The Odd Women – George Gissing – Audible Book Review
by Patrick Viale
In Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery a headstone bears a poignant epitaph erected by “The Home for Aged Governesses and Other Unmarried Ladies” in memory of the 171 ladies who resided there from 1838 to 1917. George Gissing’s novel, written in 1893, examines the plight of such women in late Victorian Britain – the governesses and unmarried ladies, and the women who chose marriage as an escape from a lonely or impoverished spinsterhood. However, not all of the characters in his ground-breaking work accept the limitations and strict moral code that the conservative society in which they lived imposed on women; some dream of a better world where their hopes and aspirations can be realised and where equality of opportunity and conduct with men is a reality.
Best known for New Grub Street (1891), selected by The Guardian as one of the best 100 novels ever written, Gissing was a polemicist whose work, like Dickens’s, turned a spotlight on the injustices of the world in which he lived and proposed the possibility of a more equal and open society.
In “The Odd Women” he follows the lives of five women who struggle to make sense of a world where they are treated as second class citizens. Three sisters, Alice, Virginia and Monica Madden, left orphaned by the unexpected death of their father, are forced to find a way of surviving in a society where there are few respectable opportunities for people like them. The two older sisters choose the traditional roles of governess and companion but Monica determines to escape the drudgery of a servile life by marriage to an older man, Edmund Widdowson, a decision she comes to regret.
Typical of his times, Widdowson reflects the traditional beliefs of the male-dominated Victorian society that “the natural law points out a woman’s place and commands her to follow her husband’s guidance (because) a man may know with impunity what is injurious if it enters a woman’s mind”. Set in his ways and reluctant to allow Monica to continue her friendship with her former friends, his rigidity and possessiveness inevitably set him in conflict with his young wife. Today’s reader will recognise a classic case of “coercive control” where Gissing’s contemporaries would have seen it as the norm.
In contrast to the sisters their friends, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barford, reject the values that are forced upon them by a society they consider unjust and repressive. Rhoda, a militant feminist, aspires not only to female emancipation but to a world where personal relationships are not determined by church or state and where women are free to live and love as they choose. Mary, more moderate, feels that education is the key that will give women the skills and confidence to succeed. While, at times, the didactic quality of Gissing’s writing is a little obvious, he is always an engaging storyteller who holds our interest and Rhoda and Mary’s arguments for the full equality of women in all areas of society are as relevant today as when the book was written. There is none of the sentimentality here that we have come to associate with many novels of this period. Gissing is not afraid to look at the world around him with open eyes and describe it in a stark and realistic fashion.
The audiobook is excellently narrated by the award-winning British actress, Juliet Stevenson, who captures perfectly the desperation and courage of many of the “odd women” as well as the pomposity and crassness of the establishment of their time.
This version is available from audible.co.uk and lasts 16 hrs and 59 mins