Monday, June 11, 2018
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE ODD WOMEN” by George Gissing (first published in 1893)
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might know of the interest I have taken in the late-nineteenth century English realist novelist George Gissing (1857-1903). His novels may be dour, sometimes even plodding, and certainly depressing in parts as he examines working class people in complete poverty and middle-class or lower-middle-class people struggling to survive and keep up appearances. Thus I have had posts on The Nether World (1889), reflecting the despair of slum dwellers; New Grub Street (1891), presenting the struggles of hack writers and often regarded as his best book; Born in Exile (1892), a piece of inspired literary self-pity, very much echoing Gissing’s own distress at being dealt a cruel hand by life; and Will Warburton(published posthumously in 1905), about the class anxiety of a professional man who is forced to go into “trade”. And by way of relief from all this I’ve also posted on the last of his works published in his lifetime, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), being a fantasia of the life he would like to have led as a retired literary gentleman in the country.
Many negative things can and have been said about the narrow focus of Gissing’s work, and the tricks of long hack-writing he himself practised to make his novels saleable to publishers who expected three-deckers. (Unnecessary conversations as page-fillers; dips into melodrama after grimly realistic scene-setting etc.). One quality you can never take away from him, however, is his sheer readability – the clarity of his prose.
The Odd Woman is not the best of Gissing’s work, but it is an interesting attempt to take on what he saw as an urgent social problem.
Its short synopsis would read like this: A young woman of no fortune marries an older man of some substance, but the marriage falls apart under the pressure of the husband’s possessiveness. Meanwhile an independent man attempts to woo a feminist, but they are never able to negotiate exactly what the nature of their relationship should be, and so they never marry.
And here is my longer synopsis: Dr Elkanah Madden, a widower, dies in the first chapter, leaving his family of daughters with only a modest annuity and no real education or professional training. Some years later, Alice Madden and Virginia Madden are living hand-to-mouth in London. Their younger sister Monica Madden earns a living in a sweatshop. She wishes to raise herself. She gets to know the philanthropic feminist Miss Mary Barfoot and her more zealous feminist assistant Rhoda Nunn, who make it their mission in life to raise young women to independence by giving them secretarial skills. 21-year-old Monica seems set on this path, when she meets and marries the wealthy Edmund Widdowson (aged 44).
One major strand of the plot thus concerns the marriage of Edmund Widdowson and Monica Madden. He wants his wife to be submissive, obedient, a companion and housekeeper for his quiet life, whereas she wants social independence and her circle of friends. The strain grows. Monica was aware, even upon marrying Edmund, that she was “selling” herself for social ease.
The other major strand of the plot concerns Rhoda Nunn and her relationship with Mary Barfoot’s brother Everard Barfoot. Everard woos Rhoda. Rhoda is at first absolutely convinced that she will never marry, so she accepts Everard’s courtship as an elaborate means of asserting her independnce, when she will eventually refuse him. Everard at first thinks of her in terms of an amusing conquest (he has been around a bit), but gradually the relationship becomes more intense. They are negotiating their relationship and on the pont of working out their own form of marriage.
However, the denouement comes from a meshing of these two strands of plot. As her marriage has become more restrictive and intolerable, Monica has fantasised about running away with a young bounder called Mr Bevis (who, having flirted with her, deserts her and runs away at the first sign of trouble). By confusions and mistaken identity, Rhoda Nunn comes to believe that Everard Barfoot was the object of Monica’s adulterous desires. So Rhoda and Everard part. Edmund Widdowson discovers his wife’s intrigue with Bevis. So Monica and Edmund part.
Months later, the confusions are sorted out, but Rhoda and Everard are unable to rekindle the sort of trust that could lead to marriage. Monica dies shortly after giving birth to Edmund’s daughter. Edmund now knows of her innocence – she did not actually commit adultery - and leaves his baby daughter in the care of Alice Madden as he returns to comfortble bookish celibacy. Rhoda returns to her vigorous feminist concerns.
Subplots concern Virginia Madden becoming an alcoholic and having to dry out; Everard Barfoot’s scholarly mathematician friend Thomas Micklethwaite, who marries only after years of scrimping and saving to afford marriage; and one of Monica’s sweatshop companions Miss Eade who (if one can decipher the novel’s 1890s euphemisms) appears to become a prostitute.
As is always the case with Gissing, this novel would be a happy hunting ground for those who see literature as a form of historical sociology. The “odd women” of the title are, as the novel explicitly tells us, that surplus female population that will never marry and yet are scarcely trained or educated to earn their own way in the world. So this is one of Gissing’s 1890s works of lower-middle-class anxiety (as opposed to his 1880s novels of slum-dwelling subsistence). The Odd Women seems designed to give a variety of perspectives on marriage and on the prospect of women’s independence: – the man (Micklethwaite) who wears himself out earning enough to afford a wife; the complete pragmatist (Edmund Widdowson’s widowed sister-in-law who plays the marriage market to her own advantage); and of course the feminist (Rhoda) and the forward-thinking man (Everard), who believe they can work out their own substitute for marriage, respecting each other’s independence, but in fact fail to do this as they find their own jealousies intruding. Is Gissing implying that human nature is not as strictly rational as reformers (in this case feminists) would like it to be?
There are naturally many connections with similar interests in other novels by Gissing. His next novel In the Year of Jubilee (which I have so far not dissected on this blog) also has three sisters and a fourth woman trying to re-negotate the concept of marriage. Curiously, though, despite the apparently “progressive” tendency of Gissing’s theme, I constantly detect the “Henry Ryecroft” bookish side of Gissing peeping through. Edmund Widdowson’s bafflement that his wife will not submit to him and become a domestic helpmeet is quite sympatheticaly observed; and given that Edmund Widdowson’s ideal life is the quiet reading of books he is in some respects one side of Gissing himself.
Is this novel, then, the product of a conservative forcing himself to write sympathetically about feminism? I wonder, too, how conscious Gissing was of the irony of having his feminist characters (Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn) explicitly disavowing any interest in working-class women?
Mary Barfoot explains why they do not train working-class girls: “The odious fault of working class girls, in town and country alike, is that they are absorbed in preoccupation with their animal nature. We, thanks to our education and the tone of our society, manage to keep that in the backgroun. Don’t interfere with this satisfactory state of things.” (Chapter 6)
They seem mainly interested in helping middle-class girls – and how ironical it now seems to us that their highroad to independence is seen to be by becoming typists. There is an unintentionally amusing moment when the zealous Rhoda Nunn inveighs against romantic novels: “If every novelist could be strangled and thrown into the sea, we should have some chance of reforming women….. [of reading novels] The result is that women imagine themselves noble and glorious when they are most near the animals.” (Chapter 6)
So much for the sociology – unavoidable though it is in any book by Gissing. As literature, The Odd Women is flatter than other Gissing novels of the same period. Reading it, one is even more conscious of abstract conversations going nowhere in particular. I was irritated by the 1890s euphemisms for pregnancy (when Monica is pregnant) and I felt some complications were tedious plot-spinning. The quality of “readability” is not to be sneezed at, however. Gissing is very adept at neatly filling in a character’s background in an introductory paragraph. But this as not as spirited a book as New Grub Street or Born in Exile.
Pehaps it lacks the vivid involvement of self-pity that fired others of his novels? Even so, there is a moment when Gissing appears to be thinking of himself as Everard says to Rhoda: “We fall in love, it is true, but do we really deceive ourselves about the future? A very young man may; but we know of young men who are so frantic as to marry girls of the working class – mere lumps of human flesh. But most of us know that our marriage is a pis aller. At first we are sad about it; then we grow cynical and snap our fingers at moral obligation.” (Chapter 10)