he principal protagonists of George Gissing's The Odd Women are Rhoda Nunn and Everard Barfoot. Rhoda is an energetic young woman making her own way in the world. Everard is slightly rakish young man, relaxed alike in morals and lifestyle, who purports to be interested in the women's cause that Rhoda espouses. Gissing's focus is upon Rhoda, who makes several impassioned speeches on behalf of "odd women" — that is, those who are disadvantaged because of the ratio of women to men in the population, and fail to find marriage partners. Almost set pieces, these speeches mark the novel as one of the late Victorian / early twentieth-century New Women novels by male authors, like George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways (1885), George Moore's Esther Waters (1894), Grant Allen's The Woman Who Did (1895), and H. G. Wells's Ann Veronica (1909).
Cartoonist A. Chasemore warns men what to expect in Judy, 2 May 1877. [The illustrations here are from our own website. Click on them to enlarge them, and to find out more about them.]
Yet Rhoda and other female characters are not the only ones in Gissing's novel to speak, or whose innermost thoughts are revealed. Everard, and nearly all the other men in it, have generally been dismissed as unsympathetic, and viewed as obstacles to the intended reform of society. But Gissing exposes their struggles too, their failures to master not only the women they love, but also themselves. Largely overlooked, they reveal another of the novelist's purposes — to warn his male readers that they too have much to learn — that they need to adapt to the fast-approaching new order, or endure the consequences.
Rhoda Nunn and Everard Barfoot
We first meet Rhoda in Chapter I as a fifteen-year-old girl with no prospects, marked by "nervous restlessness," and taking her "sole pleasure ... in intellectual talk" (4). Some time in 1872, she is visiting the Madden household in their comfortable home at Clevedon, in Somerset. She has got to know them because Dr Madden, a widower, has been treating her invalid mother. On this occasion, Rhoda is rather condescending to the daughters of the family, who have not been brought up to engage in serious topics, let alone have any views on them, and are not expected to need to deal with the realities of life: Dr Madden tells his eldest daughter, Alice, "Let men grapple with the world.... women, old or young, should never have to think about money" (2). His lack of wisdom will soon become apparent.
We next meet Rhoda in London some fifteen years later. The situation is very different now. Dr Madden's unexpected death has left his daughters bereft, with an inadequate competence. They are forced to think about money, but have little idea of how to manage it. Like Rhoda, the three surviving ones are now in London: Alice, until recently a lady's companion, is looking for a new position because her last employer has died; the next youngest sister, Virginia, has also lost her job as a nursery governess, because her charges are now in school; and the third sister, Monica, an attractive young woman who has only just come of age, is working most unrewardingly in a draper's shop. Coming to hear of their presence in the capital, Rhoda invites them to call on her. Since Alice has a chill, and Monica is chained to her work, Virginia visits Rhoda on her own.
Lady telephonists, an illustration for the English Illustrated Magazine, 1888.
Rhoda is now very much in the ascendancy, but is sympathetic rather than condescending. While Virginia is half-starved and already beginning to find solace in drink, her own energy and ability have now been harnessed to a cause: "far from presenting any sorrowful image of a person on the way to old-maidenhood" (25), she has found her calling in life. She is helping Mary Barfoot, an older woman who had once taught her secretarial skills, to rescue young women without means from precarious and dependent lives. Mary and Rhoda both know from their own experience how hard it is for such women to live comfortably and productively. Virginia herself is a case in point, her tale a cautionary one. With not only money but looks and stamina depleted, and confidence shattered, she is subdued in Rhoda's presence: "Virginia's thin, timid voice and weak manner were thrown into painful contrast by Miss Nunn's personality" (27). Mary and Rhoda work with younger women, not simply training them for office work, but educating their minds more generally. But Rhoda still has a practical proposal to offer her older and already careworn visitor: could not Virginia and Alice try opening a preparatory school? At the end of the novel, there is a distinct possibility that this suggestion might bear fruit, but not until more trials have been endured.
Soon, having been introduced to Mary's cousin Everard, and questioned about her views, Rhoda explains her stance, both on women's education and on the institution of marriage:
"I would have no girl, however wealthy her parents, grow up without a profession. There should be no such thing as a class of females vulgarized by the necessity of finding daily amusement."
"Nor of males, either, of course," put in Everard, stroking his beard.
"Nor of males either, cousin Everard."
"You thoroughly approve all this. Miss Nunn?"
"Oh yes. But I go further. I would have girls taught that marriage is a thing to be avoided rather than hoped for. 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."
Everard's eyelids drooped, and he did not speak for a moment.
"And you seriously think, Miss Nunn, that by persuading as many women as possible to abstain from marriage, you will improve the character of men?"
"I have no hope of sudden results, Mr. Barfoot. I should like to save as many as possible of the women now living from a life of dishonour; but the spirit of our work looks to the future. 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." 
Few would disagree now with the need for women's education and their training in "self-respect." But Rhoda's attitude towards marriage might surprise, as might her reason for it — that men are, by and large, lacking in "a sense of honour." With such partners, she feels, the "honourable estate" of the institution, as it is described in the marriage service, cannot be honourable at all. Rhoda, although sorely tempted by Everard later on, will live up to the connotations of her surname and eschew it.
When it come to women's lives, Rhoda often seems to serve as the author's mouthpiece. Everard is drawn more subtly, but makes an equally telling example of Gissing's view of men. He looks manly, with "a tall, muscular frame, and a head of striking outline, with large nose, full lips, deep-set eyes, and prominent eyebrows" (101). Everything about him is pleasant, including his rich chestnut hair, shading to redness in his moustache and beard, his bearing, his voice and his manner. In general, too, he behaves decently. He is a good brother, doing all he can to help his invalid brother when his selfish sister-in-law deserts him. He is also a good friend, sending his ex-tutor, the mathematician Thomas Micklethwaite, the generous gift of a piano for his new wife. But, still, a shade of rakishness clings to him — not wholly without reason. On his first visit to his cousin Mary's house, in a spirit of reconciliation after the past misdemeanour, he professes to support her agenda and even asks how he can help her with it: "You make me feel that I am in touch with the great movements of our time. It's delightful to know you. But come now, isn't there any way in which I could help?" (187).
Inevitably, Everard is attracted to her younger helpmeet. Again, his attitude is laudable. He concurs with Rhoda's views: three weeks after that first visit, he tells her, "Marry in the legal sense I never shall. My companion must be as independent of forms as I am myself" (191). He declares, too, that such a relationship should involve a meeting of minds: "be a woman what else she may, let her have brains and the power of using them!" (233). But again, there is a niggling doubt. Immediately after this declaration, the narrator interjects, "In that demand the maturity of his manhood expressed itself," and sure enough, in other respects, he is less mature. The narrator continues more damagingly, "For casual amour the odalisque could still prevail with him" (233). In short, Everard has his weaknesses. He is apt to turn to women of a lesser calibre to service his more immediate needs.
Not surprisingly, then, from the very start of his campaign to win Rhoda, and in so doing to distract and remove her from her chosen path, Everard shows an inclination to mastery, unaccompanied by any intention to commit himself to her: "It would delight him to enrage Rhoda, and then to detain her by strength, to overcome her senses, to watch her long lashes droop over the eloquent eyes. But this was something very like being in love, and he by no means wished to be seriously in love with Miss Nunn" (188). Nevertheless, as he himself at one point foresees, her resistance intensifies "the ardour of his wooing" and makes him "a victim of genuine passion" (193) — or, at least, of such genuine passion as he is capable of feeling. He offers her the kind of "free union" that she might be prepared to accept, that is, a union without sanction from the church — although he knows, even at the time, that this is just a "test," and that he would in fact be "satisfied with nothing short of unconditional surrender" (346). She, for her part, is only saved from capitulating to him by learning that he has again fallen under suspicion. The youngest of the Madden sisters, fleeing an unhappy marriage, is wrongly thought to have been having an affair with him.
A proposal in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, the Collins ed. of 1910 illustrated by Alfred Pearson. Godfrey Ablewhite proposes to Rachel Verinder, who tells him, "If I say yes you will repent, and I shall repent, when it is too late!"
When the misunderstanding is cleared up and Everard finally proposes to Rhoda more conventionally, he admits that that marriage was what he really had in mind. Rhoda refuses him outright. From this relationship, she emerges stronger than ever before. She has suffered from emotional turmoil and a period of indecision, it is true; but she has also gained. She can now be confident that she is single by choice, rather than because she has never had the chance of marriage. She feels her own strength: "She pursued the aim of her life with less bitterness, in a larger spirit" (246). Everard, on the other hand, having not been strong enough to forge his own way with her, and risk a scandal, let alone win her, is damaged. He is "agitated" and embarrassed on the occasion of her final refusal, and realises that "Rhoda's love had been worth more than his" (431-32). He feels the truth of what she says — that he would "never love any woman" as much as he loved her. "Upon my soul, I believe it, Rhoda," he says (434). He has recognised his own shallowness.
Rejection is never pleasant. Diminished in his own eyes, Everard swiftly (not to say abruptly) proposes to a more conventional young woman. Gissing is subtle enough to describe Everard's bride as suitable in many ways. Agnes Brissenden has been introduced before. She is well-taught, charming and (Everard knows) his for the asking. But he had not asked her before. He had wanted Rhoda. It is clear that the forthcoming marriage is a sop to his pride, and he is intelligent enough to realise it, to see that this is not the "honourable" relationship that he might have had. He has sustained a psychic wound which time will not easily heal, and his punishment will be not only a more superficial union than the one he might have had, but a more superficial life too.
Monica Madden and Edmund Widdowson
Although secondary to the failed relationship of Rhoda and Everard, Monica Madden's relationship with Edmund Widdowson is even more painful for all concerned. Over twice her age, deeply conservative in his notions and prone to jealousy, Widdowson is set in his ways and, worse, controlling. He expects to dominate his wife, and uses Ruskin's views (as expressed for example in the second lecture of Sesame and Lilies) to support his own: "Woman's sphere is the home, Monica. Unfortunately, girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish. You shall read John Ruskin; every word he says about women is good and precious. If a woman can neither have a home of her own, nor find occupation in any one else's, she is deeply to be pitied; her life is bound to be unhappy. I sincerely believe that an educated woman had better become a domestic servant than try to imitate the life of a man" (202). On another occasion he says, "In my opinion, Monica, a woman ought never to be so happy as when she is looking after her home" (214).
The two are very poorly suited. On their first encounter, Everard had noticed at a glance that theirs was an "ill-assorted union" (193). Monica had met this older man on one of her unaccompanied excursions into London life (in itself, a clue to her unorthodox outlook), and had married him, despite her own misgivings, partly because of his persistence, but largely for financial security and social standing. After all, she had found it quite easy to rebuff the pimpled Mr Bullivant, an earlier suitor with a Cockney accent and insufficient means. She and Widdowson seem happy enough to begin with, but she soon starts to feel stifled, and tells her husband, "I should like to make more friends, and to see them often. I want to hear people talk, and know what is going on round about me. And to read a different kind of books; books that would really amuse me, and give me something I could think about with pleasure. Life will be a burden to me before long, if I don't have more freedom." "Freedom?" says Widdowson, aghast, "Yes, I don't think there's any harm in saying that." "Freedom?" he repeats, glaring at her: "I shall begin to think that you wish you had never married me" (216).
Monica and Bevis
Widdowson is as profoundly tormented as his wife is. He suffers from his inability to control her, and, soon, by intense jealousy when he suspects her of having an affair with Everard. (This is the misunderstanding that reaches Rhoda's ears and makes her hold back from Everard at the crucial point). On rather a slight acquaintance, Monica is, in fact, in love with a Mr. Bevis, a young man who happens to live in the same block of flats as the one in which Everard has taken up temporary residence. Spurred on by her husband's insistence on taking a house in Clevedon, where they will lead an even more solitary life, and Bevis's announcement of his own imminent relocation to Bordeaux for his business, Monica goes to visit the young man in the flat. Chapter XXII, in which she then begs him to take her with him to France, is entitled "Honour in Difficulties," and it is Bevis's mettle rather than Monica's that is at stake. Another pleasant enough young man, he too fails miserably to uphold his honour: "his wonted blitheness and facetiousness, his healthy features, his supple, well-built frame, suggested that when love awoke within him he would express it with virile force. But he trembled and blushed like a young girl, and his accents fell at last into a melodious whining...." Monica explains that leaving her husband is not wrong: "Every woman who thinks of her husband as I do ought to go away from him. It is base and wicked to stay there — pretending — deceiving...." But to her impassioned plea to accompany him abroad, Bevis can only respond, "My own darling, think what it would mean if our secret were discovered" (303). He lacks the courage to face a scandal with her, damage his own reputation,and endanger his prospects: "Oh, what a wretched thing to have to seem so cowardly to you! But the difficulties are so great, darling. I shall be a perfect stranger in Bordeaux. I don't even speak the language at all well. When I reach there, I shall be met at the station by one of our people, and — just think, how could we manage? You know, if it were discovered that I had run away with you, it would damage my position terribly" (304). He understands all too well his "ignoble impulse" (305) in rejecting the idea, but cannot overcome it. Although (like Everard) he tries to recoup and gather his forces later, he too lacks what the narrator calls the "heroism of moral revolt." He knows what "a very poor figure" he cuts. Indeed, he is "dolefully aware of it" (306). The blow to his masculinity is keenly felt.
The Final Chapters
Monica is greatly distressed, but her husband suffers just as much, or more. By now he is simply "jealousy personified" (Swinnerton 80). His anguish is not by any means undeserved. In his tormented state, Widdowson proves to have inherited his father's temper, and becomes violent. But he pays heavily for it. Monica has no recourse but to turn to her sisters. She has not, in fact, been physically unfaithful, and is pregnant with her husband's child. But when she dies after childbirth, the wretched man is left to shoulder the responsibility of the little girl, not knowing whether or not he is the father. Alice will care for her in Clevedon, where he had once planned to live in claustrophobic seclusion with Monica. He must help both his sisters-in-law, at least until Virginia has recovered from her alcoholism, and they can at last open the proposed school. This gives them a future, albeit an uncertain one. As for Widdowson himself, his prospects are dark indeed. He decides to stay in London, but is now afraid of being lonely. He therefore sets up home in new lodgings with an old friend, the same "musty and nervous City clerk," last seen "trembling and bloodless" (159) as he proposed Monica's health at their wedding (160). Such a fate is bad enough, but, as Janet Todd has said, "he has a self-destructive sadness and a sense of his own absurdity in changing times that make him a more distressing figure."
For sociological reasons, particularly the demographic one that inspired Gissing's title for the novel, celibacy was much discussed at this time. New Women novels were liable to promote it, subverting the traditional progression to the altar of earlier fiction. Rhoda Nunn herself blames such narratives for instilling romantic and eventually harmful expectations in women's minds: after the sorry defection of one of their charges, she delivers what Mary Barfoot calls a "terrible harangue" on this subject (77):
What is more vulgar than the ideal of novelists? They won't represent the actual world; it would be too dull for their readers. In real life, how many men and women fall in love? Not one in every ten thousand, I am convinced. Not one married pair in ten thousand have felt for each other as two or three couples do in every novel. There is the sexual instinct, of course, but that is quite a different thing; the novelists daren't talk about that. The paltry creatures daren't tell the one truth that would be profitable. The result is that women imagine themselves noble and glorious when they are most near the animals. 
But celibacy is not for everyone. Common sense, taking into account human nature and the future of the world, dictates that it cannot be the answer for most people.
Amid all this despondency about the relationships of men and women, there is one notably successful marriage in the novel. It is that of Thomas Micklethwaite, whose new wife was the beneficiary of Everard's kindness (his gift of a piano). Their love for each other has been tested by time and has never wavered. Fanny has lost her bloom now, and has brought with her into her married life a blind sister for whom she cares. But both women have an inner light and calm self-assurance, and Thomas treasures them both. It might strike the reader as rather a reversion to serving as the Angel of the House. But Thomas values Fanny's mind. She had been an elementary school teacher, and he is determined to impart to her some of the principles of the subject which he still pursues so enthusiastically. "We will gossip about sines and co-sines before we die," he insists (164). No angel ever had such a challenging prospect. Fanny may laughingly resist, but we can be sure that Thomas will earnestly persist and succeed. Deep mutual love and respect will be the order of their days.
The Road Ahead
Augustus Egg's Travelling Companions, 1866.
Women's lives were opening up in many ways in the late nineteenth century. It is rather unfair to say that the narrative in The Odd Women "consists in little more than a series of linguistic transactions" (Chase 232). The setting is often important, and some key events take place outdoors, where women are wanting, and indeed becoming able, to make their own way, unchaperoned. The novel begins and ends with Rhoda's visits to Somerset, "when the wooded hills and green lanes and rich meadows of Clevedon looked their best, when the Channel was still and blue, and the Welsh mountains loomed through a sunny haze" (446). The "perfect moment" (343) that Rhoda and Everard share takes place in the Lake District, where Rhoda had first gone on her own, for a holiday. After a challenging trek, on which Rhoda insists that her strength is no more likely to fail than her companion's, the couple picnic at a "wild spot, a hollow amid the rolling expanse of moorland, its little lake of black water glistening under the midday-sun" (342). Monica and Widdowson visit Guernsey, where Monica first meets Bevis, and where her stormy state of mind is reflected in "the wild sky ... the fierce and perilous surges beating about these granite shores" (217), which she is glad to see. The London streets which Gissing knew so well are especially important: we see Virginia's entering the refreshment room at Charing Cross station for a fortifying brandy, Monica shaking off Mr Bullivant on an omnibus boarded on Kennington Park Road, and going to meet Widdowson on the riverfront at Battersea. The pair walk all the way to Chelsea Bridge, and then Widdowson takes Monica on the river for a row — and they return, after which she goes off on the train from York Road to Walworth Road. A hint of Widdowson's future behaviour is given here: "One would have imagined that he found something to disapprove in this ready knowledge of London transit" (60). We realise at once that he would not like any wife of his to be so familiar with the world beyond the home, especially not to the extent that she can rove there, unaccompanied.
In this larger landscape, the progress of women is only part of the whole complex of concerns here. Patricia Ingham puts it very well:
The impression that every subject at issue in The Odd Women ends in an impasse is because of the fact that none of them is shown to be discrete.... The overt subject, the training of unmarried women for employment so as to allow them to support themselves, leads to questioning of marriage as supposedly the object of every woman’s life. This involves the question of how women generally should be educated. This leads to scrutiny of the nature and abilities of women.... In the end the maze does not offer a path to a solution. It figures the fact that what purports to deal with ‘Spinsterdom’ (a twentieth-century translation of the title of The Odd Women) includes everyone, male and female.... The impasse reflects not stasis but turbulence out of which change can result. [xviii-xix]
Ingham includes class here, and that too is an important issue, notably in Monica's decision to accept the socially acceptable, if far from socially adept, Widdowson; but the more pervasive concern is with the male part of this complex equation, and it is in improving men that a large part of the solution lies. Gissing clearly shows that their attitudes need overhauling. From Dr Madden, who failed his daughters at the beginning, through Everard and Bevis, whose weaknesses have been revealed, to Edmund Widdowson, who discovers not only that women want more freedom, but the depths to which his own nature can sink, the main male characters in this novel have all proved worse than inadequate. They have a long way to go if the relationships between the sexes are to improve.
In this respect, even Widdowson's severe disappointment has a purpose, for, as a more recent critic points out, it "allows Gissing to critique outmoded forms of masculinity and gesture to some of the changes necessary to establish modern relationships" (MacDonald 47). Men must start preparing themselves for the future, more particularly, for what one militant and outspoken woman, Mrs Cosgrove, describes to Rhoda as "a stage of anarchy ... before reconstruction begins" (378). So, yes, while women must be trained up to self-respect and self-reliance, and treated as equals, and must not be encouraged to nurture false hopes about marriage and married life, men must re-evaluate themselves too. They must ensure that they are capable of living and loving fully and honourably, and playing their own part in bringing about the new social order — an order in which their relationships with women will allow both partners to find their individual fulfilment.
Links to related material
- Issues of Victorian Masculinity
- Geoge Moore's Esther Waters as a New Women novel
- Celibacy in New Woman Fiction and the Work of H. Rider Haggard
- Mona Caird's essay, "Marriage" (1888)
- Ruskin's Unconsummated Marriage
- Victorian Masculinity: A Selected Bibliography
Chase, Karen. “The Literal Heroine: A Study of Gissing’s The Odd Women.” Criticism 26, no. 3 (1984): 231–44.
Gissing, George. The Odd Women. New York & London: Macmillan, 1893. Internet Archive. Contributed by Cornell University Library. Web. 7 Febrary 2022.
Ingham, Patricia. The Odd Women. World's Classics pbk ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
MacDonald, Tara. "Gissing's Failed New Men: Masculinity in The Odd Women." George Gissing and the Woman Question: Convention and Dissent. Edited by Christine Huguet and Simon J. James. London: Routledge, 2013. 41-55.
Swinnerton, Frank. George Gissing: A Critical Study. London: Secker, 1912. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 7 February 2022.
Todd, Janet. "Anything but free: Re-Reading The Odd Women by George Gissing." Times Literary Supplement. 27 November 2020. TLS Archive. Web. 7 February 2022.
Created 22 January 2022