The Odd Women was not the book I thought it was going to be. The first five chapters or so concentrate on the three Madden sisters, Alice, Virginia, and Monica, who’ve been left somewhat destitute by the death of their father many years before when they were girls. They each have a bit of an inheritance, but are forced to work as governesses, teachers and shop girls to make ends meet. I thought the novel would continue to tell the story of these sisters and how they survive, but it doesn’t really. And it isn’t even very much about ‘odd women’, women who are husbandless and childless. It is really a novel about marriage and how, though it was the main occupation for women in the Victorian age, it was often highly unsatisfactory.
You see, Monica decides to marry a much older man, Mr. Widdowson, in order to escape her life of drudgery and despair. The main part of the remainder of the novel dissects their failure as husband and wife. Widdowson is jealous, controlling and insecure. His ideal of womanhood is crushed to pieces by Monica’s bold outlook. He, therefore, smothers her and demands her constant and undivided attention to the point of her desperately seeking a way out of the marriage by turning to another man.
In alternating chapters we read about Rhoda Nunn and Everard Barfoot, a youngish couple who are contemplating marriage. Their manipulations, lies and deliberate hurtful actions toward each other parallel the Widdowsons’s same experience. There are many minor characters, including Monica’s sisters, who we meet throughout the novel, but the main drama focuses on the two sets of lovers and their unsuccessful relationships.
I think Gissing made marriage deliberately unattractive in order to illuminate for contemporary readers why women would ever want to choose a different way of life. Both Monica and Rhoda are strong, intelligent and outspoken women who won’t let men push them around. However, Monica’s options are limited to relying on men, while Rhoda has provided herself a way to live without them. Gissing provides a strong argument, especially in the form of conversations between the characters, for women’s rights and it is a highly questioning novel for its time, addressing not only gender issues, but class issues as well.
For the most part, I don’t care for “message” novels and The Odd Women was very preachy and dry at times, but it is incredibly readable. The narrative moves along at a crisp clip and Gissing makes the fate of his characters as important as the fate of his ideas.
I still would have preferred to read the novel that was formulated in the first chapters about the Madden sisters, not the novel of tangled relationships that it turned into, but I did find it to be very thought-provoking and one of the most engaging Victorian novels that I’ve read.