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Love and marriage don’t go together like horse and carriage

September 5, 2013 15 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a little late to write about our Book Club choice for August, sorry. Actually, I have so many things to say about The Odd Women that it took me a while to find the quality time necessary to write my billet. I introduced the book in a previous billet , we’ve had our Book Club meeting and I’m delighted to say that this novel exceeded our expectations.

The Odd Women opens in the Madden household. Dr Madden is a country physician, a widower living alone with his six daughters. We’re in 1872 when he dies in a carriage accident. Mrs Bennet’s worst fear becomes a reality for the Maddens: six unmarried daughters, no relatives, no income, no perspectives. The girls must fend for themselves. Then we fast-forward in time and we’re now in 1887. Only three daughters have survived: Alice, Virginia and Monica. Alice works as a governess; Virginia is between two governess positions and Monica works as a shop girl. Virginia and Monica live in London.

Miss Rhoda Nunn knew the Maddens from the country and when she stumbles upon Virginia in London, she renews the acquaintance. Rhoda lives with Miss Barfoot and both run a school where they train young women for office work. They improve their minds, teach them typewriting and but also self-respect and the capacity to stand for themselves. Their goal is described early in the novel when Rhoda discusses her work with Virginia:

‘Oh, I’m not so severe! But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?’ ‘Half a million!’ Her naive alarm again excited Rhoda to laughter. ‘Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally—being one of them myself—take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work. True, they are not all trained yet—far from it. I want to help in that—to train the reserve.’

A commendable and sensible goal. (20 years from there, the Great War will take care of training the “reserve”). Following her first meeting with Rhoda, Virginia entertains the idea to start a school for girls in the country and run it with Alice. Rhoda also meets with Monica to convince her to quit her job at the shop and join her school to be able to find a clerical job in the future. Monica is at a turning point in her life as Miss Nunn’s offer happens at the same time she is courted by Mr Widdowson whom she had met in a park. He is besotted with her and soon proposes. Monica accepts although he’s much older than her and she perfectly knows that she doesn’t love him.

She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation.

Rhoda disapproves of her marriage because she thinks that financial security is a bad reason to get married. Miss Barfoot lets it go, accepting that Monica isn’t built to remain single.

At the same period, Miss Barfoot’s cousin, Everard Barfoot, is back in England after years of living abroad. He’s single and perfectly happy that way. He’s against marriage having witnessed disastrous ones among his friends. He becomes highly interested in Rhoda when he discovers she’s a woman who doesn’t look for a husband. She’s against marriage too and thinks that her being single and successful is an example for the girls she trains. Everard sees it as a challenge to make her fall in love with him and throw her principles to the wind. He starts courting her. Will he win his bet and how will it affect him?

The whole novel gravitates around the two couples, thoughts about the institution of marriage and the condition of women. The question of marriage is predominant in the novel. For Gissing, it has reached a point where it is poisonous for everyone. He questions the possibility to get married, the marriage itself and its termination.

The first problem is that since genteel married women aren’t supposed to work,  a man needs to earn enough money to afford a wife. The first example is that of Mr Bullivant, who works at the same shop as Monica and chases after her. She doesn’t like him and uses rational arguments to push him away.

‘Then will you let me ask you a rude question?’ ‘Ask me any question, Miss Madden.’ ‘How would it be possible for you to support a wife?’ She flushed and smiled. Bullivant, dreadfully discomposed, did not move his eyes from her. ‘It wouldn’t be possible for some time,’ he answered in a thick voice. ‘I have nothing but my wretched salary. But every one hopes.’

Monica’s objection to their marriage is a valid one, one Mr Bullivant can’t deny. She’s satisfied with it because it serves her cause. But imagine how awful it was for two people genuinely in love? This issue is then seen through the example of Mr Mickelthwaite, a friend of Mr Barfoot’s. He has been engaged for 17 years to his wife before he made enough money to marry her. It was too late to have children; they had lived separately for ages and luckily still liked each other. What kind of life is that? Yet, this man considers it a duty to marry a woman when a man has sufficient means and he exposes his view to Everard as the latter explains he will never marry:

‘Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.’

Who would like to be married to fulfil a duty? Everard has very modern views of marriage. He would like the partners to be equals. He sees a possibility in Miss Nunn because she doesn’t behave like other women. She has a mind of her own, doesn’t play coy, doesn’t want to seduce him with her charms as she is not hunting for a husband. She just enjoys his conversation and he appreciates to have a valuable female companion to talk to:

In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable. ‘My views are not ignoble,’ he murmured. ‘I hope not. But they are the views of a man.’ ‘Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.’ ‘Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.’ ‘Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.’

Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.’

Everard is the living example of Austen’s statement in Emma when Mr Knightley declares Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wive. Everard would rather be a bachelor than be burdened with a woman he doesn’t consider as his equal. Before Rhoda, he thought no woman on earth could be his match. Contrary to Everard, Widdowson represents the old-fashioned vision of marriage and women.

Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief.

In the traditional way of thinking, women are barely above the animal –I suspect some men thought their horse was more intelligent than their wife—and like children, need guidance. The poor and jealous Widdowson sees himself as a pastor for Monica and this belief combined with his possessive love turns him into a tyrant.  Unsurprisingly, Widdowson has trouble interacting with Monica, who, even if she’s not as radical in her behaviour as Miss Nunn, has nonetheless stayed long enough in her company to behave like a feminist. He sees her as his possession and is puzzled when the living object he calls a wife thinks, objects and makes decisions of her own.

Gissing is revolutionary in his vision of marriage. In his opinion, marriage as it is can only lead to unhappiness. He advocates a marriage based on love, equality and trust. He writes clearly that it should not be permanent when these criteria aren’t met anymore.

How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage.

Or

But—perhaps, someday, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.

This vision is close to mine and it’s rare that I agree with a Victorian writer about marriage and relationships. Usually, I don’t share their views and take them for what they are, a reflection of their era. If Jane Austen is discreetly subversive, Gissing is openly subversive. Marriage shouldn’t tie couples forever; women should have the right to work according to their skills. Both men and women should have the choice to select a profession they enjoy. They should decide to get married or not. His feminism is blatant and I’ll write more about this in another billet. Austen and Gissing are subversive because they put the happiness of the individual before the needs of the society. Perhaps Austen is an heir of the Enlightenment; after all the right to pursue happiness is in the Declaration of Independence of United States, written at that time. In any case in Pride and Prejudice, the main characters consider that their happiness is more important that what the society wants from them. Elizabeth first refuses to marry Darcy, even if this alliance would provide financial security to her whole family and Darcy prefers to marry out of his social class to have a wife he loves. Gissing shows what marriages of convenience do to people. Monica’s choice is a disaster but the author also gives other examples such as poor Mr Poppleton who married a silly wife or Everard’s brother who married a selfish and whining one.

This is a militant book and yet, the novelist is not set aside by the activist. The characters are subtly drawn, Gissing investigates their inner minds, dissects their feelings and thought processes. He pictures their hesitations, their struggles against their ingrained vision of the world and relationships. Through their difficulties, he shows how hard it is to change of mind set. It serves his cause and makes of The Odd Women a compelling page-turner. Gissing seemed like a city Thomas Hardy in the way the events unfold. Apparent fate and coincidences play a role in the story. I say “apparent” because, like in Hardy’s Life Little Ironies, the coincidences are more like the collateral consequences of tiny decisions made by one of the protagonists than sheer chance.

I absolutely loved this book both thought provoking and entertaining, the best combination in literature. We all loved this novel and I’d buy it in French for every reader around me if it were translated. This new Book Club year starts divinely.

HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

PS: Once again, thanks Guy. Read his excellent review here.

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