K's Reviews > The Odd Women

The Odd Women by George Gissing
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Jun 06, 09

bookshelves: classics
Recommended to K by: margueya; Gail Godwin
Recommended for: 19th cen. lit. fans; readers interested in early feminism

During the 1890s, apparently, a surplus of women and shortage of men resulted in the phenomenon of “odd” (as opposed to even, or paired-off) women – women who, for whatever reason, were not succeeding in finding a spouse. The question is, in a pre-feminist world, what were these women supposed to do? In this novel, Gissing’s female characters represent a few of the contemporary choices – withering away in unfulfilling jobs as governesses and companions, wallowing in hypochondria or alcoholism; marrying for security rather than love and then ending up in unhappy marriages; or, having rejected or given up on marriage, developing oneself and embracing education and a career.

The latter option, of course, was considered very controversial when this book was written. One of the book’s two plotlines focuses on Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, single women themselves, dedicated to creating this possibility for other single women by running a trade school for them. Rhoda is particularly anti-marriage and resolves to remain single all of her life in commitment to the greater good of all women (wishing to serve as a role model for women choosing not to center their lives around marriage and family). This resolve is challenged by Mary’s cousin, Everard, who woos Rhoda initially as a lark but eventually in genuine passion, which Rhoda rejects at first but ultimately can’t help returning.

The other plotline follows one of Mary and Rhoda’s students, Monica Madden, who quickly rejects the possibility of developing a career and chooses instead to marry a much older man with a great deal of unrequited passion for her. Hoping to achieve security, she finds herself miserable with him and drawn to another man, much to her possessive husband’s chagrin.

At first, I found this book highly polemical. Dialogues between Rhoda and other characters who debate with her appeared to be thinly veiled excuses to present contrasting views of marriage and protofeminist ideas. I actually didn’t mind because I found this interesting from a historical/sociological perspective, but I wondered how I would have felt had this not been the case – agendas and Ayn Randish dialogue-cum-diatribes usually detract from the quality of a book.

Eventually, though, the complexity of the plot and characters deepened and became more of a focus. Monica seemed a superficial twit at first, but in time displayed some real strength in her struggle to find her way in an unhappy marriage. Her husband, Edmund Widdowson, was a very three-dimensional controlling husband as opposed to a pure villain and their relationship was not simplistic. Rhoda went from being a militant robot to being a woman caught between her ideals and her emerging passion, genuinely conflicted about her choices.

Another thing that struck me about this book was its parallels to present-day life – the more things change, the more they stay the same. The “singles crisis” is a hot topic in the Orthodox community lately. Young Orthodox adults in today’s world appear to be having more difficulty finding someone with whom to settle down despite socioreligious ideals of early marriage and parenthood, and debate abounds as to the possible psychological or sociological explanations for this. It was interesting to read about a similar phenomenon in the 1890s and to see some parallels. Although our context is different in a lot of ways, many of the struggles are the same – women who never thought they’d have to develop themselves outside of marriage struggling to cope with that reality; men using very compelling arguments in an attempt to convince women to agree to a “free love” union outside of formal marriage, etc.

This is a good book for anyone who wants to think about these issues, and who appreciates (or can tolerate) 19th century-style writing. The appendices at the end were interesting as well.

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Reading Progress

05/26/2009 page 14 "It's always a good sign if a book has an introduction, especially if you actually want to read it."
05/30/2009 page 110 "Interesting, especially from a historical perspective. Who knew that there was a singles' crisis in the 1890s?" 4 comments
06/03/2009 page 238 "I know I'm not saying anything new here, but reading 19th cen. lit. is like an elaborate and complicated salad as opposed to a bag of chips."

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