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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Book Review: The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women is my third Gissing of the year, following earlier reviews of New Grub Street and The Emancipated. Chronologically, this one comes later and it draws on the themes of The Emancipated but in a much more coherent and pleasurable style. It tells the story of a group of 'odd women', that is women who have no hope of finding a husband because of the surplus and those who are actually 'strange'. It's a commentary on the marriage and employment markets for women and the rigid attitudes, both external and internal, which prevent women doing what they would like.

A number of women are introduced throughout the book. The main characters are Rhoda Nunn, Mary Barfoot and the three Madden sisters - Alice, Virginia and Monica. Rhoda and Mary run a secretarial school and the elder Madden sisters push Monica into bettering her prospects by learning these skills instead of working in a shop. However, Monica has been accosted by a strange, and fairly well-off, man, and chooses to marry him instead. Much of the novel documents her irritation with her husband's desperation for their isolation and her temptation by another man.

The other main strand of the novel is Rhoda's relationship with Mary's cousin Everard. This is the more fascinating strand, though the two do collide at different points. After first meeting Rhoda, Everard wants to see if he can make her fall in love with him and therefore test her opposition to love and marriage. He eventually falls for her but the struggle between them occupies a central part of the book. Misunderstandings and personality differences combine to impede any chance of a marriage between them.

With Gissing, I'm learning that not only will I be disconcerted throughout the reading of a book but I will also be a little miffed by the ending. The Odd Women is on a par with New Grub Street in this respect, leaving the reader pondering the other permutations the book could've left them with. In this sense, it was certainly a book that lingered with me for a few days.

Rhoda is an excellent character, full of contradictions that she's aware of and tries to reconcile with each other. The last picture of her in the narrative is a powerful one. On the other side of the coin, Monica is irritating, though she does mature a little as the book goes on. The contrast between the woman who doesn't need a husband and the one who wants the security of one could be heavy-handed but Gissing portrays Rhoda's struggles and Monica's realisations effectively. For me, one of the best scenes of the novel is the final encounter between Rhoda and Monica.

There are many incidental characters who tended to get confused in my head. Of the other more prominent characters, though, it's Virginia with her concealed alcoholism who stands out. It's half-funny, half-tragic and I do like the fact that both she and Alice get a reasonable due at the end of the novel.

Overall, I enjoyed The Odd Women. It didn't take as long to get going as The Emancipated and had a similar, strong female character at the heart of it who captured my attention. Definitely a book I'd like to re-read in the future.

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