form of domestic harmony which has not prepared the daughters for independent life outside their childhood home.
Alas, this harmony is quickly destroyed. When the need arises for the sisters to earn an income, they face a number of challenges. It is hard for them to reconcile their middle-class respectability and their lack of employment related training with their need to earn income. Marriage is unlikely to be an option for at least two of the sisters because of their relative disadvantage in a society with an oversupply of females relative to males. As the sisters are grappling with this new and harsh reality, an acquaintance of theirs - Rhoda Nunn and her friend Mary Barfoot are assisting women to train for employment. The contrast between the hindrances of the old and the possibilities of the new world for women could not be greater. Are the Madden sisters able to rise to the challenge, and adapt? Is it possible for women to be both married and independent?
I enjoyed this novel for three main reasons. Firstly, the novel explores a number of important class and gender issues in late Victorian culture. Secondly, none of the characters is without flaw. While it is possible to prefer one set of choices over another, no choice is without some cost. Finally, the writing itself guides rather than chides the reader through a story that represents the beginning of an enormous social change - for both men and women.
on 23 January 2011
Superb book, about the plight of women who were brought up only to be wives, and had no way of supporting themselves without a husband, except as a governess or companion, with no freedom and little money. More interesting now even than it must have been when published in 1893. You are transported into a story of characters living out their lives and struggling with the expectations of their roles as women - and men - at a time well before the emancipation of women. It is a time machine into middle class society 120 years ago. Through the story it is evident that the expectation that women should only be educated to be dependent wives puts intolerable strain on marriages and individuals. The freeing up of gender roles and educating women to support themselves independently has been an emancipation for men as well. Today men are no longer expected to support all their unmarried sisters. Today people can marry even when they have little money, and both contribute to the household income. Unhappy marriages can end, and the parties can go their separate ways, supporting themselves independently. Well, in the countries where women are emancipated, anyway.
The issues today have moved on but still exist - how to balance childcare and work - how to apportion money fairly, and in the best interests of children, when a marriage does break down. We need another such book today, dealing with the same issues, with modern characters, and from different levels of society.
This book, written in 1893, must have been pretty revolutionary at the time, in its sympathy with women's desire to be able to earn their own living and be recognised as the intellectual equal of men and entitled to the same freedom and independence. It is about the 'spare women' who fail to find a marriage partner in an age when no other way of life could bring them social status. It is very well-written, with believable and well-rounded characters and a very realistic portrayal of marriage and the relationships between the sexes at that time. It isn't comfortable reading, because it is so free of romantic illusions, but it is both readable and intelligent. It made me think and also to be thankful for the progress that women have made during the past hundred or so years. Instead of my reasonably comfortable, middle-class life, I'd have been a servant and very likely unmarried, with no security or hope of change - and no old age pension.
The title refers to the fact that there were a million more women than men in Victorian England. There were "odd" women left over in the marriage market and the difficult lives of some of them are described. they were 'odd' in the sense of 'spare' and also in the sense of 'strange' in the eyes of society.
Apparently, George Orwell admired this book. He said it illustrated one of Gissing's main themes - the "self-torture that goes by the name of respectability". People's lives are destroyed because they are oppressed by social conventions which are universally accepted yet absurd. Either they obey them or else they are too financially poor to be able to find a way to avoid them. There is a lot about money - and the lack of it - in this book and, again, I felt grateful that I live in the twenty-first century, despite its problems.
I have read a bit about Gissing and his tragic life. His writings were based on his experiences of life, often caused by his own mistakes and follies. There is a deep realism about them. He is a writer who reflects on the human condition in a very challenging way.
Although George Gissing’s 1893 novel (nominally) about those women who find themselves to be 'odd’ i.e. part of the group of women who (in the late 19th century) 'outnumber’ men in the population and are thus (perhaps) 'surplus to marriage requirements’, is generally regarded as 'pessimistic’, its progressive approach to male/female relationships – whereby marriage need not be the exclusive outcome, but instead women should be able to exist under their own means – actually makes it (for its time) remarkably foresighted and therefore, in a wider context, optimistic.
Of course, that is not to say that Gissing’s tale is not one of personal woe and tragedy, particularly that evinced between narrow-minded, middle-aged 'bachelor’ Edmund Widdowson and the youngest of the three Madden sisters (whose family tale The Odd Women relates), Monica, whose idealistic pairing (the former 'for love’, the latter, primarily, to avoid a life of poverty) soon hits the rocks, to powerful effect. And, as with Gissing’s outstanding New Grub Street, it is his characterisations that particularly impress – alongside the 'weak’, emotive pairing of Widdowson and Monica he also gives us the independent, strong-willed and rather more aloof (in all things romantic) coupling of 'businesswoman’ Rhoda Nunn (who runs a centre teaching young women secretarial skills to facilitate their independence) and 'man of the world’ Everard Barfoot, a relationship whose undoing (perhaps reflecting Gissing’s sense of irony) stems (also) from the all-too-human instincts of repressed desire, trust and jealousy. Gissing’s writing style is to get right inside the minds of his characters, giving us another riveting, powerful and socially progressive tale.
on 4 April 2014
I enjoyed the hell out of this novel. For one thing it is set in my favourite part of the Victorian era, the 1880s, when modernity was really changing things. Secondly it is not about the very poor underclass nor the very rich, but the people who inhabited the middle class. Thirdly it is set in London so my happiness is complete.
Being a contemporary novel, the dialogue is just how it was spoken and reading between the lines it is possible to really soak up the feeling of the times; it feels like an authentically observed slice of life in a way that modern novels set in Victorian times, as good as they may be, can only imitate.
The title refers to the fact that at this time there was a surplus of 1 million women in the UK over that of men. That meant 1 million women who would never find a husband, when being married was the only acceptable way to financial security and a respectable social standing.
The novel weaves a story around a good varied cross section of these "odd women" who were left over.
I think the different positions and options of the women were well thought out.
I could write much more about this novel. The characters, the dialogue and the plot are just superb
on 11 November 2012
I am a big lover of classical novels, this book had me turning the pages so quickly, i almost wanted to save it from being devoured by myself! This is the first novel (i am ashamed to say), that i read by this author. If you love the classics i urge you to read this book.
on 12 September 2013
Odd but Fascinating This is a little known book by a little known author from the end of the 19th century, but for anyone wanting a first-hand glimpse into the changes affecting women at the dawn of the suffragette movement it is a valuable and also entertaining read. At first there seems to be a bewildering array of female characters all very similar, (so no high marks for characterisation here), but gradually they clarify themselves into individuals whose lives and aspirations you really want to follow. In particular it focuses on the social lives of single women, the choices they were compelled to consider. A few typos (in the Kindle version, anyway) but all in all this is a work that deserves to be more widely read.
on 22 July 2013
This is a really good story and I was also taken aback by the thoughtful and 'modern' attitudes it included. The prose was occasionally slightly ponderous in its Victorian way. So from time to time I had to read a sentence twice, having lost the thread to begin with. But that never got the way of my enjoyment. I was impressed by Gissing's intelligent understanding of the plight of women, even back at the end of the 19th century. It was both a social history of the era and a timeless perception of men and women's motivations. New Grub Street is equally good and I intend to read lots more George Gissing.