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The Odd Women (Oxford World's Classics) (original 1893; edition 2008)

by George Gissing, Patricia Ingham (Editor)

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6751314,175 (3.91)62
Member:Booksloth
Title:The Odd Women (Oxford World's Classics)
Authors:George Gissing
Other authors:Patricia Ingham (Editor)
Info:Oxford University Press, USA (2008), Edition: Reissue, Paperback, 432 pages
Collections:Your library, Fiction, To read
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The Odd Women by George Gissing (1893)

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» See also 62 mentions

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I am 30 and have considered myself ‘on the shelf’ for an immeasurably vast number of years. Though not unsought (so my pride makes me add) nevertheless the trend of my life has bent towards spinsterhood always, for various reasons. I think it’s important for this context to be made plain in my approach to Gissing’s The Odd Women. I am One Of Them, one hundred years on.

I’ve noticed that even in the best literature; in books written by women; in books with strong central women characters; in almost any context at all – love, sex and/or marriage has been the source of satisfaction held out to every fictional woman, whether they get it or not, and whether the getting of it turns out well or not. Take Dinah Morris from Adam Bede for example. She is so strong, so committed to her cause, so different from other women; and she turns away a pleading for marriage from a good man consistently throughout the book. And then, the ending, all of a sudden – deflation. Let me make this clear: I have nothing against love and marriage. I like to read a good romance as much as the next woman. I am happy for people who find love and live happily ever after. If whatever True Love may be ever recognisably comes my way, I will not turn it away on any high-falutin’ principle. But it nevertheless annoys me that fiction cannot allow a woman to stand on her own. The general idea of a ‘strong independent woman’ in this current generation is one who doesn’t get tied down, but nevertheless has a fairly robust sex life, which defeats the purpose in this context. Single women in any generation are either eccentric, faded and sad, or desperate. (The only exception is the rich old women you find in Trollope or Thackeray, who are imperious and intimidating. Also, allow me for a moment to promote Barbara Pym, a notable exception I greatly appreciate).

The problem is, how to portray a woman who stands on her own in a way that is realistic? I cannot deny that love is a central force in life. With all the will in the world, one can’t realistically push it into a back corner and pretend it doesn’t matter. Whether one possesses this Love or not, it still is a forceful presence in a person’s life (men as much as women? Surely?). So we have a fine balance, an interesting dilemma: love matters; yet without it, some might choose to stand alone rather than pursue a false representation of it. Why is this not explored more in fiction? It’s a rich mine of exploration.

Which finally brings me to Gissing’s novel. Published in 1893, by a man, at that! and yet all my ramblings above are the exact issues he deals with in this book. I think he does it with extraordinary sensitivity. I haven’t explored feminist fiction in any depth, but my limited experience of it seems to focus on wider political issues. This book does not do that, even though one would almost certainly call it a feminist novel. He limits its feminist explorations to the quiet inward experience of life in a single woman. There are a range of female characters, all single (at least at first), some weak, some strong, all intelligent. Outwardly, the choices in life for them are few: one turns to drink, another to an unhappy marriage, another to social causes. But the real meat of the novel is how they approach their situation on the inside. The stronger women ask themselves the really hard questions, and they find a way, just like anyone else does, to accept the hard and pursue the good, and make a way in life. They are whole people, no different to a married person! Funny, that.

Gissing overcomes many difficulties men of his era would have fallen into so easily. He does not masculinise strength in a woman. He sensitively depicts a powerful relationship between an independent woman and an independent man in a society where such a thing is rare and strange, thus putting all sorts of strains and boundary-testing in a struggle between the two. Intelligence, strength of will, originality, decisiveness: these qualities in the 19th century were considered wholly masculine – and I admire Gissing for his ability to see beyond the norms of his times. He doesn’t get everything perfect – some moments made me cringe just a little, but I give him all credit – he was dealing with a subject so naturally foreign to him, as a man, and as a resident of 19th century England, and he did it courageously.

The book is, if nothing else, a struggle with perilous concepts bravely undertaken.
18 vote ChocolateMuse | Jun 3, 2014 |
Worth reading, but I don't think it's as good as New Grub Street. The back cover presents it as being about the "surplus" women Victorian Britain was always going on about, but mostly it's not. Virginia's alcoholism and Alice's horrific work experiences are only mentioned in passing. Mostly it's about what I guess is Gissing's big theme, how society makes real marriage, real unions, impossible. In New Grub Street, it was poverty that got in the way, and here it's society's insistence that a woman has to be a wife that actually makes marriage between equals impossible. The story mostly focuses on Monica's bad marriage, and the attempted union between two free thinkers who don't think so freely as they believe they do. I think that was the point. These two subplots are gone into with a fair amount of detail, and there are times when the level of detail becomes excruciating. ( )
  carolus114 | Jan 4, 2014 |
The topic was excellent and deserved five stars - Gissing makes a really strong argument for the need for feminism and every character's story was believable, interesting and revealing. The writing is, however, heavy and forceful and it took me such a long time to finish this. I felt closer to Rhoda's opinions throughout and the book's got some strong quotes but Monica's plight, however important to the story, was handled in a way that could have been shorter and still to the point. I'm so sad the writing prevented me from fully appreciating this novel but I really recommend it for the points it makes and the overview of rather well-off women's options at the end of the 19th century. ( )
  RubyScarlett | Nov 11, 2013 |
`there are half a million more women than men in this unhappy country of ours . . . So many odd women - no making a pair with them.'
The Odd Women explores the idea of all the “Odd Women” of Victorian England, those women left over after all the more marriageable people have been paired off. Some of the characters – particularly Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot embrace their status as single independent women and in them Gissing rather satirises the “New Women” of the 1890’s.
As the novel opens in 1872 the Madden sisters are living in their Somerset home with their widowed father, their lives are quiet and seemingly idyllic. Although not hugely wealthy their father is comfortable and will be able to provide well for his daughters, although his projected fifteen more years of work is cut tragically short by his sudden death. His daughters are left to fend for themselves in the world.
Fifteen years later and their fortunes are very different, the two elder sisters Alice and Virginia are in London, living in grim lodgings, in between positions as a governess and companion, their lives are hard. They are afraid to use the capital they inherited from their father, and so instead continue to live on just a few shillings a week. Their younger sister Monica is a shop girl, enduring dreadfully long hours, while living above the shop with the other shop girls. Alice and Virginia are thrown together with the bluestocking reactionary Rhoda Nunn, who they knew in their girlhood, and Mary Barfoot, who run a small establishment training young women in typing and shorthand, sending them out into the world as “New Women” who will be able to support themselves as office clerks. Rhoda professes to be vehemently against marriage – despising the weak women who settle for married life, and having no compassion at all for a poor young woman who strays from the moral path of Victorian society.
Monica is all set to become one Rhoda and Mary’s pupils, but Monica is less keen on the idea of supporting herself as those around her may suppose. Monica is terribly afraid of her sisters’ fate – and this fear leads her to make a hasty marriage. Practically stalked by a much older man – but one who has a bit of money and his own home – Monica thinks she is saving herself from a far worse fate than marrying a man she doesn’t really love.
“Never had it occurred to Widdowson that a wife remains an individual, with rights and obligations independent of her wifely condition. Everything he said presupposed his own supremacy, he took fro granted that it was his to direct, hers to be guided”
Edmund Widdowson’s love of Monica is jealous, obsessive and suffocating, and Monica is soon regretting her hasty marriage. Her dissatisfaction is increased when she and her husband meet young Mr Bevis and his mother and sisters while on holiday. They continue their acquaintance when home in London.
When Mary Barfoot’s disgraced cousin Everard arrives on the scene – he is immediately drawn to Rhoda, initially he is interested to see if he can turn her head, her apparent dislike of romance and marriage represents a challenge to Everard.
In The Odd women Gissing takes as his themes: marriage, morals, and women’s roles in Victorian society and the beginnings of the early feminist movement. It is an enormously readable and engaging novel, although Gissing’s world is not a cosy one. Many of the characters are flawed, angry or cynical – but they are fully rounded and wholly believable. Gissing writes about poverty, disillusion, alcoholism, obsession and Victorian society in grimy foggy London streets, yet he makes it palatable and gripping. It is many years since I read any George Gissing novels – I think I read three or four way back when – and I am now wondering why I left it so long to re-visit his work. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Aug 2, 2013 |
A definite winner in my eyes. There are some books that just make you think and this is one of them. Taking the idea of 'odd women' and turning it into a novel is just brillant.

Odd women are those women who are left after all other eligible men and women have been paired in marriage. These women are not outcasts per se but definitely live a much different life than those who have a husband.

Some of the women in this novel embrace the distinction while others are so afraid of becoming one that they make poor choices which resonate over their lifetime. One example is that of Monica Madden, alone in the world, she must support herself as a shop-girl. This profession is harsh and with a limitless supply of desparate workers; there is little to advance any worker's condition for the better. As soon as one worker is depleted there are many others ready to fill a position.

When an opportunity to marry a man of distinction and means presents itself, Monica is so afraid of losing this singular opportunity that she makes a decision in haste. This decision later becomes a central point in the story and leads to numerous bad decisions and complications.

At the same time, there are other women in the novel who embrace their freedom and control; these are odd women who have found a purpose. The pioneers who create the tide of liberation for women.

Rhoda Nunn, a peer and friend to Monica, is a perfect example of the type of woman that laid a path for future women to benefit from. Although she presents as a judgemental character at times, Rhoda is able to stand strong in her beliefs and desires and not become, as so many others do, beholden to any one man.

I loved this novel and there is much too much to describe. I can see a book club embracing this for a wonderful discussion. So many themes to explore: love, class, economic oppression, capitalism, feminism, desire, morals, just to name a few.

Thank you again Sera for introducing me to this gem! ( )
1 vote MichelleCH | Apr 5, 2013 |
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George Gissingprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fox, Marcia R.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'So to-morrow, Alice,' said Dr Madden, as he walked with his eldest daughter on the coast -downs by Clevedon, 'I shall take steps for insuring my life for a thousand pounds.'
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140433791, Paperback)

Virginia and Alice Madden are odd women', growing old alone in Victorian England with no prospect of finding love. Forced into poverty by the sudden death of their father, they lead lives of quiet desperation in a genteel boarding house in London. Meanwhile, their younger sister Monica, struggles to endure a loveless marriage she agreed to as her only escape from spinsterhood. But when the Maddens meet an old friend, Rhoda Nunn, they are soon made aware of the depth of their oppression. Astonishingly ahead of its time, "The Odd Women" is a pioneering work of early feminism. Gissing's depiction of the daring feminist Rhoda Nunn, it is an unflinching portrayal of one woman's struggle to reconcile her own desires with her deepest principles.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:47 -0400)

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