Book Review: The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women by George Gissing

Why is it that we continually have to look back a hundred plus years ago to find ballsy female literary heroes, protagonist who go against the grain of what is expected of them, who are willing to push boundaries and stride out of their own? 

Women with a fiery independence, who are unwilling to conform to the times they live in, seem  sparse in modern literature. Admittedly, what we have to push against is less visible than a century ago, but if anything that means our voices – including our fictional ones – need to be louder to help reflect back at us what society keeps missing. I can’t think of many female characters from contemporary books I’ve read recently that with grit. The only one that springs to mind is the heroine of Where’d You Go Bernadette, a character who was more defined by her career than her husband and who is genuinely different and unafraid to rip up the How Women Should Behave rulebook.

Rachel Cooke asks a similar question in this Guardian article where she questions the lack of interesting, intelligent (dare I say feisty?) single women in fiction. In the feature, Cooke singles out George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women as being one of the few works of fiction where spinsters are, if not happier than their married counterparts, certainly no unhappier. And it was a recommendation worth taking. The Odd Women is a brilliant read, uncomfortable at times, bleak for the most part, it’s also fascinating and compelling. Distilled to its essence, The Odd Women is about money, marriage and manners and two self-sufficient women who care more about books than bonnets.

The Odd Women of the title are odd in number; at the tail end of the 19th Century there were half a million more women in the UK than men and as a result there were thousands of ‘spare’ female, destined for a life as a governess or nurse, eking out their pennies in lonely, draughty lodgings. The protagonists, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot, are also odd as in different, they refused to accept their lot in a society that reduced single women to sad wretches who pined for a man and life of embroidery.

The women in Gissing’s book are battling against a patriarchal Victorian society, a world so rigid and staid that its oppression, even from the pages of a book, feels as great as the dense London fog that used to suffocate the city (as described in a powerful scene by Gissing). Fighting hard against these narrow expectations and recruiting foot soldiers by the day, Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn run a charity that encourages young women to think beyond marriage and broaden their career horizons by equipping them with skills such as typewriting (which sounds as revolutionary as flower arranging, but at the time armed women with the weapons needed to infiltrate an office, much to the chagrin of many a male office clerk as brilliantly observed in this novel).

Amongst Rhoda and Mary’s acquaintances are the three surviving Madden sisters – Alice, Virginia and Monica – who Rhoda first met years ago in Clevedon when their father and siblings were alive.  Left orphaned while still young, the women have struggled to survive, taking gruelling jobs for little money, the hard toil wearing them down to an extent that shocks Rhoda when she meets them again in London. Monica, the youngest and prettiest is exhausted by thirteen hour days in a drapery and dismayed at the future ahead of her, and is determined to marry and avoid the fate of her two spinster sisters who live miserable half-lives. On one of her Sundays off, Monica meets Mr Widdowson, a dour, but seemingly kind man many years older than her. He has money and a nice house in Herne Hill and is so terribly persistent (some would say stalkery) that after a brief courtship, Monica agrees to marry him. Bad move, Mon.

Not that she really stood a chance. Marriage in Gissing’s world rarely ends well. He had two disastrous marriages himself and he wishes the same fate of most of his characters; marriage literally kills on more than one occasion.

The Odd Women is a wonderful, unpredictable, slightly idiosyncratic book and like nothing I’ve read before. It’s like an amalgamation of Dickens, Gaskell and the Brontes rewritten by George Orwell (who, incidentally, was a big Gissing fan). Gissing is not a pretty writer, there is rarely poetry in his prose, but his very economy is what makes the book so compelling and the plot is so neat that you barely notice there is one until it all begins to fall in place so beautifully.

It may even be called an early feminist novel, although I would dispute that; Gissing may have thought himself a frightful radical – and some of his ideas no doubt brought forth the smelling salts in certain circles – but underneath his boho bravado he’s as conformist as his main male character Everard Barfoot. There’s an uncomfortable moment when Everard is advocating hitting women who have done wrong, a statement Rhoda agrees with to a degree. There also prevails an idea that there are absolute feminine traits that women must battle against, that they must overcome their own femaleness in order to become equal to men – something Rhoda and Mary believe as much as Everard. Their opinion of many of their gender is as low as most men’s at the time and sisters are very much doing it for themselves; Rhoda and Mary couldn’t give a burning bra for working class women – theirs is a middle class gender fight.

Despite the bleakness, there’s something strangely uplifting about The Odd Women which I think is due to Rhoda, who may have her heart broken, but whose self-sufficiency and determination mean you can leave her at the end and know she’s going to be OK, if not exactly skipping off into the sunset. And doing OK in Gissing’s world is pretty much nirvana.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I’ve never embraced the Brontës in the way I have Jane Austen (and, yes, I agree they shouldn’t always be played off against each other – although surely Charlotte B started it?).

I had three stuttering starts with Jane Eyre before I could move on past St Helen of TB’s death, although once I broke free of Lowood School along with Jane I grew to love it. And Withering, sorry, Wuthering Heights? Two self-indulgent people squabble for years until one of them dies and then it’s all “it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home” and the whole time I’m thinking “but that man is a bully and a dog killer. I’d stop banging on that window if I were you, love”.

But despite my less than enthusiastic embracing of the Brontë canon, I’m still seduced by the romanticism of the family’s legend. In particular, I’ve long been intrigued by the “forgotten” Brontë sister Anne, the youngest, who is perhaps more critically acclaimed for her poetry than her two novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been on my to-read pile for ages; I couldn’t resist the idea of a book about a lady living alone in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere whose presence causes much tongue-wagging amongst her bored neighbours.

Often held up as the first feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Huntington, a young bride forced to flee her drunk, adulterous, bullying husband for the sake of her son and her sanity. She attempts to do the unthinkable at the time, to leave him and live a new life where she would support herself (in this case, selling her paintings).

At the time it wasn’t just Helen Huntington’s fictional neighbours that were scandalised. Anne Brontë’s tale of one woman’s fight to break free from martial brutality caused such a stir on its publication in 1848 – under the pseudonym Acton Bell – that Anne was compelled to write a prelude to the second edition defending the author’s right to write about subjects of interest to both men and *gasp* women. She also made no secret of the novel being a lesson to young women, writing: “…if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.”

No one had ever confronted the very real issues of abusive marriages in print before. Back in the 19th century women just didn’t leave their husbands and certainly didn’t take any children with them – they remained the property of the men even if they were wine-sloshed tyrants. Women’s lives were simply not their own to do as they wished with, they were playthings for men, their feelings as inconsequential as that of an animal (less so in some cases – Victorian men seem inordinately fond of their horses and dogs).

Women stayed at home embroidering and gossiping until they were married off, where they continued to embroider and gossip although they now had to keep house and have children. If they were lucky, marriage would bring them security, if not happiness, but too often the unequal partnership between men and women would lead to a life of strife and misery as Helen Huntington finds to her cost after falling for the charms of the Bryonic, and at times, Bertie Wooster-ish, Arthur Huntington.

The novel, while not in the same league as her sister Charlotte’s (and okay, then, Emily’s) genius, is a gripping and fascinating tale badly let down by the clumsy narrative device Anne – against the wishes of her publisher – chose to tell the tale. We come to know of Helen’s plight firstly through the laboriously detailed letters that the novel’s ‘hero’ Gilbert Markham writes to his brother-in-law (who I couldn’t help imaging rolling his eyes as another great wad drops through the letterbox). Gilbert’s first person letters bookend the novel, but the chunk of the tale is told through Helen’s journal that she, in a desperate but odd act, throws out of the window to the love-sick Gilbert who then transcribes (yes, really) the whole thing to his long-suffering BIL in another series of letters.

The novel also suffers from Helen being a hard-to-love heroine. She’s feisty and determined – think Jane Eyre crossed with North and South’s Margaret Hale, complete with all the piousness that that pairing invokes – but, unlike these two, she’s chippy and charmless. And Gilbert? What a pompous oaf. I found Mr Hargrave a far more endearing proposition. Anne’s writing, if anything, is more reminiscent of Jane Austen than the starker, bleaker writings of her sisters, although she has none of the Pride and Prejudice writer’s wit or her satirical eye. Anne is more straightforward, she doesn’t hide behind the reality of life for some married women in a Mr-Collins-and-Charlotte kind of way and has no time for literary frills.

Despite the bad plot structure and the unlovable leads, I found the Tenant of Wildfell Hall a fascinating and moving novel. I always find it tempting to look back at the past and believe that women just accepted their lot, that they assumed society was nicely arranged as God wanted it to be. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opened by eyes to the fact that there were women who wanted – needed – change – and Anne and her Helen – in their own way – went some way to help put that change in motion.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore

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Reading Lorna Doone is like a walk on Exmoor; at times you’re wading through a bog of words before getting lost in a fog of schmaltz, only for the sun to come out and for you to realise it’s rather beautiful – until it starts to mizzle again.

Based on a Devon legend, at the heart of Blackmore’s classic novel is the love story between Lorna Doone – a daughter of the local aristocratic outlaw clan the Doones of Bagworth – and the novel’s narrator John Ridd, a strapping, but simple lad who runs the family farm after his father is murdered by a Doone when he was a boy. Lorna is betrothed to a cousin, the brutal Carver Doone, but her pre-ordained life is discarded the minute her and John’s eye meet over a bubbling brook. Naturally it’s love at first sight, and throwing caution to the fierce Exmoor wind, John rescues Lorna from the clutches of her bad relatives, royally pissing them off and unleashing some pretty fierce retaliations  Fortunately John has friends in high places (at one point he’s even hobnobbing with the King, although I’m sure not sure how he managed that) so despite a few brushes with blunderbusses along the way, our hero and heroine’s too-good-to-be-true love lives on.

Lorna is the drippiest love-struck heroine this side of Juliet, a Victorian fantasy whose personality barely dents the page. John is a more interesting character, although a no more likable one. He’s a man with a good heart and high morals, but is unbearably pompous, boorish and arrogant. Set in the mid to late 1600s, I wasn’t expecting a metrosexual, but this 17th century version of a white van man is difficult to warm to. His unconditional love for Lorna seems largely based on her beauty (you can practically hear Blackmore salivating every time he describes his heroine’s hypnotising good looks) and how daintily she eats her food.

I’m not without romantic bones, but the way the pair talk to each is more rooted in folklore than any number of West Country faerie stories. Fortunately, his eldest sister Annie has a little life to her and then there’s Lizzie, the family’s youngest and fiestiest female who John struggles to hide his contempt for her backchat and her unladylike appetite. I try not to read classics with 21st century eyes, if I did I’d be disappointed with everyone from Shakespeare to Dickens. For a modern woman pre-2000 fiction (particularly Victorian male authors) can be very trying, as female characters are forever trembling or fainting and are frequently mute. But while I can usually overlook these flimsy females, I found John Ridd and his rose-tinted love for the beautiful, compliant, obedient Lorna particularly difficult to swallow.

But I couldn’t have read over 600 page without finding some redeeming qualities, and there were several – at the very least Lorna Doone is a cracking yarn. Set in a time I know little about, in a part of the country shrouded in legend, Blackmore’s ability to capture the atmosphere, every frosty fern and muddy puddle, the terror of a lawless land and the bleak, dangerous reality of life on the moors, drew me in and kept me reading. The best bits were when John and Lorna didn’t share a page. When John was er, rid of Lorna the pace quickened and plot sped up as he unearthed the truth about her upbringing while she cavorted in court in London. Lorna might be a wet bore, but her backstory was gripping. I’m currently nearing the end of Anna Karenina and Tolstoy’s fresh, simple text and the very real passions, jealousy and doubts of the characters is a refreshing dunking in the real world after Blackmore’s quagmire of words and the other worldly romance of Lorna and John.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: Charles Dickens ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’

Wittier, cleverer minds have already given the world their thoughts on The Old Curiosity Shop, so there’s little left for me to add other than Oscar Wilde’s comment that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at Little Nell’s death is probably the best review of the book you’ll ever hear.

For my part, I didn’t so much want to laugh through those final few chapters that set the scene for Little Nell’s death, as sigh with boredom. LN is so good she doesn’t feel human (Dickens intention?) and the heavy-handed English Lit student-friendly (something to underline!) symbolism would put even Thomas Hardy to shame.

So thank goodness that Little Nell and her tedious, spineless grandfather, despite being the backbone (if lacking one themselves) of the novel, are largely sidelined to allow a host of witty, compelling, eccentric characters to take centre stage. There’s the sinister, evil dwarf Qulip, the cold, calculating snuff-addicted lawyer Sally Brass; the thoughtless, but ultimately kind hearted Dick Swilliver (I loved those chapters with him and the Marchioness towards the end of the novel – he completely charmed the socks off me), and good honest, but not, thank goodness, too good, Kit who ultimately to each other that kept me turning the pages.

by Suzanne Elliott