The Odd Women is the first George Gissing novel I’ve read, and I’m now ready to learn more about him and read more of his work. What an interesting book this turned out to be! I wrote a post on the book when I was a third of the way through it, and everything I wrote there about how much I was enjoying it stayed true until the end.
It’s a good story with interesting characters, but for me the best parts were the debates the characters had about what women’s liberation means and how people should go about trying to advance it. What I liked best is that Gissing acknowledges how complicated the “woman question” is all the way through and never descends into preachiness or over-simplification. Two of the main characters, Mary and Rhoda, have long conversations about what approach feminists should take toward marriage: should they encourage young women to stay single because marriage is so often oppressive? Or should they acknowledge that women are going to want to marry anyway and instead focus on making sure they have some education and training so they can support themselves if need be? Should they reject marriage in favor of long-term relationships that don’t have the sanction of church and state?
The book gives a range of types of women with different life experiences, to illustrate some of the most common trajectories for women of the time. There are Mary and Rhoda who, even though they disagree now and then, are united in their revolutionary zeal and who devote their lives to improving women’s lot. There is Monica, who has the chance to receive the benefits of Mary and Rhoda’s education, but who rejects them in favor of marriage with a man she doesn’t love but who offers her a comfortable life. And then there are Virginia and Alice, Monica’s sisters, who never had the opportunity to marry, and when their father dies, find themselves on their own with no way to support themselves. The only skills they have are caring for children, so they take jobs as governesses and companions. They are lucky to find work at all, as there are many, many women in exactly their situation who desperately need work too, but the jobs are awful — ill-paid (if paid at all; sometimes they worked just for room and board) and with families who mistreat them. The other option is to work in a factory or a shop, another miserable life in exploitive conditions. This is what Monica does until the opportunity for marriage saves her — or so she thinks.
The forthright and complex treatment of feminism interested me and I was very much a sympathetic reader, but I found myself reading critically — meaning negatively — as well. For one thing, Gissing has some odd class issues. One bizarre conversation sticks in my mind, where two characters with whom I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to sympathize agree that many women need to be beaten now and then. The idea behind this is that those women of the lower classes who are foolish and uneducated and can’t control themselves need husbands to keep them in line. Their ideal of womanhood — and I think Gissing’s too — is seldom found in real life. Rhoda, in particular, looks down on the vast majority of women, those who can’t or don’t want to live up to her very strict standards of womanly behavior. Because of this, she is capable of harming the very people she claims to want to help. But Rhoda’s extreme views are balanced by Mary’s greater compassion and understanding, and these two characters together show just how difficult it was for women to figure out how to improve their lot in a world so thoroughly dominated by men.
There’s a lot to think about in this book. It’s not a perfect novel by any means, but it is a great way to get a glimpse of what life was like for women at the time and to think through just what it takes to launch a social revolution.