Published in 1893, George Gissing’s novel is based around the idea that there were at least half a million more women than men in Victorian England. As one of the characters in the story, Rhoda Nunn, explains:
“So many odd women – no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally – being one of them myself – take another view.”
Rhoda believes that it is possible for these ‘odd’ (that is, unmarried) women to lead lives that are both happy and useful. In partnership with her friend, Mary Barfoot, she runs an establishment in London where young middle-class women can learn typing and other secretarial skills that will enable them to earn a living if they remain single. Rhoda herself is now in her thirties and has no intention of marrying, but when Miss Barfoot’s cousin Everard comes to visit she is tempted to change her mind.
The Odd Women is also the story of Rhoda’s friends, the Madden sisters, faced with having to support themselves after the death of their father. With so few career choices available to them, the two elder sisters, Alice and Virginia, find work as a governess and a paid companion, while dreaming of opening their own school one day – a dream that is unlikely to ever become a reality. The youngest Madden girl, Monica, is working long hours in a draper’s shop and her future looks no brighter than her sisters’…until she receives a marriage proposal from Edmund Widdowson, a retired clerk much older than herself. Aware that this could be the only opportunity she gets, Monica jumps into marriage with a man she knows she doesn’t love.
When I first started to read The Odd Women, it seemed that Alice and Virginia were going to be the main focus of the novel, but that turned out not to be the case. Instead, the two elder Madden sisters quickly move into the background and we focus almost solely on the alternating storylines of Rhoda and Monica. Through the character of Rhoda, Gissing explores the views of a woman determined to resist marriage and make her own way in life, and through Monica he looks at the fate of a woman who chooses to marry simply because she is afraid of what her life will become if she stays single.
This is a fascinating novel and for a book written in the 1890s it feels very modern. With themes including feminism, marriage and the roles of women, it’s not the sort of book you would usually expect from a male Victorian author. It reminded me very much of Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson. Both books show how women in Victorian/Edwardian society tended to be poorly prepared for an unexpected change in circumstances and how few options were open to them when they found themselves in need of employment.
I found this novel very readable, although the long discussions between Rhoda and Mary Barfoot did become a bit tedious at times and often felt more like lectures on feminism than believable conversations between two people (and I was disappointed that, while being so open-minded regarding unmarried middle-class women, they didn’t have the same sympathy for working-class women). Other than that, I enjoyed The Odd Women much more than I thought I would – although enjoyed is maybe not the right word to use, as this is really quite a bleak story. I would like to read more of George Gissing’s books, starting with New Grub Street, I think.