Inescapable Fate, in the name of marriage – The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing (Part 3)


(So, as we say in the business; readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot can skip this review at your own wish…)

The Odd Women touches many concepts of matrimony in relation to contemporary values. Marriage always causes dissent in inequality, for instance, the divorce and marriage property law being disadvantageous to married women. One of the concepts would be that many characters, including Mr. Micklethwaite the mathematical scholar and Mr. Widdowson, the middle-aged bachelor, who later became Monica’s husband, all emphasized the importance and practicability of the notion of “man and wife” of the time – the female of singularity becomes a unity in subordination to her husband dutifully and financially in accordance to Ruskin’s school of thought concerning domesticity; on the other hand, it is perceived as manliness to save a wretched single woman from that fate. “Woman’s sphere is the home, Monica. Unfortunately girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish…” Ostensibly, each and every woman might accept it but in Monica’s case her entrenched idea instilled by Rhoda and Miss Barfoot’s institution influenced deeply in her to liken her treatment of housebreaking into what is said on a stage of confinement as well as a maidservant on the discretion of allowance, permission and submission at Mr. Widdowson’s wishes. “All that was needed was resolution on my part. I have been absurdly weak, and weakness in the husband means unhappiness in the wife. From today you look to me for guidance. – I am no tyrant, but I shall rule you for your own good.”

The conventional notion of submission and condescension between husband and wife engender inequality in an institution of marriage, especially when it is based on a ground without a admittance of love as an irrational human infallibility.  “Done, in the name of Morality. Done, in the interests of Virtue. Done, in an age of progress, and under the most prefect government on the face of the earth.” (Man and Wife (1870), Wilkie Collins) Ironically enough, in Monica and Mr. Widdowson’s marriage, although Ruskin’s school of thought prevails in Widdowson’s tirade and doctrine to Monica, unyielding to obey to her husband and position overriding another, it is a defeat upon man’s weakness; as a result, dishonour, infidelity and jealousy are the only components to define it all. “Ten years hence, would she have subdued her soul to a life of weary insignificance, if not of dishonour? For it was dishonour to live with a man she could not love, whether her heart cherished another image or was merely vacant. A dishonour to which innumerable women submitted, a dishonour glorified by social precept, enforced under dread penalties.” Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He was Right (1869) is another novel to examine the poignancy of a matrimonial relationship based on husband’s jealously and faith. Marriage evolves into a battle ground of stubbornness and manliness, as well as irrational competition to outmaneuver another sex thereby restoring self-esteem as being embroiled in a nuptial life. “He could not but remember the many nights when he thus kept watch in Walworth Road and in Rutland Street, with jealousy, then too, burning in his heart, but also with amorous ardours, never again to be revived. A little more than twelve months ago! And he had waited, longed for marriage through half a lifetime.”

Concerning imbalance of marriage statuses in sexes, misogynistic and negative attitudes towards women in nuptial relationship could be found throughout the novel. Trifling of trivialities described in women would be commonplace to describe them. “Narrow social opportunity has something to do with it. They must marry some one, and in the case of most men choice is seriously restricted.” To cure of fairer sex’s ambivalence of emotions, sentimentality and to reform it into swiftness and resourcefulness would be a motto of Barfoot’s institution in educating girls of the new generation. Doing deeds “for the happiness of men” is mentioned throughout the novel. Women Invasion, a new ruler of work, a new ruler of home, as well as being beneficial to the goods of men, is questionable. (Men demand so much from women, to be engaged in domestic household and require them to be subordinate to themselves. what kinds of women would they ask for?) Overall, men and women are dependable and inseparable when talking about women’s reformation and feminism, it should be of an equal status. Actually, I think of Robert Bly’s Iron John (1990), to teach man love woman, to live peacefully with one another.

However, women also unconscious demean herself to take advantage at the mercy of affectation and weaknesses only for the sake of her selfishness, and George Gissing illustrates this inescapable fact and tragedy that women sometimes are the perpetrator to engender in equality of their sex. Barfoot’s brother, Thomas, when in a serious injury, resorted to retreat to the countryside. Being contemptible in this circumstance and pining to return to urban abode, Mr. Thomas “always spoke of herself as a sad sufferer from mysterious infirmities, and had, in fact, a tendency to hysteria, which confused itself inextricably with the results of evil nurture and the impulses of a disposition originally base; nevertheless she made a figure in a certain sphere of vulgar wealth, and even gave opportunity to scandalous tongues. Her husband, whatever his secret thought, would hear nothing against her; his temper, like Everard’s, was marked with stubbornness, and after a good deal of wrangling he forbade his brother to address him again on the subject of their disagreement.”

Talking about marriage, it might become hard to accomplishing the vow successfully. This novel also examines the accessibility of “free union” – “cohabitation without marriage, a phrase which at the time was regarded as part of emancipationist jargon”. To put this practicability upon Rhoda Nunn and Everard Barfoot, “Seriously, I believe if a few men and women in prominent position would contract marriage of the free kind, without priest or lawyer, open and defiantly, they would do more benefit to their kind than in any other possible way. I don’t declare this opinion to every one, but only because I am a coward. Whatever one believes with heart and soul one ought to make known.” Though it arises imagination of an ideal relationship in Everard to live on love as the ground without unloosening the legal intricacies, it might be for the woman to crystallise the ideal of marriage, the symbol of completion of a golden ring. In Rhoda’s mind, it is woman weakness against self-esteem in her ambivalence in consent to a marriage. “She herself was no longer one of the ‘odd women’; fortune had – or seemed to have – been kind to her; none the less her sense of a mission remained. No longer an example of perfect female independence, and unable therefore to use the same language as before, she might illustrate woman’s claim of equality in marriage. – If her experience proved no obstacle.” To her, it is not the question of want of faith to seek a marriage, it is for the promise of love to someone. (although love is also unequal in a relationship)

All in all, I couldn’t say I was right in all the opinions I wrote, it just provokes my thinking and want to share it all in my interpretation; the novel deals with so many facets of social and sexual values richly, and definitely worth a re-read. George Gissing himself is also a phenomenon. Social Life and condition always intrigue me. I might read He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope soon, but hopefully I will read Josephine Butler’s biography next, as prostitutes as free-wheeling creatures also appear in The Odd Women and being examined in great details.


The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing (Part 2)

Weakness and Strength


(So, as we say in the business; readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot can skip this review at your own wish…)

Why are women redundant…

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. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world’s work.

In the year of 1872 comes the first chapter of events of The Odd Women. Five year earlier, John Stuart Mill proposed to change the wording of the 1867 Reform Bill to read “person” for “man” to advocate and expand the franchise to all sexes; National Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed which later furthered into National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies, and Women’s Social and Political Union founded by Emmeline Pankhurst’s. The Odd Women is probably a novel by George Gissing influenced by New Woman fiction around the time. At the beginning of chapter, we are introduced to Dr. Madden, the widowed surgeon of the village in Clevedon. Though the home was intellectual, he never has thought of seeking for his six daughters prospects of professional development.

Agnes Grey

Nothing upsets me more than the sight of those poor homes where wife and children are obliged to talk from morning to night of how the sorry earnings shall be laid out. No, no; women, old or young, should never have to think about money.

Their methods of study are unsystematic and if a fatality befell on him, “teaching would always be their resource”. However most importantly, he is determined throughout his life to set an exemplary and patriarchal approach to lead them into a righteous life in developing girls’ minds with £800 insured as financial assistance. Sudden death tragically practicalizes his prophecies. Governesses and girls’ companions qualify meagre needs but deteriorate health. 15 years later in 1887, the sisters are limitedly to be at the mercy of weaknesses and human sympathies compatible  with conventional views of “womanish and social usefulness” of the time; Alice dealt her devotion of religion only in “sorrowful commonplaces, profitable perhaps to her own heart, but powerless over the trouble of another’s; Virginia helplessly and pathetically resorted to be a secretive drinker as consolation of hunger in ignorance of own’s imploring of self-respect and dignity. “Already they were old; and they would grow older, sadder, perpetually struggling to supplement that dividend from the precious capital – and merely that they might keep alive”  – better than working as domestic goodness. (education method and system between gender is important issue in The Odd Women)

Monica, the youngest of all, tempts her fate to work as a shop girl in the city, and if that is the only solution to get herself married and whatnot depending on her present circumstances and frivolity. Harshness defines job when she is to be “laboriously engaged in a shop for thirteen hours and a half every week day, and on Saturday for an average of sixteen”, and on Sunday to be forbidden to stay indoor until bedtime. “Varicose vein” torments her, boredom tires her.

(c) Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Barbara Bodichon (c) Girton College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When my mother left me that little sum of money I took a bold step. I went to Bristol to learn everything I could that would help me out of school life.

Poverty seems to be inevitable and manifesto of fate and discrepancy of classes, “self-help” is nevertheless one of the main focuses of the novel in defining the concept of this novel. Property and finance is defined in one and each of the character either from means of inheritance and salaries. Nevertheless, there is a spirit of self-help prevailing and lurking in every opportunity of all classes, depending on “whether they have the awareness and resolution to take advantage of them”. Rhoda Nunn is a pivotal figure of this novel who constitutes capabilities of a “man” with respect of contemporary values of sternness, resourcefulness, and determination. Going through her hardship in shorthand, book-keeping, commercial correspondence, and typewriting, we found her as working in concert with Miss Barfoot to train young girls for work in offices in Great Portland Street (based on Society for Promotion of the Employment of Women established in 1850s by Barbara Bodichon). Different from Urania Cottage as refuge for fallen leaves and workhouses for refuge of the underprivileged as “ceaseless philanthropy”, it serves as an institution of women with potentiality and capability of receiving a middle-class education, be rational and responsible human beings, to please themselves and free the reproach of “womanliness” and success of “woman invasion” not only for their sex but as well as for the men’s good as “new ruler of home”. “When I think of the contemptible wretchedness of women enslaved by custom, by their weakness, by their desires, I am ready to cry, Let the world perish in tumult rather than things go on in this way!'” However, Rhoda takes a step further in obstinacy that “falling in love”, and to be engaged in matrimonial relationship is an animal weakness of sentimentality influencable by love novels at the dispense of sterner qualities,

“My work is to help those women who, by steer necessity, must live alone, – women whom vulgar opinion ridicules. How can I help them so effectually as by living among them, one of them, and showing that my life is anything but weariness and lamentation? I am fitted for this. It gives me a sense of power and usefulness which I enjoy.”

However, it is starting to get confusing for me. This might be paradoxical and critical in individuals of the story. As the novel drives on, I see that Rhoda faces challenged ahead of her in respect of defying temptation of love and triumph she has in the pronunciation of men’s weakness and confession to love.

“Rhoda seemed to have endeavoured to liken herself to the suggestion of her name by the excessive plainness with which she had arranged her hair; its tight smoothness was nothing like so becoming as the mode she usually adopted, and it made her look older. Whether by accident or design, she took an upright chair, and sat upon it in a stiff attitude.”

Apart from that, she could also be having a misogynistic attitudes apart from men in her judgmental aspects.

Many a vivid moment dwelt in her memory; joys and sorrows, personal or of larger scope, affected her the more deeply because of that ruling intelligence which enabled her to transmute them into principles.

Experience might say a lot to form a person’s mind and notion of an idea…”If only she had once been loved, like other women – if she had listened to an offer of devotion, and rejected it – her heart would be more securely at peace. So she thought. Secretly she deemed it a hard thing never to have known that common triumph of her sex. And, moreover, it took away from the merit of her position as a leader and encourager of women living independently. There might be some who said, or thought, that she made a virtue of necessity.”

Ambivalence and Influences of Circumstances

In Rhoda’s case, I think it might not be based on her belief but to be her advantage to seek a mission to be superior to the others provided with her withstanding fortitude in past struggles and experience in harsh life. Unkind circumstances strengthen her. In the end, Rhoda was sympathized by man; she seemed to be contending herself all along, “her honesty”, “her dignity, struggling against the impulses of her heart” overtake her, making her stronger than Virginia and Alice. If she enjoys inborn social advantages as other women have, the molding of her heart could be different.

The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing (Part 1)

9780199538300(So, as we say in the business; readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot can skip this review at your own wish…)

Regarding my reading experience, the fairer characters in fiction, who step into the stage of maidenhood or living in “single blessedness”, are often portrayed negatively. For instance, Miss Clack, the “Rampant Spinster”, is the subject of ridicule and idleness. Concerning the phenomenon of telescopic philanthropy in The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, she fanatically helps out with church affairs and a committee called “The Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society”, in which she deals with men’s unmentionables regardless of her own’s proprieties and conducts concerned.

Take a glance of Jane Wilson from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Brontë; while unable to identify with such “vulgar people in the eyes of the world”, she takes lodging in a county town and ends up “doing no good to others but little to herself, spending in her days in fancy-work and scandal” in her ways of “closefisted, cold, uncomfortable gentility”. Others might include Miss Matty and Miss Wade being invented in novels of Cranford and Little Dorrit in 1850s by Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens respectively. Modern fictional characters I have read would be the formidable aunts by P. G. Wodehouse. In other cases, one of the most interesting characters would be Marian Halcombe from The Woman in White (1860), perceived as strong, independent, intelligent, and be capable of anything.

“[T]hough in single life your joys may not be very many, your sorrows, at least, will not be more than you can bear. Marriage may change your circumstances for the better, but, in my private opinion, it is far more likely to produce a contrary result.” In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham aka the marriage guru gives wise counsel that marriage is a constitution of “approval and love”.

The Odd Women by George Gissing, on the other hand, places topics of marriage and singletons on whole new perspectives directing to many facets, which definitely will be one of the most devouring and best novels I have read this year.

Wifely Duties

tenant-dueArthur: It is nothing you have done or said; it is something that you are – you are too religious. Now I like a woman to be religious, and I think your piety one of your greatest charms; but then, like all other good things, it may be carried too far. To my thinking, a woman’s religion ought not to lessen her devotion to her earthly lord. She should have enough to purify and etherealise her soul, but not enough to refine away her heart, and raise her above all human sympathies.

(Helen): “And am I above all human sympathies?” said I.

Arthur: No, darling; but you are making more progress towards that saintly condition than I like; for all these two hours I have been thinking of you and wanting to catch your eye, and you were so absorbed in your devotions that you had not even a glance to spare for me – I declare it is enough to make one jealous of one’s Maker – which is very wrong, you know; so don’t excite such wicked passions again, for my soul’s sake. (Chapter XXIII)



“The Amish draw on the Bible for their understanding of appropriate gender rules. They recite  the New Testament proclamations, ‘Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.’ (Ephesians 5:22-33) […] 

“Guided by these religious beliefs, the husband, with the help of his wife, takes the lead in providing for spiritual and material welfare of the home. An Amish man is the public face of his family, the spokesperson to the outside world, and he ostensibly makes the final decisions, while his wife remains in the background. Because the public face of Amish life is what the world sees, it is not surprising that the popular image of Amish life is one of ironclad patriarchy.” (p.200)

Charms of Helen Graham – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

9780199207558_450“And there I beheld a tall, lady-like figure, clad in black. Her face was towards me, and there was something in it which, once seen, invited me to look again. Her hair was raven black, and disposed in long glossy ringlets, a style of coiffure rather unusual in those days, but always graceful and becoming; her complexion was clear and pale; her eyes I could not see, for, being bent upon her prayer-book, they were concealed by their drooping lids and long black lashes, but the brows above were expressive and well defined; the forehead was lofty and intellectual, the nose, a perfect aquiline and the features, in general, unexceptionable – only there was a slight hollowness about the cheeks and eyes, and the lips, though finely formed, were a little too thin, a little too firmly compressed, and had something about them that betokened, I thought, no very soft or amiable temper; and I said in my heart – ‘I would rather admire you from this distance, fair lady, than be the partner of your home.'”

The wonderful thing about Victorian literature, to me, would be the missionary and didactic approaches intended by the authors. For instance, Wilkie Collins’s Man and Wife (1870) draws the contemporary readers to the fact that this fiction is regarded to be as real as the world they live in – “This time the fiction is founded on facts, and aspires to afford what help it may towards hastening the reform of certain abuses which have been too long suffered to exist among us unchecked.” In Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it could be said that she unshackles and disburdens herself with this “semi-autobiographical” tale, when she serves as an innocent witness in her brother Branwell’s rakish affairs with the eldest daughter of the Robinson’s family followed with his consequent alcoholism, or being an audience of Mrs. Collins’s. a local curate’s wife, who seeks Brontë’s father for consultation of her husband’s drunken and profligate habits.

Apart from the contrivance of similarities between “drunkenness, gambling, and insanity”, temptations in relation to “precaution, intemperance, and abstinence”, and moral degeneration, it is her mission to debunk the intrinsic viewpoint towards “fairer sex” in different aspects from contemporaries! If we are to evaluate Helen Graham’s functions in her character – Staningley, Grassdale Grove, London, Wildfell Hall – it is a spiritual pilgrimage and stages she has gone through in being enlightened, so as to reach the ultimate goodness, and spread the nobility to others (not being immaculate, but a yogi and guidance). It is, at first, especially poignant with respect of the plot when her son, Little Arthur, in fact, is actually inflicted by his father’s bad habits and deportment, that Helen has to be reticent in delivering her son from the misdeeds, and weaning him from alcohol and perverse persona; but her mystery makes all her past and reasons unknown to the neighborhood, including Mr. Millward and Gilbert. In this post, I want to conclude some points I make regarding this novel which impress me the most, and my mind conjured up an article I read long ago that reading classics arouses greater empathy in you!

Marriage Counsellor for Singletons

In the Preface, Anne is to “warn one rash youth from following in their steps, or preventing one thoughtless girl from falling into the natural error of my heroine”, thereby her book would not be written in vain. Yes, in fact, not only she tries to reflect the evil/angel personified from characters with studies of physiognomy but also emphasizes to restore  the sensible ground of “study, approve, and love” for girls provided with their inborn strength of sensitivity to trivialities, rather than taking the other halves infallibly and impetuously. In some ways, Anne, the Cinderella Brontë, also endeavours to unleash some tension and relinquishes the deep-rooted pressure which tends to be harsh on girls in contemporary days, be it attributable to their relations and whatnot. Take Esther Hargrave’s case, she is quite embittered lest she would ascend to the parlour of old-maidenhood as well as being a “mere cumberer” to her mama and Walter (her brother). To Helen, it is at best when Victorian females implement “patience” – the widely virtue – into good and proper use.

Helen: When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone: there are many, many other things to be considered.  Keep both heart and hand in your own possession, till you see good reason to part with them; and if such an occasion should never present itself, comfort your mind with this reflection, that though in single life your joys may not be very many, your sorrows, at least, will not be more than you can bear.  Marriage may change your circumstances for the better, but, in my private opinion, it is far more likely to produce a contrary result. […] you cannot tell what Providence may have in store for you.  And meantime, remember you have a right to the protection and support of your mother and brother, however they may seem to grudge it. (p. 318)

Marriage Counsellor for Couples

Helen: When you behave well, she can only rejoice with trembling; she has no security, no confidence in your judgment or principles; but is continually dreading the close of such short-lived felicity; when you behave ill, her causes of terror and misery are more than any one can tell but herself.  In patient endurance of evil, she forgets it is our duty to admonish our neighbours of their transgressions.  Since you will mistake her silence for indifference, come with me, and I’ll show you one or two of her letters—no breach of confidence, I hope, since you are her other half.

In Millicent Hargrave’s case, it is Helen’s chance to exhume Hattersley’s insolence to penitence and transgression. Helen points out to him that no one is incorrigible when provided with the right path to reformation. In fact, my eyes are swelled with tears when reading Hattersley finally realises his wrongdoings to his wife and restores himself back to righteousness. On the other hand, regarding wifely duties, husbands often mistaken “submission” for “indifference”. On socially aspect, it is an observation of confinement and condescending nature that should not to be overlooked, but as a harmful prospective in women. Although it is treated as passivity and victim-hood, it should not be seen as piteous, but cowardice. Millicent is too lucky in this case to have Helen defend for her. Penitence should be inborn duties in both sexes, but it is also a feminist point of view to not to permit weak nature of submissive patience override women, and let it asunder.

Limitless Undying Love

Mortal grounds

Gilbert: But, if we may never meet, and never hope to meet again, is it a crime to exchange our thoughts by letter?  May not kindred spirits meet, and mingle in communion, whatever be the fate and circumstances of their earthly tenements?

(Helen) “They may, they may!’” cried she, with a momentary burst of glad enthusiasm. “I thought of that too, Gilbert, but I feared to mention it, because I feared you would not understand my views upon the subject.  I fear it even now – I fear any kind friend would tell us we are both deluding ourselves with the idea of keeping up a spiritual intercourse without hope or prospect of anything further – without fostering vain regrets and hurtful aspirations, and feeding thoughts that should be sternly and pitilessly left to perish of inanition.”

This is the most beautiful part I find in this novel! Love, is actually an act of pertinacity which withstands and disregards time as well as circumstances in its own entirety. Helen is a strong female character to enlighten the males in this novel of various aspects.


(Helen) “If you loved as I do,’ she earnestly replied, ‘you would not have so nearly lost me – these scruples of false delicacy and pride would never thus have troubled you – you would have seen that the greatest worldly distinctions and discrepancies of rank, birth, and fortune are as dust in the balance compared with the unity of accordant thoughts and feelings, and truly loving, sympathising hearts and souls.”

All in all, it definitely will be on the top five novels I have read this year, and I am grateful to Anne Brontë with her passionate, sensual and sensational writings in Agnes Grey, as well as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that lead me grow fonder with appreciation and think deep in Victorian Literature. It is demonstrably beautiful novel which presents the testimonial of love as well as the strongest and versatile heroine (feminist, mother, wife, lover) in the fiction world.