The Odd Women by George Gissing

George Gissing - The Odd Women Published in 1893, George Gissing’s novel is based around the idea that there were at least half a million more women than men in Victorian England. As one of the characters in the story, Rhoda Nunn, explains:

“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.”

Rhoda believes that it is possible for these ‘odd’ (that is, unmarried) women to lead lives that are both happy and useful. In partnership with her friend, Mary Barfoot, she runs an establishment in London where young middle-class women can learn typing and other secretarial skills that will enable them to earn a living if they remain single. Rhoda herself is now in her thirties and has no intention of marrying, but when Miss Barfoot’s cousin Everard comes to visit she is tempted to change her mind.

The Odd Women is also the story of Rhoda’s friends, the Madden sisters, faced with having to support themselves after the death of their father. With so few career choices available to them, the two elder sisters, Alice and Virginia, find work as a governess and a paid companion, while dreaming of opening their own school one day – a dream that is unlikely to ever become a reality. The youngest Madden girl, Monica, is working long hours in a draper’s shop and her future looks no brighter than her sisters’…until she receives a marriage proposal from Edmund Widdowson, a retired clerk much older than herself. Aware that this could be the only opportunity she gets, Monica jumps into marriage with a man she knows she doesn’t love.

When I first started to read The Odd Women, it seemed that Alice and Virginia were going to be the main focus of the novel, but that turned out not to be the case. Instead, the two elder Madden sisters quickly move into the background and we focus almost solely on the alternating storylines of Rhoda and Monica. Through the character of Rhoda, Gissing explores the views of a woman determined to resist marriage and make her own way in life, and through Monica he looks at the fate of a woman who chooses to marry simply because she is afraid of what her life will become if she stays single.

This is a fascinating novel and for a book written in the 1890s it feels very modern. With themes including feminism, marriage and the roles of women, it’s not the sort of book you would usually expect from a male Victorian author. It reminded me very much of Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson. Both books show how women in Victorian/Edwardian society tended to be poorly prepared for an unexpected change in circumstances and how few options were open to them when they found themselves in need of employment.

I found this novel very readable, although the long discussions between Rhoda and Mary Barfoot did become a bit tedious at times and often felt more like lectures on feminism than believable conversations between two people (and I was disappointed that, while being so open-minded regarding unmarried middle-class women, they didn’t have the same sympathy for working-class women). Other than that, I enjoyed The Odd Women much more than I thought I would – although enjoyed is maybe not the right word to use, as this is really quite a bleak story. I would like to read more of George Gissing’s books, starting with New Grub Street, I think.

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13 thoughts on “The Odd Women by George Gissing

  1. Karen K. says:

    I felt nearly exactly the same way — I thought it was going to be about the two older sisters but then it turned out to be mostly Monica and Rhoda. I also thought some parts were preachy and slowed it down. But I was very pleasantly surprised at how feminist it was for its time. I still have New Grub Street on my TBR shelf and hope to read it soon. I also own Alas, Poor Lady and I think I’ll have to push it up on the TBR list.

    • Helen says:

      I was surprised that we saw so little of Alice and Virginia after the first few chapters! I think their role in the story was to represent everything that women like Rhoda and Monica were trying to avoid. If you enjoyed this, I would definitely recommend Alas, Poor Lady!

  2. Lisa says:

    I thought this book sounded so interesting. But I lost my way in some of those long lectures, and really lost interest in the story. Your review & the comments above make me think I should try it again.

  3. Annie says:

    I had a lot of the same thoughts about the book. What I really want to know is, why has this book been flying under the radar for 100 years? It is shockingly modern in its critique of the various stripes of feminist thought.

    • Helen says:

      I can’t understand that either! This book definitely deserves to be more widely read. I couldn’t believe how modern it felt, especially in comparison to other Victorian novels.

  4. Lark says:

    I liked this book, too; it’s the only Gissing book I’ve read, but then you don’t hear that much about Gissing or his novels. He’s an author I’d like to read more of, and it sounds like I need to read Alas, Poor Lady, too. Great review!

    • Helen says:

      No, Gissing doesn’t get much attention at all. I do want to try another of his books and it will probably be New Grub Street as that’s the only other one I’ve ever heard anything about.

  5. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I also found this under-the-radar read somehow and was very struck by how modern it was. “Odd” indeed that it hasn’t gotten more attention, though that seems to be changing! I was most struck by the bleakness of the women’s lives who either were driven into dysfunctional marriages for survival, or remained unmarried and starved.

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