Friday, 6 January 2012

The odd women (Gissing)

I have to say that I have struggled long and hard with so very many of the victorian novels that I have read as part of this venture. However, the perseverence has paid off as I was finally rewarded with a victorian VMC that absolutely gripped my attention, and had me wishing work away so that it was lunchtime/teatime/hometime so that I could carry on reading it.

The novel - The odd women by George Gissing. I think I first heard about this on Darlene's recommendation, but I am quite sure that I have seen it extolled by another of my favourite bloggers recently, and I can't quite remember who. I immediately ordered a copy from Amazon, where it languished until I gave myself a little kick to get on with my Virago TBR (and it's always easier to start with the things that have been there for the least amount of time than those which have been there for ages isn't it?).

When I described the book to my husband, I said that it was a bit like Jane Eyre. I think that it is in the way that Jane Eyre follows a character throughout much of her life and provides endless twists to the plot which keep the reader interested. The odd women is similar in that respect although it follows a number of characters throughout their lives and demonstrates the huge difficulties many women faced in the nineteenth century if they were not able to achieve a happy marriage as independent life was virtually impossible. It also put me in mind of the problem of unmarried women as described in the Persephone published book - Alas poor lady by Rachel Ferguson.

The novel starts with a father talking to his eldest daughter about the need to provide for her and her five sisters on his death, by insuring his life for the sum of £19,000, as their mother has already passed away and they don't really have any relations. Sadly, that night he is killed suddenly before any arrangements have been made and the sisters are forced to survive on their own. It is not long before six sisters are down to three, owing to illnesses and accidents which kill off the other three and we are left with the characters of Alice, Virginia and Monica. They take jobs to try to keep themselves, but not very satisfactorily. The elder two, Alice and Virginia, are well beyond marriageable age by the time the novel gets going and Monica is the only one who has any hope of finding a husband. When she is pursued by Mr Widdowson, even though he is considerably much older than her, he seems like a sensible option rather than having to work at her typing for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, Widdowson is a jealous man and in effect becomes her jailer.

However, despite the story of these three women drawing a very bleak picture of the single woman's life, this is not the whole of the novel. Their experiences are contrasted with those of Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, early feminists who refuse to believe that women should be dependent on men. Together they run a typing training school to facitate women in their independence as well as opening their house to other women who share their views for discussion.

When I looked at review of this book on librarything I was disappointed that there seemed to be less enthusiasm amongst the reviewers than Darlene and I had felt. I'd hugely recommend this book to any of my readers; if you have read it, please let me know if you agree with my enjoyment of this book or whether you just found it depressing.

It's been published twice by Virago (and also by various other publishers), once with an original green cover (which I own) and once with an italicised green cover. At number 31 in the series it was a very early VMC


  1. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to give that creep Widdowson a good slap!

    Glad you enjoyed this as much as I did, Verity.

  2. I read a review on roses over a cottage door that sent me off to find a copy. I'm about half-way through it, just after Monica's marriage, but I've put it aside for now. I didn't find it all that depressing, despite Virginia & Alice's sad lives, but I felt like I needed a break from all the talking, the endless conversations about women's lives, which wore me down - I was finding it hard to concentrate and keep track of who said what. Your review makes me think I should pick it up again.

  3. Yay! Another Gissing convert! A wonderful book. And Gissing's novel 'New Grub Street' is the ultimate insiders' look at the writing business: you either have to sell out or fail miserably and die of poverty. But it's still a fantastically gripping book, and often (very bleakly) funny as well.

  4. I have to read this now - I was already converted by the review by roses over a cottage door, but now I have to act!

  5. I loved this when I read it many years ago. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, one of the few books by a male author that Virago published. The cover is one of my favourites too.