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Several faces of feminism in The Odd Women

September 8, 2013 23 comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893. 

After my entry regarding the plot of the book, I wanted to write something about the feminist message brought by The Odd Women. As I mentioned in my previous billet, this is a militant book. Three characters are feminists: Miss Rhoda Nunn, Miss Barfoot and Everard Barfoot. The conservative ways are represented by Mr Widdowson and Mr Mickelthwaite. Through his characters, Gissing questions everything regarding the status of women and his arguments are very modern. The first cause that Gissing defends is the right to have a proper education. This is based upon a daring assumption: women are as intelligent as men and are able to learn as much as them. This statement is already a revolution for conservatives. Gissing questions the way his society treats their women.

Our civilization in this point has always been absurdly defective. Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous. In the same way society does its best to create a criminal class, and then rages against the criminals.

Personally, I never understood how societies could waste half of their brains by keeping women at home. Deep down, Gissing questions the idea that women are different by nature and advocates that everything comes from education. It’s an important source of debate, even now. Are women and men equal human beings or are they different in their mind because of their biological differences? For Gissing and for me, it is clear, we are the product of our society. In his time, women never learn how to swim, not because nature made them unable to swim but because their clothes are not practical. Women seem weak but their clothes prevent them from free movements and impair physical activities. I’ve been to an exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode. (Impressionists and fashion). As you can guess from the title, it was about fashion in the paintings by impressionist painters. It was very educational, as it showed the paintings but actual clothes as well. Visitors commented how uncomfortable women’s clothes were compared to men’s. Big and long skirts, gloves, hats, corsets, everything prevented free movements. In Gissing’s mind, women aren’t meant to stay at home and take care of the children, nor are they naturally good at teaching children. They do it because they don’t have a choice; he dares to say that some are bad at domestic tasks:

And when the whole course of female education is altered; when girls are trained as a matter of course to some definite pursuit; then those who really are obliged to remain at home will do their duty there in quite a different spirit. Home work will be their serious business, instead of a disagreeable drudgery, or a way of getting through the time till marriage offers.

As I said in a comment in my previous post, I really agree with that. I’d be miserable as a housewife. This is not something for me at all. I love my children dearly but PTA meetings, playing the taxi back and forth their various activities, cooking and doing all kinds of domestic chores aren’t part of what I consider a fulfilling life. That’s my opinion for myself, not necessarily for others. There’s no accounting for taste, I’m fine with others feeling good with this life. I just want everyone to have the choice. And that’s what Gissing is saying. He points out that womanly doesn’t mean anything when it is applied to a profession.

Womanly and womanish are two very different words; but the latter, as the world uses it, has become practically synonymous with the former. A womanly occupation means, practically, an occupation that a man disdains.

The man doesn’t mince his words and unfortunately, he’s right. He also knows that women are their first enemies. Here’s Virginia Madden after her first conversation with Rhoda: She is quite like a man in energy and resources. I never imagined that one of our sex could resolve and plan and act as she does!’. The first task is to convince women that they can do more, that they are worth it, that their opinion is as worth as their husband’s. I read The Odd Women just after Brick Lane. This is the journey Nazneen had to do to blossom into a fully conscious human being. She had to erase the preconceived ideas she had about her capacities and learn to believe in herself.

Gissing believes that education will provide women with decent jobs and give them financial independence. This independence will help them growing into adults instead of remaining children depending upon their father and then their husband. He shows the arguments opposed by his adversaries:

‘They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already overcrowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry, who, if they earned enough, would be supporting a wife.’

Haven’t we heard about this one recently? Every time there’s an economic recession, the temptation is to point out that women should stay at home instead of taking men’s jobs. In France, the State finances parents who want to stay at home with children until they’re three years old. Most of the time, when a couple uses it, it’s the woman who stays at home. (Since women earn 20% less than men, it’s usually more interesting financially for her to temporarily give up her job). In appearance, it is for the child’s well-being. On second thoughts, it helps with unemployment figures.

I think Gissing approached feminism is a broad way, showing the injustice of the condition of women in his time and, depend on the country, in ours. He puts forward feminist arguments and uses three characters to show the different sides of militancy. Rhoda is the most radical. In the 1970s, she would have been in demonstrations, showing her breasts, burning her bras and shouting that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. See her vision of marriage and men in general:

I would teach them that for the majority of women marriage means disgrace.’ ‘Ah! Now do let me understand you. Why does it mean disgrace?’ ‘Because the majority of men are without sense of honour. To be bound to them in wedlock is shame and misery.’

Rhoda is strongly against marriage, although she doesn’t go to the end of her idea and explain how the human species will go on if nobody gets married and has children. She would like women to live as monks because she thinks that love, feelings in general and sex are a weakness:

I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct. Christianity couldn’t spread over the world without help of the ascetic ideal, and this great movement for woman’s emancipation must also have its ascetics.’

This is the only area in which Gissing was wrong. He didn’t foresee the pill and contraception in general. It was out of his range of thoughts to imagine how contraception would liberate women and couples from the risk of unwanted pregnancies. Rhoda professes extreme ideas and she’s not against extreme means to reach her goal:

‘And I wish it were harder. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place for the crowd to stare at.’ Monica gazed at her with wide eyes. ‘You mean, I suppose, that people would try to reform things.’ ‘Who knows? Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off.

Imagine her during the French Revolution. She would have been in a revolutionary tribunal. I didn’t like this side of Rhoda but I think she’s a face of militancy. She wants it all now and thinks that extreme measures are efficient. Contrary to Rhoda, Miss Barfoot is moderate. She’s not against marriage, she wants to act at her level and save one girl after the other. She wants to adapt her teaching to each case and thinks that not all girls are cut out to stay single and live on their own. She doesn’t want to be an example to follow; she aims to serve.

She had come into possession of a modest fortune; but no thought of a life such as would have suggested itself to most women in her place ever tempted her. Her studies had always been of a very positive nature; her abilities were of a kind uncommon in women, or at all events very rarely developed in one of her sex. She could have managed a large and complicated business, could have filled a place on a board of directors, have taken an active part in municipal government—nay, perchance in national. And this turn of intellect consisted with many traits of character so strongly feminine that people who knew her best thought of her with as much tenderness as admiration. She did not seek to become known as the leader of a ‘movement,’ yet her quiet work was probably more effectual than the public career of women who propagandize for female emancipation. Her aim was to draw from the overstocked profession of teaching as many capable young women as she could lay hands on, and to fit them for certain of the pursuits nowadays thrown open to their sex. She held the conviction that whatever man could do, woman could do equally well—those tasks only excepted which demand great physical strength.

She’s intelligent and sees beyond her immediate goals. A Miss Barfoot would rather move the institutions from the inside whereas a Rhoda wouldn’t be opposed to violence if need be. Fights for rights always seem to dither between radical changes and small steps changes. One side thinks violence is acceptable, the other side prefers pacific methods. Personally, I prefer Miss Barfoot to Rhoda. It takes longer but it’s less violent and perhaps more efficient.

The last feminist is Everard Barfoot and he brings in a man’s point of view. Everard sees that The gain of women is also the gain of men. He supports feminism because he is convinced it is an intelligent cause. He shares the review of the current state of marriage and relationships between men and women. He sees that men will be happier if women are better educated and marry them for themselves rather than for their wallet. More couples will be able to get married if the wife can bring an income through her job. All in all, men will benefit from progress made for women. The Everards are important for such a cause because men have the power. Only they will be able to change the laws and improve the condition of women.

I hope that after reading this billet, you are convinced that The Odd Women is an intelligent novel  and that you are tempted to read it. I have an immense respect for the man who wrote this novel in 1893 and I wish I could welcome him at home and show him around. He could see that part of his dream came true and that his theories proved right. Women have access to education and can have a profession they like and keep it after their children are born. Marriage is not mandatory to live together or have children. Financial independence helped reaching equality in the couple. Not everything is perfect but the progress is real. Once again, I’m grateful I wasn’t born a century before.

When all women, high and low alike, are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honourable to both.’

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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