I was reading The Odd Women by George Gissing — and had a draft post about it (that was essentially just the title) — when this blog fell into desuetude last year. In the spirit of taking responsibility for my rubbish upkeep of this blog, I thought I would finish the post.
It has now been rather a while since I finished this book, but I enjoyed it immensely. Gissing’s book has some of the Jane Austen-esque requirements — a family in diminished circumstances, the three Madden sisters, and the desire to have at least one of them married off — but approached with social realism and a sense of humour (and some feisty characterisation) that makes it a very enjoyable read without always necessarily being pleasant. More snipped below, for those who haven’t read it but will!
(As it has been a while since I finished the book, this is rather a short account of a few of my stronger impressions. I would love to re-read the book at some point and fill in some of the gaps, but given the growing size of my library, this might take rather a while!)
Although it deals with major social issues, Gissing avoids writing a polemic or overly didactic novel. The very title of this book conveys a dry (and perhaps cruel) humour: unmarried women are “odd” in a numerical sense, but also perhaps they are “odd” because they are personally “odd”. While the Madden sisters are very keen to prevent themselves from being perceived as the latter and to keep up appearances, Rhoda Nunn (the surname is another dry aside) exemplifies and embraces “oddity” in both its senses.
In some ways, Gissing’s novel offers a moral parable about knuckling under to the overwhelming pressure to escape “oddity” — Monica, the youngest and most eligible Madden sister, exhorted by her two spinster sisters, marries a man who is devoted to (or put less charitably, obsessed with) her but who expects her to value too highly this devotion. Edmund, quite predictably, makes her miserable. In a Jane Austen novel, this might be discovered pre-marriage, and the engagement safely escaped (as Marianne Dashwood safely escapes the dissipated Willoughby, although not without some heartache). Gissing, however, tackles marital breakdown head on.
I adore Rhoda’s spirit and zeal, and what I would call her ethic, the fact that she is convinced by her well-reasoned moral principles and sticks to them even when emotional “instinct” might drive her not to. Of course, I found myself rooting for Rhoda to accept Everard’s proposal, and in some ways her refusal to is born from her pride. Although she might be convinced of his innocence of the initial accusation of an affair with Monica, Rhoda has been shaken by the emotional experience of a rather “commonplace” romantic mishap, and will not take such a risk again. Rather, her resolve is steeled, and Everard’s later marriage to a rather conventional bride suggests that Rhoda’s decision is the right, that her “oddity” would eventually have outstripped his independent sensibilities, resulting in either abandonment or a diminution of Rhoda’s character to sustain the relationship. Yet her tears at the birth of Monica’s daughter show the deep emotions beneath Rhoda’s rationality; the birth of another potentially “odd woman” who might have the same painful life experiences overwhelms her, if only for a moment.