Home > 19th Century, Book Club, British Literature, Classics, Feminism, Gissing George, Novel > Our Book Club reads The Odd Women by Gissing and you’re welcome to read it along with us

Our Book Club reads The Odd Women by Gissing and you’re welcome to read it along with us

 The Odd Women by George Gissing. (UK, 1893) 432 pages

book_club_2August is the first month of our new Book Club year. You can find the list of books here. This month our Book Club is reading The Odd Women by George Gissing. For a reason I don’t understand, it is not available in French. If there was a translation and it’s just OOP, then let’s hope it gets republished, at least in an ebook version. Regular readers of this blog know that I like Victorian literature very much and that I’m interested in the condition of women. So when I read Guy’s review about The Odd Women, I knew I had to read it. I’m very happy it is part of our Book Club reading this year as it’s always interesting to discuss thought-provoking novels. Here’s the blurb:


“A novel of social realism, The Odd Women reflects the major sexual and cultural issues of the late nineteenth century. Unlike the “New Woman” novels of the era which challenged the idea that the unmarried woman was superfluous, Gissing satirizes that image and portrays women as “odd” and marginal in relation to an ideal. Set in a grimy, fog-ridden London, Gissing’s “odd” women range from the idealistic, financially self-sufficient Mary Barfoot to the Madden sisters who struggle to subsist in low paying jobs and little chance for joy. With narrative detachment, Gissing portrays contemporary society’s blatant ambivalence towards its own period of transition. Judged by contemporary critics to be as provocative as Zola and Ibsen, Gissing produced an “intensely modern” work as the issues it raises remain the subject of contemporary debate.”

gissing_two_womenOn Wikipedia, it is stated that there was an excess of one million women over men in Victorian England. This meant there were “odd” women left over at the end of the equation when the other men and women had paired off in marriage. I wonder why there were so many more women than men at the time. Girls were more likely to reach adulthood than boys? Untimely deaths left many widows? It must have worsened after WWI and all the young men who were killed.

I’m not a specialist but I’m under the impression that these “feminist” novels are a distinctive characteristic of British literature. In Pride and Prejudice and in Emma, Jane Austen has her leading characters discuss the position of women. It’s Mrs Bennet, all stressed out about marrying her daughters to be sure they won’t live poorly and Charlotte explaining to Lizzie that Mr Collins is her best prospect in life. It’s Emma saying that being single isn’t a problem as long as you have your own money. In Miss McKenzie, Trollope also describes the fate of women. If Miss McKenzie doesn’t find a husband, what can she do after her brother’s death? I haven’t read Agnes Grey but I understand it is about with the life of governesses, one of the acceptable positions for gentle women who had to earn their income.

Gissing_women_femmeI don’t remember reading a French novel of the 19thC challenging the role of women in society and showing how narrow their life choices are. I’ve been thinking about the Balzacs, Maupassants, Flauberts, Dumas or Zolas I’ve read and I didn’t find a title about this. There are hints in Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées by Balzac, but both girls are married and it’s more about the different kind of marriages one can enter into. Otherwise, women are for passion, lust, social ascension. They are mothers, daughters and lovers. They are rarely partners. They are either seen as cruel and manipulative or mocked for they naiveté and seen as feeble creatures, like in La Cousine Bette.

There is Notre Coeur by Maupassant which portrays an independent woman, Mme de Burne. I always think of Maupassant is a terrible chauvinist and it is visible in the names of the characters of Notre Coeur. Mme Michèle de Burne doesn’t want to remarry. Her name suggests that she has balls (des burnes) and her first name is both masculine and feminine (Michel/Michèle), so she’s not a real woman, right? The main male character, André Mariolle respects her position and his name means clown; so his opinion cannot be taken seriously. I haven’t read all of Zola, so there might be a volume about women in Les Rougon-Macquart. Can you think of a 19th French novel which depicts with objectivity the lack of prospects for women beside marriage?

Gissing_women_belle_epoqueI’m quite fascinated by this aspect of British literature. I will publish my billet about The Odd Women at the end of the month. Anyone interested in The Odd Women is warmly encouraged to reading it along with us. I’ll read all the blog posts you’ll publish about it and you’re, of course, more than welcome to leave comments below my billet.

I have included several book covers because they’re quite different for the same book. They don’t convey the same image at all. I wonder which one I’ll think best fitted to the book after I have read it.

Want to know more about The Odd Women? Discover Guy’s review here

  1. August 1, 2013 at 1:57 am

    After reading two Gissing novels now, I am stunned that he was never required reading for at least one of the many lit courses I took.

    The choices for women (or lack thereof) seems to be a favoured theme for many 19thC British novelists. Don’t you think that Madame Bovary deals with the issue in a way–the point isn’t belaboured, but Emma does marry the first man who rides in and looks her over…..


    • August 1, 2013 at 7:39 pm

      Doesn’t Flaubert blame her reading novels? More than the lack of opportunities, he showed the stupidity of education in convents, which was the rule for women of bourgeois and upper classes at the time.


      • August 2, 2013 at 9:36 pm

        Yes, reading novels plays a role, but I still think that there’s the underlying problem of women’s roles.


        • August 4, 2013 at 3:50 pm

          I’m not so sure. Stupidity is a theme: Emma is foolish, Charles is silly, Rodolphe is vapid and Homais is criminally stupid.


          • August 4, 2013 at 5:27 pm

            I’ll be writing more in a blog post in the next month or so. I’m reading The Doctor’s Wife which is Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s version of Madame Bovary


            • August 4, 2013 at 10:35 pm

              That’s going to be interesting.


  2. August 1, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Nice post, Emma! Hope you enjoy reading Gissing’s book. It is surprising that there is no 19th century French book which addresses the issues faced by women. I thought there would be. I remember reading that George Sand lived an adventurous life. Did she write anything on women issues? The images of the book covers you have posted are all quite interesting. I am especially intrigued by the Oxford Classics cover. Because I have a book called ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ by Arnold Bennett (it is a Penguin classics edition), which has exactly the same image on its cover 🙂 I have never seen this before – two different books having the same cover. Happy reading!


    • August 1, 2013 at 1:15 pm

      Lucky you, Vishy, I see the same covers on books very often.


      • August 2, 2013 at 9:09 am

        That is interesting, Caroline 🙂 This is the first time it has happened to me. I will keep an eye on book covers from now on. It will be interesting to see how different these twins (different books with the same cover) are.


    • August 1, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      You’re right George Sand was a feminist. I’m not a huge fan, I didn’t like the peasant novels I read. (I couldn’t finish The Mill on the Floss either, it must be a sign)
      I was really intrigued by the different covers. I enjoy looking at covers from different countries, it’s interesting.


      • August 2, 2013 at 9:14 am

        Sorry to know that you don’t like George Sand’s novels much, Emma. I was hoping to read one of them sometime – maybe ‘Indiana’ or one of the pastoral novels.


        • August 3, 2013 at 4:49 pm

          It was a long time ago, perhaps I should give her another try and read Indiana.


  3. August 1, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    It sounds like a fascinating read but I will not be able to join you.
    I think you mentioned the fact that comparable books don’t exist in French literature before and I’d say I agree.


    • August 1, 2013 at 8:34 pm

      I probably mentioned it in the general post about the list of books.
      It’s something I don’t understand: why did the French society produced almost no women writer in the 19th century. There’s George Sand, Mme de Stael and who else? I’d like to know why. What was different from the British society which meanwhile gave us several major women writers?


  4. August 1, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    I won’t be able to join in, but I will follow with interest.

    These themes were first explored by women writers weren’t they? And we had quite a few major women writers in that period. Was there a similar number in France? If not that could be the difference.

    Being a governess was often seen as a terrible position. There’s a non-fiction book titled Other People’s Daughters which explores it in some detail and which I hope to read at some point. They were gentlewomen, but poor. They lived with families, neither quite below stairs but definitely not above stairs. The miserable condition of the governess, and the desire to avoid becoming one, are key themes for British literature of the period. Fascinating stuff.


    • August 1, 2013 at 8:45 pm

      There weren’t as many women writers in France in the 19th century. Perhaps it comes from the education of women. In France, going to a convent was the rule, even for aristocrats. I don’t remember a French novel featuring a governess. There must be some but nothing comes to my mind right now. Perhaps being taught at home by a governess improved their minds or gave them the opportunity to explore her taste for literature.
      Women held famous literary salons but didn’t write, it seems. Or they were never published because nobody took the risk or took them seriously.
      I can’t help thinking this society was misogynist.


      • August 1, 2013 at 8:47 pm

        So was British I’d say. Still, that’s what I’d thought – more women writers means more writers addressing themes relevant to the lives of contemporary women (of their class anyway).

        Governesses weren’t always the best educators, not having been well educated themselves. It’s another theme that comes out in our literature – with boys it didn’t matter because after a certain age they’d go to school. With girls it didn’t matter because it was assumed they only needed so much education anyway…


        • August 1, 2013 at 9:01 pm

          There are better chances that women writers address this theme but some British men writers did too.
          You’re right, if the governess was not educated, there’s little chance that her pupils learn many things. In France, the lycée and the baccalauréat were founded under Napoleon. It was only for boys. Girls went to a convent and it didn’t matter if they hardly learnt anything. They were destined to be housewives, weren’t they? It echoes with Brick Lane that I’m currently reading.


        • August 2, 2013 at 9:39 pm

          Some of the characters in The Odd Women are governesses, but since their education hasn’t been the best (or even second best), they are employed by people who can only just afford them. In fact at one point in the novel one of the characters says she’s aiming to get more than room and board and would like to get paid too, so apparently even getting wages, at this level, was an issue. These poor governesses are overworked and used as general dogsbodies too.


          • August 2, 2013 at 9:40 pm

            Emma: after reading this, I have only respect for George Gissing as a human being. He must have really been a unique individual.


            • August 4, 2013 at 3:53 pm

              Is it because his themes are inconventional that he’s not on the shelf next to other great 19thC writers? Do you know how his books were received when they were published?


          • August 4, 2013 at 3:51 pm

            I’ve started the book, it comes rather at the beginning. These governesses are just above servants.


            • August 4, 2013 at 5:34 pm

              Emma: These girls had a second (third?) rate education, so they were never going to be employed by the super-rich. They end up in jobs employed by people who can either barely afford them or want their money’s worth (idiom), so in other words they are practically worked to death. If they spoke 4 languages and could teach drawing and dancing etc, they’d be employed under slightly better circumstances, I think.

              I think Gissing must have been a very interesting person–some of the bio. facts I read confirm that. He’s clearly very thoughtful and ahead of his time and shows great empathy for his characters. From what I can read, he doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash in the publishing world.


  1. September 5, 2013 at 10:55 pm

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