Another provocative read from Victorian writer George Gissing, this one focused on the role of women in society and the push-and-pull of the early feminist movement. The title comes from a phrase that one of the female characters says in the middle of the book:
“My work and thought are for the women who do not marry – the “odd women” I call them. They alone interest me.” (Speaking is Rhoda Nunn who runs a typewriting/ business school for middle class women who don’t want to/can’t get married and will need to work.
As is the trend in Victorian novels, there is a dichotomy set up in the structure of the book: the group (mostly women) who believe that women should have more choices for their lives than just getting married, and then characters (such as Mr. Widdowson – a real pain) who believe that women should do what’s expected of them (i.e. what men expect them to do), and this age-old battle is a constant thread throughout the plot.
Here is an example of Widdowson’s (misogynistic) PoV:
“Women’s sphere is in the home, Monica [name of wife]. Unfortunately, girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish.”
Basically, the plot concerns three groups of people: two women who are business partners in the women-focused business school (neither married), a family of sisters, and a few men who stray into the orbits of these folks. A lot of the action revolves around the machinations and stratagies for the women to get married (or not married) to the right people (or not). It gets quite complicated in places, rather like a Venn diagram in terms of worlds colliding and overlapping with each other, but it’s realistic in that in the confining world of Victorian times, your friends and family did interact with each other a lot, primarily because that was who you met back then (due to convention, transport limitations, individual freedom etc.)
As mentioned, the story revolves around relationships and cultural expectations for gender: who should get married to whom, when… Monica, the youngest of the group of sisters in the novel, ends up choosing to marry an older widow (Mr. Widdowson of the quotation above) who ends up being a jealous and controlling husband for her. (Not a real shocker there, as he more or less stalked her during his “courtship” of her and eventually browbeat her into submission and marriage. Not a good start to a lifelong relationship, I’m afraid.)
There’s a rakish cousin involved “with a past”, and there’s scandals of the Victorian type, such as babies out of wedlock, “women of the street”, and substance abuse. Again, this novel is close to being a sensation novel, but just stays on the serious side of things most of the time. It’s well written, certainly, and representative of its time. After all the complex action that occurs throughout the novel, the ending was a bit of a disappointment, but those Victorians could be a bit heavy-handed with their moralism every now and then.
Gissing was a promising student in the late 1800’s, and won a prestigious scholarship to a forerunner of University of Manchester. However, he focused on more than just his studies (as people do), and ended up falling in love with an unsuitable orphan prostitute called Nell. He gave her money to keep her off the streets, and when his funds ran out, Gissing stole from his fellow students which didn’t go over well. Gissing was expelled, and sentenced to a month’s hard labor in Belle Vue Gaol in Manchester in 1876.
He left for a year to move to the States, but was not successful so decamped back to England after a year or so. (This experience was influential in his novel, New Grub Street. See review here. )
Nell was still around, and they married a few years later. There’s a discussion about how true Gissing’s literary tales of his poverty are, but even if he himself didn’t actually live them, they seem to be accurate so perhaps it was through observation of others.
Eventually, Nell died of alcohol-related disease, and Gissing went on to marry another “unsuitable” working class woman who ended up in an asylum. (Not sure what role Gissing played in her being ill. He sounds like he was a lazy work-avoiding layabout to me.) And when the second wife was indisposed, there was a third woman who came into Gissing’s life and took care of the kids. (Gissing, it seems, was too busy being “scholastic” to help much with his family life.)
One interesting overlap is Gissing was friends with J. M. Barrie (he of Peter Pan fame – see review here), among others, and as Barrie himself had somewhat of a weird life, perhaps it enabled Gissing to see his lack of involvement as normal.
Despite my misgivings about Gissing as a responsible human being, he was a prolific writer and ended up publishing twenty-plus novels and short stories over his time.