“Half a million!” Rhoda laughed again from the girl’s naive reaction. “Something like that. So many odd women – no making a pair with them. Pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I take another view. I look on them as a reserve.
I’d never heard of George Gissing until Katie Lumsden suggested that we read this book as a Goodreads readalong (readalong link), the proposed pace was two chapters a day from the beginning of May until 16 May. Because of COVID-19, I was unable to go around the bookshops to find a physical copy of this, but I did download an e-book onto Kindle and also listened at times to the LibriVox recording on archive.org. I prefer reading a physical book where possible, but recognise the benefits of e-books and audiobooks on occasions. I rarely listen to audiobooks but I found I could do this whilst practising my Drawing, a skill I hope to improve over the duration of this lockdown.
The “odd women” of the title refers to the discrepancy between the number of men and women in the population of late 19th Century England. There were far more women than men.
The story begins with a widower, Dr Madden who has six daughters, the eldest of whom is 19 year old Alice. Dr Madden is thrown from his horse and dies, leaving the fate of his progeny in a precarious position. In the late 19th century there were few opportunities for middle class women, if they didn’t find a husband the jobs open to them were very limited, jobs like governess, lady’s companion, teacher or nurse. The second chapter jumps forward 15 years, three of the sisters had by this time sadly died, the eldest sisters Alice and Virginia talked of starting a school in Clevedon, but they had little resolve and precious little financial reserves. Alice and Virginia had been trying to raise their youngest sister, Monica, just six when she was orphaned but as their friend Rhoda observed: “They were useless as guardians; they made her half a lady and half a shop-girl. She will never be good for much.” The action moves to London, where the sisters are living a life of shabby-genteel desperation, existing meagerly on a simple vegetarian diet of unexciting fare, such as plain boiled rice. Rhoda Nunn, a dynamic school friend, who was determined to make something of herself as a single woman, re-enters their lives, she is working with a Miss Barfoot at an academy, teaching girls useful skills such as typewriting and hosting talks about female emancipation. The sisters persuade Rhoda to take Monica on as a student, Monica had been wearing herself away working crazily long shifts at a draper’s.
Alice and Virginia mope quietly in the background of this novel, with their spirits for solace (the holy spirit for one and gin punch for the other), too plain to hope for husbands and too timid to break out of their roles, serving as the example its other women react against. The two main narrative threads concern an emancipated woman conflicted by the attentions of a man who is attracted to emancipated women (with dreams of dominating one), and an asocial man who marries a seeming doormat who turns out to like thinking and refuses to bend to her master’s wishes.
This is a surprisingly feminist novel penned by a man of that era. The novel questions the role of women’s work, relationships, marriage and position in society. It is also a riveting read, as we follow the struggles of the women in the book. I teach English as a foreign language and a text I frequently use concerns the Suffragettes. One question I ask the students is “which country first gave women the right to vote in modern times?”, then I give them the choice of United States, Sweden, Switzerland or New Zealand. Very few to choose the correct answer which is New Zealand, where women got the vote in 1893, the same year this novel was published. Switzerland only allowed women to vote in 1971….
My rating : 4 out of 5
Audiobook on Youtube: audiobook: The Odd Women
E-book on Archive.org: The Odd Women e-book
Katie and Marissa talk about the book on YouTube here: The Odd Women, Gender and Class – with Katie from Books and Things