The Odd Women by George Gissing

It is not often that books make me cry, but this one did. It could be that it’s been one of those trying weeks and perhaps I would merely have felt sad otherwise, but I think, nonetheless, that The Odd Women is a very affecting book despite first being published in 1893.

The Odd Women is about the emancipation of women and therefore it is also about marriage (and deliciously, if you look for it, about the novel, often referred to in morally ambiguous terms allowing us to posit a shared rise in esteem of women and the novel as a literary form). If womankind is to be recognised as equal to mankind (in this instance obviously used only in reference to men – such a misogynistic word isn’t it?), then marriage has to become something different, something which does not see the wife as the dependent financially and morally. It would be easy to be annoyed with some of the views expressed in the book and not just from the men about how women need to be guided and about the lower classes, but the novel is trying to put all of that into question and I came away thinking that The Odd Women begged a new book on relationships.

The odd women are those middle class women who don’t, for various reasons, marry. What are they to do with themselves? Should they see themselves as having failed their purpose or should they not undertake an interesting independent life? Now, of course, we can read the book knowing that it is these odd women to whom we owe much of our emancipation. Perhaps, to further assert female independence, we should now be exploring in more depth why society still views with question women who choose not to have children. We do not judge men in the same way. ‘Unnatural’ is a word used in the nineteenth century, but one which still sits in our minds. It would be interesting to try and break free from it. After all, natural is surely all the things that occur in the ‘natural’ infinite realms of time and space and that would mean everything that does, has and will happen. It seems many of the concerns of the book remain alive today and reading how eloquently George Gissing expressed the intimate intricacies of relationships made me wonder why he isn’t as well known as Thomas Hardy for example. It is true, he is less melodramatic – he chooses to focus on the story of the rational, more mature and intelligent Rhoda Nunn rather than on the young and impulsive Monica Madden – but is the more melodramatic more literary? Only for the sentimentalist.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Odd Women and won’t say more about the plot in case you decide to find out what happens to Rhoda, Monica and all the others. The Odd Women was like a vigorous walk into the past that delivered me, robust and full of energy, into the present. I would recommend it.

Next week I will be reading Light by M. John Harrison. I found it hidden, out of place, in my own bookshelves! The week after next I will be reading Cain by Jose Saramago and the week after The Human Script by Johnny Rich. Do send in suggestions for further books to put on the list.