After reading The New Grub Street I was loathe to start this one, but my fellow book clubbers assured me this was a good read. And it was – I enjoyed it.
Here is the blurb …
A novel of social realism, The Odd Women reflects the major sexual and cultural issues of the late nineteenth century. Unlike the “New Woman” novels of the era which challenged the idea that the unmarried woman was superfluous, Gissing satirizes that image and portrays women as “odd” and marginal in relation to an ideal. Set in a grimy, fog-ridden London, Gissing’s “odd” women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot to the Madden sisters who struggle to subsist in low paying jobs and little chance for joy. With narrative detachment, Gissing portrays contemporary society’s blatant ambivalence towards its own period of transition. Judged by contemporary critics to be as provocative as Zola and Ibsen, Gissing produced an “intensely modern” work as the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.
At first I thought the ‘odd’ in the title meant quirky or a bit strange, but it means unpaired. So this novel is about all of the ‘superfluous’ women – the ones who can’t seem to find themselves a husband.
It shows the plight of a few ‘odd women’: Mary Barfoot (independent and trying to educate women with useful skills), Rhoda Nunn (fiercely independent and determined to remain so no matter the cost), the Madden sisters – Alice (poor but respectable), Virginia (who takes to drink) and Monica (who marries to escape her sister’s fate – a cautionary tale) and Mildred Vesper (content to work for her living).
Despite portraying all of these women sympathetically Gissing makes several misogynistic statements (unconciously revealing his belief that women are inferior)
Guilty or not, Monica would regard her with secret disdain, with woman’s malice
The scandal of Amy Drake, happening long after, revived her misery, which now took the form of truly feminine intolerance
This novel is preoccupied with money – very detailed accounts of incomes, what is required to get married, etc. It is about people living in straitened circumstances and how limited their lives are as a result. The women, for the most part, want to be free, but the only ones who achieve this are Mary Barfoot (independently wealthy) and Mildred Vesper (content with little). Monica finds marriage to be a prison and Rhoda’s fate is complicated – she got to choose it, but was her choice wise?
Gissing doesn’t provide any solutions -life is hard made even worse by poverty. Women, in particular, have little control of their lives.
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