Book Review: “The Odd Women” by George Gissing

Odd_Women_1210

“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

 

 

Book Review: “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens

“No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.”

This took a while to read, I began it way back in June 2019 (shortly after finishing The Old Curiosity Shop” and finished at the beginning of February – on the palindromic 02 02 2020 (granted I was reading other books concurrently). My copy weighed in at a hefty 777 pages. It is the first book where I have had both the paperback copy and a Kindle version. I read a lot when I am travelling the city (Tbilisi, not smoky old London) and the paperback seemed a bit bulky to lug around. Aside from the issue of weight, the paperback (Wordsworth Classics Edition) is preferable as it includes notes and some charming illustrations absent in the free Kindle version I have. It was easier finding my place when I switched to the Kindle version than when I switched back to the paperback, the Kindle having a handy search engine.

Our Mutual Friend
my paperback copy

The River Thames, shown on the front cover, plays an important role in the novel. The novel opens with Lizzie and Gaffer Hexam, a waterman, dragging a corpse out of the river, identified as John Harmon. “But it’s well known to water-side characters like myself, that him as has been brought out o drowning, can never be drowned.” Our Mutual Friend is Dickens final complete novel, it is complex and echoes themes of earlier Dickens work. It is critical of child exploitation, three of the characters: Pleasant Riderhood, Jenny Wren and Lizzie Hexam are daughters looking after abusive fathers. There are complicated romances alongside a social and an economic critique and satire of the times. Dickens is kinder to Jews this time around; Mr Riah, a Jewish moneylender, is frequently slandered by his evil Christian master Fascination Fledgeby, but is shown to be a very sympathetic character, looking out for Jenny Wren, the fascinating doll’s dressmaker.

‘Do you not, sir—without intending it—of a surety without intending it—sometimes mingle the character I fairly earn in your employment, with the character which it is your policy that I should bear?’ Mr Riah pleads with his employer Fascination Fledgeby

There are many strong and intriguing female characters, Lizzie Hexam, for example,  goes against expectations when she refuses to marry Bradley Headstone. Lizzie is a strong independent woman, who worked in a paper mill. Headstone would have been an excellent match for her by social class, according to norms of the time, however, Lizzie does not love him. Bradley Headstone is a schoolmaster, with a very dark side.

Our Mutual Friend Miss Wren and Riah
Mr Riah and Jenny Wren, two of the more sympathetic characters in the tale.

John Harmon, whose corpse was supposedly fished out the Thames, was returning to England for his inheritance, his father having made a fortune out of dust, literally. The Harmon estate had mounds and mounds of dust accumulated over the years. The fortunes of the estate go to two faithful servants of the Harmons, Mr and Mrs Boffin. Mr Boffin is ill educated but known as the “Golden Dustman” because of his newly gained wealth. This wealth attracts those who may have earlier shunned the Boffins. There is a lot of hypocrisy about and Dickens coins a term “Podsnappery” – an attitude toward life marked by complacency and a refusal to recognize unpleasant facts, epitomised by his character Mr Podsnap. Like latter day Brexiteers, the Podsnaps look down on foreigners  who can’t speak English well ‘Our Language,’ said Mr Podsnap, with a gracious consciousness of being always right, ‘is Difficult. Ours is a Copious Language, and Trying to Strangers.”

There is a wonderful array of truly Dickensian characters. There are also lovely descriptions “the staring black and white letters upon wharves and warehouses ‘looked,’ said Eugene to Mortimer, ‘like inscriptions over the graves of dead businesses.’ Dickens would famously take long walks like Eugene Wrayburn in the novel, around the London streets after dark and this undoubtedly inspired his writings.

The novel is both dark and comic, like the best of Dickens works.

“Being an orphan of a chubby conformation, he then took to rolling, and had rolled into the gutter before they could come up.”

London is dark and foggy, like in the Sherlock Holmes films: Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was grey, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City—which call Saint Mary Axeit was rusty-black.

There is something for everyone in Our Mutual Friend, as a collector, I enjoyed the passages where Mr Boffin and Bella would search out books on misers; he pursued the acquisition of those dismal records with the ardour of Don Quixote for his books of chivalry. I made a post about this in another blogpost: Collecting Mania and Charles Dickens
Katie Lumsden, who is an avid reader (she read an incredible 194 books, last year!), particularly of Victorian literature, has a YouTube channel entitled Books and Things. She gushes about “Our Mutual Friend” being her favourite book of all time.

I am slowly working my way through Dickens’ novels,

I read Pickwick Papers (1836) in 2019, his first novel.

Hard Times — (1854), I read this in 2016, unusually for Dickens this was set away from  London in a fictitious mill town in the north of England called Coketown.

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) This was the only Dickens novel I read in school, I reread this in 2016, it is a historical novel and lacks a lot of Dickens’ usual humour.

Great Expectations  (1861). Many lists rank this as the greatest of Dickens’s novels. I read it in 2006, when I was a member of a book club in Worcester (UK). I loved it.

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840),  I finished in May 2019 just before starting Out Mutual Friend.

I now have nine left to read:

Oliver Twist —(1839)

Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

Dombey and Son (1848)

David Copperfield (1850)

Bleak House (1853)

Little Dorrit (1857)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (six of twelve numbers completed)

which do you suggest I read next?