Several faces of feminism in The Odd Women

September 8, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Odd Women by George Gissing. 1893. 

After my entry regarding the plot of the book, I wanted to write something about the feminist message brought by The Odd Women. As I mentioned in my previous billet, this is a militant book. Three characters are feminists: Miss Rhoda Nunn, Miss Barfoot and Everard Barfoot. The conservative ways are represented by Mr Widdowson and Mr Mickelthwaite. Through his characters, Gissing questions everything regarding the status of women and his arguments are very modern. The first cause that Gissing defends is the right to have a proper education. This is based upon a daring assumption: women are as intelligent as men and are able to learn as much as them. This statement is already a revolution for conservatives. Gissing questions the way his society treats their women.

Our civilization in this point has always been absurdly defective. Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous. In the same way society does its best to create a criminal class, and then rages against the criminals.

Personally, I never understood how societies could waste half of their brains by keeping women at home. Deep down, Gissing questions the idea that women are different by nature and advocates that everything comes from education. It’s an important source of debate, even now. Are women and men equal human beings or are they different in their mind because of their biological differences? For Gissing and for me, it is clear, we are the product of our society. In his time, women never learn how to swim, not because nature made them unable to swim but because their clothes are not practical. Women seem weak but their clothes prevent them from free movements and impair physical activities. I’ve been to an exhibition Les Impressionistes et la mode. (Impressionists and fashion). As you can guess from the title, it was about fashion in the paintings by impressionist painters. It was very educational, as it showed the paintings but actual clothes as well. Visitors commented how uncomfortable women’s clothes were compared to men’s. Big and long skirts, gloves, hats, corsets, everything prevented free movements. In Gissing’s mind, women aren’t meant to stay at home and take care of the children, nor are they naturally good at teaching children. They do it because they don’t have a choice; he dares to say that some are bad at domestic tasks:

And when the whole course of female education is altered; when girls are trained as a matter of course to some definite pursuit; then those who really are obliged to remain at home will do their duty there in quite a different spirit. Home work will be their serious business, instead of a disagreeable drudgery, or a way of getting through the time till marriage offers.

As I said in a comment in my previous post, I really agree with that. I’d be miserable as a housewife. This is not something for me at all. I love my children dearly but PTA meetings, playing the taxi back and forth their various activities, cooking and doing all kinds of domestic chores aren’t part of what I consider a fulfilling life. That’s my opinion for myself, not necessarily for others. There’s no accounting for taste, I’m fine with others feeling good with this life. I just want everyone to have the choice. And that’s what Gissing is saying. He points out that womanly doesn’t mean anything when it is applied to a profession.

Womanly and womanish are two very different words; but the latter, as the world uses it, has become practically synonymous with the former. A womanly occupation means, practically, an occupation that a man disdains.

The man doesn’t mince his words and unfortunately, he’s right. He also knows that women are their first enemies. Here’s Virginia Madden after her first conversation with Rhoda: She is quite like a man in energy and resources. I never imagined that one of our sex could resolve and plan and act as she does!’. The first task is to convince women that they can do more, that they are worth it, that their opinion is as worth as their husband’s. I read The Odd Women just after Brick Lane. This is the journey Nazneen had to do to blossom into a fully conscious human being. She had to erase the preconceived ideas she had about her capacities and learn to believe in herself.

Gissing believes that education will provide women with decent jobs and give them financial independence. This independence will help them growing into adults instead of remaining children depending upon their father and then their husband. He shows the arguments opposed by his adversaries:

‘They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already overcrowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry, who, if they earned enough, would be supporting a wife.’

Haven’t we heard about this one recently? Every time there’s an economic recession, the temptation is to point out that women should stay at home instead of taking men’s jobs. In France, the State finances parents who want to stay at home with children until they’re three years old. Most of the time, when a couple uses it, it’s the woman who stays at home. (Since women earn 20% less than men, it’s usually more interesting financially for her to temporarily give up her job). In appearance, it is for the child’s well-being. On second thoughts, it helps with unemployment figures.

I think Gissing approached feminism is a broad way, showing the injustice of the condition of women in his time and, depend on the country, in ours. He puts forward feminist arguments and uses three characters to show the different sides of militancy. Rhoda is the most radical. In the 1970s, she would have been in demonstrations, showing her breasts, burning her bras and shouting that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. See her vision of marriage and men in general:

I would teach them that for the majority of women marriage means disgrace.’ ‘Ah! Now do let me understand you. Why does it mean disgrace?’ ‘Because the majority of men are without sense of honour. To be bound to them in wedlock is shame and misery.’

Rhoda is strongly against marriage, although she doesn’t go to the end of her idea and explain how the human species will go on if nobody gets married and has children. She would like women to live as monks because she thinks that love, feelings in general and sex are a weakness:

I am seriously convinced that before the female sex can be raised from its low level there will have to be a widespread revolt against sexual instinct. Christianity couldn’t spread over the world without help of the ascetic ideal, and this great movement for woman’s emancipation must also have its ascetics.’

This is the only area in which Gissing was wrong. He didn’t foresee the pill and contraception in general. It was out of his range of thoughts to imagine how contraception would liberate women and couples from the risk of unwanted pregnancies. Rhoda professes extreme ideas and she’s not against extreme means to reach her goal:

‘And I wish it were harder. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place for the crowd to stare at.’ Monica gazed at her with wide eyes. ‘You mean, I suppose, that people would try to reform things.’ ‘Who knows? Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off.

Imagine her during the French Revolution. She would have been in a revolutionary tribunal. I didn’t like this side of Rhoda but I think she’s a face of militancy. She wants it all now and thinks that extreme measures are efficient. Contrary to Rhoda, Miss Barfoot is moderate. She’s not against marriage, she wants to act at her level and save one girl after the other. She wants to adapt her teaching to each case and thinks that not all girls are cut out to stay single and live on their own. She doesn’t want to be an example to follow; she aims to serve.

She had come into possession of a modest fortune; but no thought of a life such as would have suggested itself to most women in her place ever tempted her. Her studies had always been of a very positive nature; her abilities were of a kind uncommon in women, or at all events very rarely developed in one of her sex. She could have managed a large and complicated business, could have filled a place on a board of directors, have taken an active part in municipal government—nay, perchance in national. And this turn of intellect consisted with many traits of character so strongly feminine that people who knew her best thought of her with as much tenderness as admiration. She did not seek to become known as the leader of a ‘movement,’ yet her quiet work was probably more effectual than the public career of women who propagandize for female emancipation. Her aim was to draw from the overstocked profession of teaching as many capable young women as she could lay hands on, and to fit them for certain of the pursuits nowadays thrown open to their sex. She held the conviction that whatever man could do, woman could do equally well—those tasks only excepted which demand great physical strength.

She’s intelligent and sees beyond her immediate goals. A Miss Barfoot would rather move the institutions from the inside whereas a Rhoda wouldn’t be opposed to violence if need be. Fights for rights always seem to dither between radical changes and small steps changes. One side thinks violence is acceptable, the other side prefers pacific methods. Personally, I prefer Miss Barfoot to Rhoda. It takes longer but it’s less violent and perhaps more efficient.

The last feminist is Everard Barfoot and he brings in a man’s point of view. Everard sees that The gain of women is also the gain of men. He supports feminism because he is convinced it is an intelligent cause. He shares the review of the current state of marriage and relationships between men and women. He sees that men will be happier if women are better educated and marry them for themselves rather than for their wallet. More couples will be able to get married if the wife can bring an income through her job. All in all, men will benefit from progress made for women. The Everards are important for such a cause because men have the power. Only they will be able to change the laws and improve the condition of women.

I hope that after reading this billet, you are convinced that The Odd Women is an intelligent novel  and that you are tempted to read it. I have an immense respect for the man who wrote this novel in 1893 and I wish I could welcome him at home and show him around. He could see that part of his dream came true and that his theories proved right. Women have access to education and can have a profession they like and keep it after their children are born. Marriage is not mandatory to live together or have children. Financial independence helped reaching equality in the couple. Not everything is perfect but the progress is real. Once again, I’m grateful I wasn’t born a century before.

When all women, high and low alike, are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honourable to both.’

  1. September 9, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Superb convinced Emma. I am convinced that this is a worthy novel and I am tempted to read it.

    One of many things that are appealing is that it seems to illustrate that there are multiple paths to the same destination.

    Like

    • September 9, 2013 at 10:34 pm

      Thanks Brian, I’m glad you consider reading it.

      I was surprised by the modernity of his thoughts. It’s as if he had managed to part from the vision of women he was certainly given when he grew up. It’s not easy to go against your education.

      Like

  2. September 9, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Wonderful post, Emma! Enjoyed reading it very much. I loved the character of Miss Barfoot after reading your post. I think she is a perfect character and I would have enjoyed having a conversation with her. The Impressionist exhibition that you went to, looks quite interesting. I find the wedding clothes for women today, in most cultures, quite complex and restraining. It is difficult to imagine that some of those were worn by women during everyday life once upon a time (like gowns with long trains – Margaret Mitchell writes about it in ‘Gone with the Wind’). It is sad what people say during the economic depression. We think we have moved on from the old times, but some things don’t seem to change. I think in many ways we have made some real advances in terms of gender equality, but also there is still a long way to go. As you have said when a couple has a baby, it is the mother who mostly sacrifices her career. I would love to see more stay-at-home dads and like you have said I think a woman or a man should be able to pursue their careers or be stay-at-home parents based on which they find more fulfilling and which fits their personal circumstances, rather than be forced to choose an option based on what the social norm of that time dictates. Thanks for this wonderful post, Emma.

    Like

    • September 9, 2013 at 10:43 pm

      Thanks Vishy. Miss Barfoot is certainly an interesting character. She has her flaws as well though.
      Seeing th clothes was fascinating. Some fabrics were for young girls, others were more for married women. There were codes we don’t even imagine. Of course women had trouble walking, climbing stairs and so on: all these layers of clothes seemed stifling.
      In France stay at home dads are a rarity. Most of the time, both partners work. New habits have developed; in the morning, there are lots of dads bringing children to school.
      And thank God for drive-in supermarkets. This thing saves time.

      Like

  3. September 10, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Interesting, indeed. I don’t know if I would like the book as there are so many elements that have to come together but I do admire the thinking behind the writing. He’s so much ahead of his time. I find the character of Mr Barfoot almost more revolutionary. A mirror of Gissing.

    Like

    • September 10, 2013 at 8:12 pm

      I admire him for being ahead of his time, being brave enough to write this book and for the clever moderation of his thinking. He sounds so logical.
      Mr Barfoot isn’t without flaws but he’s open minded. He dislikes marriage for different reasons than Rhoda and the solution she suggests seems reasonable and to be explored. He doesn’t want the condition of women to improve for itself but he’s intelligent enough to see it would be beneficial for men as well.

      Like

  4. September 13, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    I think Barfoot was very important to Rhoda–he was her ultimate temptation and he tested her principles of remaining single as an example to other women, I really liked the way Gissing set up all these relationships: Miss Barfoot secretly languishing after her cousin, Rhoda being tempted by Barfoot, and Barfoot hoping that Rhoda would give herself to him without marriage.

    All interesting characters, but Barfoot is a little more difficult to peg. He’s all for women’s lib (after all his brother’s marriage to an ill-educated woman is an example of misery), but it’s a little self-serving too. Yes, Barfoot makes the point that everyone wins if a woman is educated and self-sufficient but there’s still that business of the woman he ruined… Is Barfoot fundamentally more interested in sexual liberation than anything else?

    Like

    • September 14, 2013 at 10:56 pm

      I agree with you, Barfoot cements Rhoda in her beliefs, but I felt it was a way to rationalise her loss. The real issue is
      that she didn’t trust him and you can’t start a relationship without trust. As Barfoot points it out. She dresses her inability to interact with men in ideology. It’s easier to say a woman doesn’t need a man than try to build a different kind of relationship.
      I thought that the psychology of the characters was profound, researched and subtle. It gave life to the ideas in a convincing way. At the same time, they are so well crafted that the book isn’t a lecture, even if it is militant. That’s Gissing’s best achievement: he put forward his ideas but it is not detrimental to the literary quality of the book.

      Barfoot is not a hero. He’s pragmatic. He supports their cause because he sees benefits for men. He wouldn’t give it as thought otherwise. These men make that cause progress because they don’t sound like activists and indirectly convince other men that they might be right. They are not classified as militants and their opinion is not immediately put aside as coming from someone whose opinion isn’t to be trusted.

      I don’t think Barfoot is only interested in sexual liberation. He’s afraid of a marriage where divorce isn’t an option. He’d like a free union, not for sex, but for the possibility to walk away if things turn sour. He dreads to be stuck for life with a woman he doesn’t love anymore. It’s hard to hold this against him.

      Like

  5. October 20, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    There is no doubt that this book was quite progressivist for its time, but in my opinion, the feminist ideals were expressed here and there throughout the book, not in the characters’ actions themselves, but through their words.

    In fact, I thought Gissing was quite the realist, or let’s say more realist than progressivist. Let’s back up to the character’s personal histories. Rhoda was disappointed with love at a young age, and went into the care of Miss Barfoot. Herself, Miss Barfoot was taken by Everard, so much apparently that part of her disagreement with Rhoda stems out of jealousy. And here, is where I think Gissing was quite smart, when Miss Barfoot, early in the book, advises Rhoda not to meddle in the affairs of girls when it comes to marriage, and as I recall not only because we want to keep the race alive, but because Miss Barfoot understands that it’s not only nurture but nature. All of these characters are torn between these two aspects that shape our ideas and morals.

    Rhoda herself was a feminist as long as she led a monastical life, away from the temptations of women. There’s not much merit in there. In the same reasoning, if she had led a monastical life alone with Everard, why she probably would have married him, since Mildred and Winifred and the others could not witness her betrayal. It seems to me she is against the form, hence again the appearance, of customs (ring) but not against their content (to be wed). Of course Everard should be mortified by her reaction to the wedding ring: their talk could only lead him to take such an action, and she rejects it. That scene during her summer vacation, deeply disappointed me (maybe I misunderstood it?). It seems to me, as reinforced towards the end with her time with Monica, Rhoda is made to preach feminism and radical thinking but not to act it. The hope for feminism lies with Mildred nd Winifred, but not with Rhoda.

    Mr. Widdowson, as antipathetic as he seemed to me, is probably the only one who remained true to himself. True to his dogmatic belief that a husband commands and a wife follows, but also true to his duties as a husband without surrendering to any sentimentalism (actually in the end, not even to human compassion, but that is what duty means to him when his own pride was hurt). I think Gissing singled him out for his unwavering stance: he would attend to the needs of his wife -regardless of whether she could or not, and she could- even though he lost his love and in the last scenes his respect for her.

    On a final note, Mr. Mickelthwaite puzzled me; more precisely his wife. It seemed to me that this woman, boldly assuming her engagement to that man for 17 years, was finally rewarded. I don’t refer to rewarded with marriage but with a happy life (judging from the descriptions of Everard who seemed to me to be envying the life the Mickelthwaites are finally enjoying). This couple reinforces my idea that Gissing was more the realist than the feminist. He described a society whose ideals are being challenged, need to be challenged in fact, and will definitely change, but also respecting the validity of the traditional ideals.

    Like

    • October 20, 2013 at 11:22 pm

      WARNING : SPOILERS IN THIS COMMENT

      Hi Nino,

      Thanks for the message, it’s interesting to have another point of view. I understand your point of view and still disagree on some parts.

      There is no doubt that this book was quite progressivist for its time, but in my opinion, the feminist ideals were expressed here and there throughout the book, not in the characters’ actions themselves, but through their words.

      I still think that beyond words and expressing theories through characters, Gissing used literature to write a story and show how these beliefs they advocate transpose in their everyday life.

      In fact, I thought Gissing was quite the realist, or let’s say more realist than progressivist. Let’s back up to the character’s personal histories. Rhoda was disappointed with love at a young age, and went into the care of Miss Barfoot. Herself, Miss Barfoot was taken by Everard, so much apparently that part of her disagreement with Rhoda stems out of jealousy. And here, is where I think Gissing was quite smart, when Miss Barfoot, early in the book, advises Rhoda not to meddle in the affairs of girls when it comes to marriage, and as I recall not only because we want to keep the race alive, but because Miss Barfoot understands that it’s not only nurture but nature. All of these characters are torn between these two aspects that shape our ideas and morals.

      Rhoda and Miss Barfoot came to feminism through different ways and it doesn’t mean that they are not sincere in their fight for their cause. I don’t think Gissing wanted to picture feminists as being that way because they were disappointed by men or had their heart broken. (which is what you imply, if I understand you correctly) Miss Barfoot disagrees with Rhoda before Everard takes interest in Rhoda. They have a different temper. Rhoda is idealistic and a bit of a dictator in her views: she wants everybody to think her way. See how she reacts to Monica’s engagement. Miss Barfoot is more realistic and open-minded. She doesn’t want to impose her ideas or her way of life to others. She wants her pupils to have a choice. If they choose, marriage, that’s fine with her, as long as they marry for good reason and not as the only alternative to poverty. Rhoda wants an army of feminists who will stick to they opinion and convert other girls.
      Transposed to a religious field, Miss Barfoot leaves you the choice to be religious or not; Rhoda will do everything she can to convert you and bring you into her church, the only true one. Miss Barfoot asks Rhoda not to meddle because she doesn’t agree with that “dictatorial” side of Rhoda. (And she’s right, of course)

      These characters are torn between the ideas they learnt as adults and the ideas they learnt through their parents’ education. It is hard to fight against the ideas your parents taught you. You grow up in an environment and it leaves its traces on you. This is why these ideas need time to be accepted in society.
      And also, the feminist ideas they defend address to their rational minds. But your rational mind doesn’t always agree with what you do. Otherwise, you wouldn’t see any GP addicted to cigarettes. They know and they believe that cigarette is dangerous but they still smoke.

      Rhoda herself was a feminist as long as she led a monastical life, away from the temptations of women.

      When Rhoda lived a monastical life, as you point it out, she was safe from “temptation” or to say it differently, her rational side had tamed her non-rational side. I don’t understand what the “temptation of women” is? Does that mean that every woman is tempted to get married, have babies and stay at home because it’s her nature as a woman? I don’t believe in that at all.

      There’s not much merit in there. In the same reasoning, if she had led a monastical life alone with Everard, why she probably would have married him, since Mildred and Winifred and the others could not witness her betrayal. It seems to me she is against the form, hence again the appearance, of customs (ring) but not against their content (to be wed). Of course Everard should be mortified by her reaction to the wedding ring: their talk could only lead him to take such an action, and she rejects it. That scene during her summer vacation, deeply disappointed me (maybe I misunderstood it?). It seems to me, as reinforced towards the end with her time with Monica, Rhoda is made to preach feminism and radical thinking but not to act it. The hope for feminism lies with Mildred nd Winifred, but not with Rhoda.

      I agree with you: she’s disappointing because she’s not brave enough to say “I was wrong. You can be a feminist and be married”. She’s unable to face the world, the gossips, the potential disappointment of her disciples. This stubborn side of her (which causes her unhappiness) reinforces my idea that she’s too radical to be a good advocate of her cause. It could have been the opportunity for her to get closer to Miss Barfoot’s point of view. She’s unable to see that. A mature thinker should be able to say “I was wrong”. She can’t take that step and that’s a shame because she could have shown the world that a woman could work and be married. Everard would have let her continue her activities.
      As for the scene you mention, it is frustrating. It’s as frustrating as similar events in La Princesse de Clèves, The Age of Innocence or The Good Life. When I was younger, I didn’t understand that kind of decision. Now I do.
      I think Everard marrying Miss X (I don’t remember her name) and going for a traditional life is quite disappointing. He was against that kind of marriage from the start and I was disappointed that he changed his mind.

      Mr. Widdowson, as antipathetic as he seemed to me, is probably the only one who remained true to himself. True to his dogmatic belief that a husband commands and a wife follows, but also true to his duties as a husband without surrendering to any sentimentalism (actually in the end, not even to human compassion, but that is what duty means to him when his own pride was hurt). I think Gissing singled him out for his unwavering stance: he would attend to the needs of his wife -regardless of whether she could or not, and she could- even though he lost his love and in the last scenes his respect for her.

      I totally agree with that. He also shows how hard it is to go against ideas rooted in you by society and education. We are imprinted by our education and our environment. He’s quite lucid about his ideas. At a moment, he’s on the verge of changing his mind and seeing Monica’s point of view. But he’s too eaten with jealousy to take that step too. His passion stands against his happiness.

      On a final note, Mr. Mickelthwaite puzzled me; more precisely his wife. It seemed to me that this woman, boldly assuming her engagement to that man for 17 years, was finally rewarded. I don’t refer to rewarded with marriage but with a happy life (judging from the descriptions of Everard who seemed to me to be envying the life the Mickelthwaites are finally enjoying). This couple reinforces my idea that Gissing was more the realist than the feminist. He described a society whose ideals are being challenged, need to be challenged in fact, and will definitely change, but also respecting the validity of the traditional ideals.

      I’m not sure about this. For me, Gissing uses the M. for different reasons. It shows the absurdity of such a long engagement. Their happiness is sheer luck: one of them could have died or fall in love with someone else. They won’t have children because it’s too late. Gissing seems to say: “Look at these people, they’re truly in love and lost 17 years of happiness because of a money issue”. They also show that the traditional way doesn’t always turn bad, but at what cost for the individuals? If society had allowed Mrs M to keep her job as a schoolmistress and be married, they could have lived together long before and have a chance at a happier life.

      Like

      • October 20, 2013 at 11:55 pm

        Hi Emma,

        I forgot to write that there are spoilers in my comment too, I apologize. I also meant to say the temptation of men, not women, I apologize for that too; apparently, my head was focusing too much on women after completing this book 🙂

        It is as you say then, we arrive at the same conclusion apparently; Rhoda will not be the best advocate of the feminist cause, I fully agree. You made me see that, indeed, she could have admitted that she was wrong, a sign of maturity, definitely, but obviously one she couldn’t get herself to admit. Thinking back, I doubt she even once expressed her fault, or at least she never initiated this; if she admitted it, it was in reaction to someone else admitting it before her.

        Re Miss Barfoot, I honestly wonder why Gissing introduced us to her infatuation with her cousin, especially at a later stage in the book, when the setting was laid out, the characters more or less complete and the plot in full entanglement. This is why I suspected that the roots of this early feminism he describes are in reaction to some social situation but that the brighter future of feminism lies with the first converts (not the first pioneers.) In those converts, the work of Rhoda can be seen. (to me at least, this is what prevents Rhoda from totally falling from my admiration of her, which was quite solidly built in the first half of the book)

        I don;t know about the Michkelthwaites… If what you say is how Gissing intended it, that their happiness is sheer luck and absurdity, then it should have been reflected in the eyes of someone external: Everard in this case. As if the Mickelthwaites were being deluded by such happiness, but no external visitor was dupe enough to be fooled by it. Instead, we see Everard in admiration of it. Nevertheless, I concede to that Everard, ending up in a traditional marriage, might not be the best judge of their situation; someone who apparently defied society and challenged its views in the sole purpose to win the admiration of a radical feminist. Not the best judge indeed.

        Like

        • October 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm

          BEWARE SPOILERS IN THIS COMMENT

          Rhoda is too proud to acknowledge her mistakes, even to herself. It costs her her happiness. She’s also too scared to take a risk with Everard. She doesn’t go beyond thinking men are opponents, that’s why I wrote in my billet that she represents extreme feminism.

          I think it was clever of Gissing to have Miss Barfoot infatuated with Everard. First it adds drama to the novel, and it’s good for the plot. Second it makes Miss Barfoot more human, more accessible. She’s not some kind of machine or a saint. Girls can identify to her and that’s a key to her success. She understands them and doesn’t look too formidable.

          I agree with you, the biggest fights will be won by Rhoda and Miss Barfoot’ s converts. Too bad Monica succumbed to the attraction of “passion” She’s a bit of an Emma Bovary in that part. Without this stupid affair, Widdowson might have changed and improved.

          I don’t see that Gissing mocks the Ms. Barfoot is happy for his friend but it’s still pure luck that they still love each other after all that time and still want the same thing. It’s fortunate but it’s not a rule for those who waited that long.

          Like

          • October 22, 2013 at 3:30 am

            Yes and then there’s the possibility that Miss Barfoot is just a bit old fashioned in her approach to women (she recognizes that some of them will marry) BUT is she old fashioned or just practical? She certainly seems a lot kinder–thinking here of Rhoda’s inflexibility when it came to he refusing to allow the former pupil to return. I found Rhoda at her most dislikeable at that point in the novel.

            Like

            • October 22, 2013 at 10:38 pm

              I think Miss Barfoot is kind and practical. She has empathy while Rhoda totally lacks of empathy.
              I disliked Rhoda’ s inflexibility in the scene you mention. She is radical. If she had been black in the 1960s in America, she would have supported Malcom X, not Martin Luther King. That’s how I see her.

              Like

  6. October 21, 2013 at 2:15 am

    SPOILER ALERT:
    One of the points Gissing makes in New Grub Street (published 2 years before The Odd Women) is that men (writers in the case of this book) hook up with women who are not their social equals. He shows situations in which writers who can barely support themselves cannot marry women who are social equals, so they end up in unfortunate marriages to women they are ashamed of. These women, who will accept a life of poverty, perform household tasks (washing, cleaning, cooking) and appear to be grateful and/or intimidated by their husbands.

    Gissing even has his characters discuss this, and of course underneath the discussion is the idea that the men marry for sex (“sex-starvation” is mentioned) and having a permanent free servant doesn’t hurt either. Reardon is one writer who marries a girl of his class and that leads to unhappiness.

    There’s a character in the book, one of the great characters who only has a small role, Biffen, who reminds me a lot of Mickelthwaite–except Biffen’s ship never comes in (idiom), so he is condemned to loneliness.

    So in other words, I think Mickelthwaite and Biffen are embodiments of Gissing’s beliefs. Mickelthwaite gets the girl; Biffen doesn’t but both endings have a sort of sterility which is a criticism of society.

    As for Rhoda, I’ll admit that I was disappointed that she didn’t go for the free-union and held out for the conventional. ME Braddon lived with her lover, a married man, openly and faced down criticism, so it could be done. Through Rhoda, Gissing shows us the difficulty of meshing one’s beliefs (feminism in this case) to the realities of society.

    I liked the fact that Gissing showed Miss Barfoot’s infatuation with her cousin. It shows us Everard’s appeal to all sorts of women, his magnetism which Rhoda fights against, and it also shows the duplicity of human nature, the intricacies of motivation.

    Like

    • October 21, 2013 at 9:38 pm

      SPOILERS

      I need to read New Grub Street. In this one, Gissing doesn’t mention marrying someone from a lower class but he does give a lot of examples of mismatched couples. That’s mostly in the first part, when he describes Everard’s horror of marriage.
      I was disappointed with Rhoda too. She lacked courage and proved narrow minded in her way. But you’re right, her character shows that it’s not always easy to go against society and practise what you preach. A free union with Everard would have meant getting the guy and being faithful to her ideas. In term of image for her young protegees, it would have saved her face: she succumbed to love but still rejected marriage and conventions.

      My friend from the book club read about a theatre version of this novel that depicted Rhoda and Miss Barfoot as lesbians. What do you think? I didn’t have that impression but maybe I didn’t read behind the lines.

      I agree with you about Miss Barfoot’s infatuation. It’s a good point. It shows how attractive and charming Everard is.

      There’s a lot to say about this novel, a proof in itself that it’s more than excellent.

      Like

      • October 22, 2013 at 3:27 am

        I’ve heard of the idea of Rhoda and Miss Barfoot as lesbians but I don’t buy that at all. After all, both of them have their eyes on Everard, and then it’s a bit narrow to make them BOTH lesbians as it plays into the old idea that just because they don’t fall for a man’s seduction (in the case of Rhoda), they must be lesbians.

        Like

        • October 22, 2013 at 10:33 pm

          I agree with you. I never felt they were in love with each other. It’s always the same reaction when a woman decides she’d rather be single than in a couple.

          Like

        • October 23, 2013 at 9:25 am

          I agree. Something would have transpired and I suppose it would be a bit ridiculous to make these two lesbians.

          Like

          • October 26, 2013 at 4:54 pm

            It seems that we all agree on that matter

            Like

  7. October 22, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    I wonder if Gissing is favorable about love, particularly about love as conducive or essential for marriage. Rhoda utters the word only once, and indirectly, when she tells Everard: “If I understand what love means, I love you.” Monica after she is married cannot find the force to say it anymore to her husband. I think the only time she says it directly to him is in this letter when she agrees to marry him. Barfoot certainly doesn’t marry Agnes out of love. Only Widdowson makes liberal use of this word, and early on we get how little significance this word holds over Monica.

    I re-read a bit the part between Rhoda and Barfoot, and I think I was harsh on her, because the first time, I was exclusively focused on whether she would accept or refuse. Now, I see that she fully understood Barfoot; she wondered “whether he had genuine sympathy with women’s emancipation”, she knew that he would be spoiling her life, that she wouldn’t be satisfied only “with love of husband – perhaps love of child”, and she played the rational rebel by at least considering the idea of complying to a free union and then pointing out to Evereard that they will gain absolutely nothing by neglecting formalities.

    Indeed, there are subtle but strong elements between Rhoda and Barfoot worthy of a modern relationship.

    Like

    • October 26, 2013 at 4:59 pm

      Another comment full of spoilers.

      I think Gissing is in favour of love but that he thinks it is of no use if there is no equality between the partners and of course, if it is one-sided (like between Monica and Widdowson). That’s probably why the Ms are well-matched.

      I think Everard would have supported Rhoda’s feminist activities if they had married. She was the one unable to imagine how to combine her activities with a wife and mother’s life. To be honest, that part is still a challenge for women and now for men as they are more invested in their children’s education than they used to be.

      Like

  1. No trackbacks yet.

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: