Monday, July 30, 2012

The Odd Women by George Gissing


Before the Victorian Celebration, I wanted to read at least one book by an author that was new to me.   I had two novels by George Gissing on the TBR shelf, and they weren't too long, so I thought one of them would be a good choice.  I chose The Odd Women because it was the shorter of the two, and because I'd seen some interesting reviews on the blogosphere in the last few months.

From the title, I thought it was about strange or unconventional women, but then I thought it was going to be about Victorian spinsters -- i.e., odd as in unattached, unpaired.   The beginning of the book seems this way, with six sisters who are suddenly placed in genteel poverty.  The book then focuses on three of them, Alice, Virginia, and Monica.  Alice and Virginia, the eldest, are eking out an existence working as a paid companion and a teacher; the youngest, Monica, starts working as a drapers shop at 15.  Then the action jumps forward several years when Alice and Virginia get a letter from an old friend, Rhoda Nunn, who is living in London.  She's employed at a business school for young women that teaches them typing and office skills.  She urges the women to invest in a typewriter and try to make a better living for themselves, and to get Monica away from the exhausting hours she's working as a shopgirl.

In the beginning, it seemed that this book was going to be about Alice and Virginia and their desperate lives as Victorian spinsters with few job prospects, but then the focus of the book changed.  The story is really mostly about two different women:  Rhoda Nunn, who's intelligent and unconventional; and the youngest sister Monica, who is tempted by a very traditional (though loveless) Victorian marriage for her security.  Things don't work out exactly as planned for either woman.  

What really surprised me about this book was how unabashedly feminist it was, especially for a book written by a Victorian man in 1893.  Gissing creates some very forceful arguments about the plight of women and marriage during that time.  Some of his characters must have been extremely revolutionary for this time, and I'm sure it was pretty shocking.  

I really liked this book.  The characters end up being quite interesting and I got really invested in how this was going to turn out -- not how I expected at all!  Other than the complete shift in focus, the only minor criticism I have about it was that a few sections got kind of preachy and started to drag.  A couple of the characters really lecturing each other about feminism and women's roles and while I understood the point, it did come off as rather didactic and really slowed the book down for me.

The writing style was also extremely readable -- a lot of the Victorians tend to be slow reading, but this one was actually pretty speedy compared to Dickens and Eliot.  George Gissing doesn't get much attention among Victorian writers but I'm very glad I discovered this book.  I also have another of his books, New Grub Street so I'm looking forward to reading that one too.

18 comments:

  1. Though I initially found this book really interesting, I put it down about half-way through, after one too many lectures & haven't gotten back to it yet.

    I'm reading Vanity Fair right now and wondering how I missed it all these years. It would also qualify for the Chunkster Challenge - I should have signed up for that one!

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    1. I agree, I thought the book dragged in the middle. However, after a break I did go back to it and it got really interesting. It wasn't what I expected at all.

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  2. Glad you liked it overall. I have it sitting on my bookshelf and thought I might get to it during the VC but it didn't happen. I'll look forward to reading it sometime soon.

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    1. I had a hard time choosing, so many Victorians on my TBR shelf also!

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  3. I have this in my TBR stack too, and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the review!

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    1. Thank you! I read so many reviews of great Victorians during the VC.

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  4. I've not heard of this author but think I would definitely enjoy this book! Thanks for the review :)

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    1. Thanks! It was really interesting -- I love Dickens and Trollope but I wanted to try someone different.

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  5. I had never heard of either the author or the book, so thanks for highlighting them!

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    1. It's really worth reading if you like Victorians and you want to try something new.

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  6. I read this last year and was also surprised by how it turned out! I found it very modern and was happy with what a fast read it is, though it did drag and get preachy in parts as Lisa noted. It is definitely different from the other Victorian novels I've read.

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    1. Yes, it is quite different from Dickens and Hardy and the others -- very surprising for a male author.

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  7. Oh, I'll have to try this one! BTW, sry I keep missing the book club. I've been out of town or in bad health for ages now!

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    1. I think you'd really like it. Sorry you haven't been well, we've missed you at book club but a lot of people have been traveling anyway. Hope you can make it again sometime -- I have some great stuff lined up for the fall discussions.

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  8. The Odd Women took up a decent chunk of my master't thesis back in the day. I'm glad to see it's getting some attention and to hear that you enjoyed it. I think you'll enjoy New Grub Street, too, though I think Odd Women is a little better.

    There was a small explosion of novels about "Odd women" in the 1880's and 1890's. Gissing's feminism is not really that radical when compared to what some of the women were writing about. They all featured "lectures" by the way, some even had characters deliver actual lectures as part of their plot. In the late nineteenth century, lectures were a very popular form of entertainment. Hard to believe now.

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    1. Yes, readers definitely got a few lectures in this one! It did seem pretty forward-thinking for a male writer, especially since it's years before women got the vote.

      I'm very interested in New Grub Street, especially because I was actually a journalism major years ago. I never had that much desire to be a reporter, but at least I learned some good writing skills.

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  9. Blushing to say that I've never heard of George Gissing so I really enjoyed this post, and the novel sounds so interesting. Actually, it's fun when a story turns out to be so different, yet still good, from one's expectations.

    Glad to hear his novels, at least this one, zip along. I sometimes am hesitant to start one of the Victorian biggies because of the time commitment.

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    1. This one's not that long, under 400 pages. New Grub Street is longer, so I chose this one. :-)

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