George Gissing’s The Odd Women is one of the truly great novels of nineteenth-century fiction. Its prose is delicious: every observation bursts with keen discrimination and finely weighted feeling, qualities counterbalanced by a delicate irony that caresses the narrative. It achieves the combination of empathy and detachment so necessary to the best of novels, all the while adhering to a style that is obstinately plain and simple. Yet there are also a handful of key moments when the prose deviates from its austere simplicity, when it conspicuously deploys tropes such as repetition and syntactic reversal to achieve startling effects—oddities, we might call them. Such moments warrant further scrutiny, for they bear directly on our understanding of the novel.1
The novel’s heroine is Rhoda Nunn, a thirty-one-year-old woman who manages a typing school and strives to inculcate its female students with principles of independent living. Rhoda lives with Mary Barfoot, the school’s philanthropic patron, and the novel’s plot is set in motion when Mary introduces Rhoda to her cousin, Everard Barfoot, a man who, at age thirty-three, has abandoned his career in civil engineering to pursue a life of leisurely travel. Mary herself hasn’t seen him for years, and when he reappears she immediately notices a telling detail:
… he had a soft voice, and used it with all the discretion of good-breeding, so that at times it seemed to caress the ear. To this mode of utterance corresponded his smile, which was frequent, but restrained to the expression of a delicate, good-natured irony.2
Though Mary is noticing his smile, her account can be extended to encompass his style of speech. Irony, even when delicate and good-natured, entails indirection, the adopting of roundabout [End Page 227] means of expression. It is the opposite of plain speaking, and also of the ideal of plainness that Rhoda seems to embody.3 Everard snatches at this point the moment he meets her, carefully noting the style of her hair: “Rhoda seemed to have endeavoured to liken herself to the suggestion of her name [Nunn, nun] by the excessive plainness with which she had arranged her hair” (OW, 89). The adjective “excessive” is Everard’s, of course; but whether a reader agrees with him will determine how she interprets the novel. Hair-style, here, is standing in for lifestyle, and with it a style of speaking that privileges the plain and simple. Everard and Rhoda are polar opposites: she speaks seriously and directly; he, playfully and indirectly. The war between the sexes has been transformed into a war between language styles, a war that will be conducted over the long course of their love story. But theirs is not the book’s only love story.
Rhoda’s courtship finds its counterpart in the subplot that swirls around Monica Madden, who is twenty when the novel opens and whom we first see slaving as a live-in employee at a drapery shop, working eighty-one hours per week. Rhoda shares with her a background too complicated to summarize here, but when she meets her now after many years’ interval, she invites her to become a student at her typing school. With study and application, Monica can become a model of female independence. Rhoda has reckoned with everything: except Monica herself.
Though Monica accepts Rhoda’s offer of a place at the school, she does so only with reluctance. She views Rhoda as a feminist fuddy-duddy who is clueless about life in the real world. Rhoda hymns the joy of work and independence; Monica wants just the opposite: leisure and a husband who can get it for her. And the blandishments of various males in London streets—“She knew herself good-looking; men had followed her in the street and tried to make her acquaintance” (OW, 43)—have convinced her she can attain them, if she plays her cards right. She will do just that—to her lasting regret.
Sitting on a park bench one Sunday afternoon, Monica meets Edmund Widdowson, who takes a seat beside her. Glancing at her timidly, he offers conversational bromides about the weather...