Top positive review
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Thoughtful and challenging
on 16 April 2014
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.