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

September 5, 2013 Leave a comment Go to 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.


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.


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

  1. September 6, 2013 at 3:00 am

    I am, of course, very glad you liked this. It is a militant book, and also a very intelligent one. I particularly liked the way Gissing sets up the characters Rhoda Nunn and Everard in a duel of principles. But then again, Everard’s ego has a role too. I also enjoyed the gossip concerning Everard and his bad reputation. He’s very cold about it, and the reality for the ‘fallen woman’ may be easy for him to shirk, but not so for the woman involved.

    It’s an amazing book, isn’t it?


    • September 6, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      It is a very clever book, moderate but still not shying away from controversial topics.

      I liked the challenge between the two characters and the idea of Everard pushing Rhoda to pass her ideas from head to hand. What happens when she’s confronting concepts to their implementation?

      Everard seems callous because he doesn’t think of a woman’s reputation (the train episode has been repeated twice, with the young girl and with Monica) Sharing a train carriage was apparently a big thing at the time, it’s an condemnable event in Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes as well. I think it suits his vision of women : they should be able to take care of themselves and decide not to share this carriage with him if it might hurt their reputation. Why should he take the responsibility of keeping them out of mischief as if they were children?

      Spoiler alert !!!

      I also think that Miss Barfoot is not a saint and that she deliberately sent that letter to break them up. She did it out of jealousy because she wanted E’s attentions to herself, and perhaps because she didn’t want to lose Rhoda. (cf Emma’s loss when Miss Taylor gets married, marriage changed the friendship between the two as they had less time together) Fear of loneliness or more? My friend saw that the book was made into a play that emphasised the potential homosexual relationship between Rhoda and Miss Barfoot. I’m not sure about that but maybe I was unable to read between the lines.


  2. September 6, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    Miss Barfoot has a secret crush of Everard. Of course, it never occurs to him, but certainly Miss Barfoot’s motives are in question.

    I liked the way Gissing played with the whole Everard seduction story. We hear he’s bad, and Rhoda gets the warning. But then Everard tells his side of the story which doesn’t exactly exonerate him either. I would have been very interested to hear the story from the ‘fallen woman.’ That’s the thing though, that young woman’s life was ruined while Everard sailed on…

    Gissing sees that discrepancy.

    Will you read New Grub Street? It goes into the writer’s life, marriage and how men marry unsuitable women (as Everard’s brother did). Compatibility in marriage seems to be an ideal rarely achieved.


    • September 6, 2013 at 9:59 pm

      That’s true, there’s a discrepancy. Her life was ruined but I still think she could have avoided this situation if she had had more common sense. This still exists. A woman who sleeps around is a slut and a man who for the same is a Don Juan. It’s degrading on one side and something to brag about on the other side.
      I will read more of him. Perhaps New Grub street but I’ve heard of another one, only I can’t remember the title now.


  3. September 7, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! Gissing’s book looks wonderful. Makes me think of Jane Austen and George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. I found the two viewpoints that are stated in the novel – the point that women should learn skills and learn to become financially independent and shouldn’t marry for financial security or out of a sense of duty or because society demands it and the point stated by Mr.Mickelthwaite (“The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate”) – contradictory but paradoxically true for the era during which the book was written. I think I will love reading the conversations between Rhoda and Everard. I will look for this book. Thanks for this wonderful review.


    • September 8, 2013 at 8:15 am

      It is a militant book and the open discussions between Rhoda and Everard, Rhoda and Miss Barfoot, Monica and Widdowson are vivid, interesting and extremely modern.

      I enjoyed how the book showed different sides of feminism and I’ll write about that later.
      In the absence of real career choices for women, Mr M’ s view is understandable. It’s practical and this is the choice Charlotte makes in P&P.
      I think you’ll enjoy this novel and I’ll be interested in reading your thoughts about it.


      • September 8, 2013 at 8:48 am

        It is interesting that you have mentioned P&P. I remembered it when I read your review 🙂 I will look forward to reading your billet on how the book shows different sides of feminism. Can’t wait 🙂 Happy reading and writing!


        • September 8, 2013 at 4:15 pm

          Thanks Vishy. Now, I need to find the time to write it. I don’t have enough time to do everything I’d like to. That’s everybody’s never-ending problem, isn’t it?


  4. September 7, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    I does sound good, no doubt about it. And quite ahead of its time. Austen may be subversive to some extent but the happy marriage is still the wished for outcome to all of her novels. Without a happy marriage at the end there is no Austen. Knowing for how long women were not allowed to work, makes it a bit more understandable that they chose according to the income of the man. Suche utter depnedence is so hard to imagine by now.


    • September 8, 2013 at 8:25 am

      It’s ahead of its time, an I’d love to know how the book was received when it was published. It has not been translated into French and I’m sure the 3rd Republic male translators of the time weren’t eager to publish a book with such radical views of marriage and women.
      You’re right, in Austen, a happy marriage is the outcome wished by the female characters. But Emma or Elizabeth would rather stay single than be in a bad marriage. (A choice not so brave for Emma as she’s wealthy but brave for Lizzie) I should reread the other Austens, I don’t remember them well.

      I think that the dependence of stay at home mothers in this economy is almost as bad. It’s not easy to find a good job after staying at home for a long time and since marriage isn’t forever… It seems a risky situation to me and some countries don’t provide affordable day care solutions that allow both parents to work. And of course, it is expected that the wife stays at home. I would have hated to stay at home like this, I can’t imagine what it is to be obliged to do it.


      • September 8, 2013 at 9:00 am

        Your comment on stay at home moms made me think of a book I read sometime back, Emma. It is called ‘The Home-Maker’ by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It is about a traditional family – the husband works and the wife is a stay at home mom – where suddenly circumstances change and the roles of the wife and the husband are reversed – the wife goes to work and the husband becomes a stay at home dad. The story explores in an interesting way what happens after that. I found the book quite fascinating. Have you read this book?


        • September 8, 2013 at 4:16 pm

          I haven’t read this book. I wouldn’t wish this for a man either, unless that’s what he really wants. What’s bad is to be forced to abandon a career. If someone is happy staying at home, that’s perfect.


  1. September 8, 2013 at 7:18 pm
  2. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am
  3. December 26, 2015 at 8:02 am

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