The Odd Women
is a Victorian novel by George Robert Gissing. First published in 1893, the book follows two women who must forge independent lives for themselves when they fail to find husbands. Critics praise Gissing for sensitively tackling gender issues and Victorian sexuality. For a Victorian novel, it is a provocative work. Gissing, an English novelist, wrote twenty-three novels. He is recognized as one of the most accomplished realist
writers of the late-Victorian period. Aside from fiction writing, Gissing worked as a teacher and private tutor. The Odd Women
is one of his most popular novels.
The protagonists are Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, single women living in Victorian England. Society deems these women “odd” because they haven’t attracted husbands. Even stranger, according to Victorian standards, these women choose singlehood; they are anti-marriage.
An extreme feminist who actively campaigns against gender stereotyping, Rhoda is particularly opposed to marriage. She thinks that only weak women fall in love, giving men power over their hearts. She refuses to associate with married women because she thinks she is better than them.
Marginally more sympathetic towards married women, Mary knows she will never marry. All she wants is a comfortable career and intellectual stimulation. She helps other single women find jobs and feel better about their status. With Rhoda’s help, she establishes a clerical school for middle-class women. These women then move on to find jobs and live, typically, as spinsters forever.
One day, Rhoda’s childhood friends, Alice and Virginia Madden, visit. They have recently moved to London, and they have heard all about the successful clerical school. They miss Rhoda and hope to rekindle their friendship. Rhoda, however, is skeptical. She believes they are tainted by marriage and she would rather forget them.
Alice and Virginia remind Rhoda that she loved a man once. When Rhoda was fifteen, she fancied an older man called Smithson. He was a widower and he had a sickly daughter. She admired his grace and his progressive views. He believed that women should have more independence and that they are intellectually equal to men.
The problem was that Smithson didn’t love Rhoda. He loved her spirit and hoped that she would change politics. He dismissed her and she never saw him again. She hates herself for loving Smithson. She takes out her unhappiness on married women because she envies what they have. She never admits this to Mary.
Rhoda learns that married life isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Monica despises her husband, Edmund. He is obsessive, controlling, and temperamental. He stalked her relentlessly until she agreed to marry him. Now, she can’t go anywhere without his permission, and she fears she will never be free again. She is beautiful, and she regrets that she is wasting her beauty on a cruel man.
Virginia is single, but she is nothing like Rhoda or Mary. She hates being single; she craves love. She drinks excessively to block out the loneliness. She wants a husband like Edmund; she doesn’t care about anything else. Rhoda can’t understand Virginia and they rarely speak.
In the meantime, Everard shows up. Everard is Mary’s cousin. He is obsessed with Rhoda from the moment he sees her. Mary discourages the match, but Everard plans to win Rhoda’s hand. Rhoda thinks he is laughable because she will never marry. She decides to lead him on and reject his marriage proposal.
Although Rhoda dislikes Everard initially, she soon falls for his charms. He respects her ambitions and her brilliant mind. He wants to marry her because she is his intellectual equal. Despite herself, Rhoda fancies him back. She can’t tell anyone the truth because they will mock her for falling in love.
Everard proposes, and Rhoda accepts. Before she tells anyone, she receives an anonymous letter. Apparently, Everard slept with Monica. Rhoda dismisses Everard but he soon clears his name. Rhoda realizes that she doesn’t want to marry Everard whether he is innocent or not because it goes against her principles. Everard marries someone else.
Meanwhile, Monica does have an affair, but it is not with Everard. She meets a man called Bevis who lives in a neighboring building. Bevis is everything that Edmund isn’t. He is kind, sweet, charming, and chivalrous. When Edmund realizes that Monica fancies Bevis, he publicly shames her. She leaves Edmund, but not before she makes him agree to maintenance payments.
There is no happy ending for Monica. Although she escaped Edmund’s clutches, she is pregnant. She dies during childbirth, and Rhoda adopts the baby. Together Rhoda and Mary continue their clerical school. They lose touch with Virginia who falls deeper into alcoholism. They never hear from Edmund again.
Although Rhoda and Mary feel sorry for Monica, they are disappointed in her affair. On one hand, an affair is an expression of sexual freedom. On the other hand, it mocks the institution of marriage. Both women realize that they are better off without men and they are content with their life choices.