I could not believe what I was reading. Some of the ideas in this book could be straight out of The Feminine Mystique. When middle-aged Edmund Widdowson tries to convince his young wife, Monica, that she should be content with staying at home and taking care of the house, she counters that everything that needs to be done can be done in just a few hours. Taking care of her home and husband is supposed to be her whole life, and she’s informing her husband that it only takes a few hours a day. She also insists that she doesn’t need him to sanction her comings and goings, and that he needs to trust her entirely or not at all. The frankness of these declarations, among others, is what will keep The Odd Women in my thoughts for some time.
Monica Widdowson is not one of the novel’s “odd women,” or women who are unmarried. Her two older sisters, Alice and Virginia, are. Left only a meager sum off which to live into their old age, Alice and Virginia live in barely genteel poverty, because they were not educated for anything beyond “womanly” careers, such as teaching. Meanwhile, their childhood friend, Rhoda Nunn, is also single, but has made it her mission to educate women for any and all careers they can get, and encourages spurning marriage until the day when men and women can be equal partners. The story of how she herself falls in love and works through the conflict between her ideals and her affections is the book’s centerpiece, and it’s tightly interwoven with the plot thread of Monica’s marriage.
These outer conflicts make for interesting storytelling, but I was bowled over by Gissing’s psychological portraits of the men in the book, and how they struggle with reconciling the women in their lives with what they have been taught to think about women in general. In one scene, Widdowson reflects on his ailing marriage, and almost manages to transcend his limited knowledge:
Would not he have been a much happier man if he had married a girl distinctly his inferior in mind and station? … From the first he understood that Monica was no representative shopgirl, and on that very account he had striven so eagerly to win her. But it was a mistake… ‘Let me ask myself a question. If Monica were absolutely free to choose between continuing to live with me and resuming her perfect liberty, can I persuade myself that she would remain my wife? She would not… Of that I am morally convinced. And I acknowledge the grounds of her dissatisfaction. We are unsuited to each other. We do not understand each other… My love– what is my love? I do not love her mind, her intellectual part… I don’t know what her thoughts really are, what her intellectual life signifies.’
Then, a page later, he is on the verge of mentally sanctioning divorce, when he finds he has stepped too far beyond his own capacity for liberality. Skillfully, Gissing shows us how, afraid of the implications of these ideas, Widdowson steps back into the shade: “Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage… It would not do to think like this. He was a man wedded to a woman very difficult to manage– there was the practical upshot of the matter. His duty was to manage her. He was responsible for her right conduct.” In this scene, I was reminded of some of the best passages from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, psychological, interior passages which, despite any outer action in the plot, constitute the climax of the novel.
Gissing is unromantic and unremitting in his attacks on Victorian-age marriage and societal expectations of women, and he goes the extra mile by showing the effect these mores have on men as well as women. Over the course of this 1893 book, Gissing discusses women working outside the home, women making the life decision to remain single, prostitution, alcoholism, poverty, inhumane working conditions, common-law marriages, divorce, and adultery. Those who are less than academically interested in these issues may find much of the dialogue to be rather fibrous, since Gissing lapses into speechifying in more than one instance. But I was enthralled, if only to be reminded of how much things can change in one century.