Sourdough Sans Levain

Since I’ve owned a sourdough starter I’ve tried a number of recipes, all of which call for you to create first the starter, then a second leavener based on a small amount of that starter. It adds up to a lot of fuss, and, if you’re a working-away-from-home person, timing worries.

I decided to look for something simpler and ran across this recipe, which turns out to be based on this much simpler one. tl;dr: a basic rustic bread recipe that yields chewy crust and airy, holey insides, but can be made directly from active sourdough starter without an intermediate levain rise.

NOTE: this recipe is easy and fairly forgiving about timing, but it’s slooooooow.

What’s Active Starter?

Active starter is well-fed, bubbly, and at its peak of the day. I feed mine once a day and it peaks around 20-22 hours after I feed it. You can test for peak by putting a spoonful in a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready. (If it floats then drifts downward a few seconds later, that’s a nope.)

There are one million guides to sourdough care and feeding around: you may want to read one. My method, after the sourdough is established is to feed it daily (at night) in a 1:1:1 ratio by weight of starter:flour:water.

Ingredients

This recipe makes a single loaf but you can double it easily.

  • 3 cups white flour (bread flour or all-purpose–I like to mix in about 1/4 cup each of rye and whole wheat flours)
  • 1 ¼ cups faintly warm water
  • 3/4 cup active sourdough starter
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt (regular, not kosher)

Equipment

  • A big mixing bowl.
  • A big mixing spoon.
  • A clean kitchen towel. (Or an oiled clean shower cap, or oiled plastic wrap if you must–but I use a towel.)
  • A dutch oven with a lid. (If you don’t have one, see the suggested cookie sheet method in the addendum.)
  • Cooking parchment (if you’re using the dutch oven method).
  • Optional but helpful: a rubber spatula.
  • A sharp knife to divide the dough if you’re doubling the recipe.

Timing Overview

  1. 5 minutes to mix.
  2. 5-10 hours for initial mix-and-rise. Only in the first hour or so do you really need to be interacting with the dough: the rest is pure neglect. I like to do the first 1-2 hours before bedtime, then go to bed and shape the dough early in the morning.
  3. 40 minutes for oven heating/loaf shaping.
  4. 45 minutes for baking (30 in the dutch oven, 15 on the oven rack)

Steps

  1. Mix all the ingredients in the big mixing bowl. I usually mix the water into the starter first, then add some of the flour, then the salt and sugar, then the rest of the flour, but if you mix speedily it shouldn’t matter. You’ll get a shaggy, sticky dough.
  2. Make sure you have mixed thoroughly enough that there aren’t any floury lumps lurking under the dough. Then try and use the spoon or a wetted spatula or your wet fingers to get rid of most of the sticky dough clinging to the edges of the bowl. (Anything you leave there will turn to cement over time.)
  3. Cover the bowl with a wet (wrung out) dishtowel or proxy (see Equipment) and set a timer for 20-ish minutes.
  4. Now you’re going to do the first of several stretch-and-folds that will happen in the first 1-2 hours of rising. I recommend three in this time period. The timing isn’t terribly sensitive, but they should be at least 15-20 minutes apart. The stretch-and-fold makes the dough stronger and smoother, without any actual kneading. It should take less than 30 seconds each time. A stretch-and-fold is basically reaching your wet hand under a section of the dough (you’ll do this four times, turning the bowl each time to cover the whole bowl), and pulling it gently and firmly up and over the rest of the dough. This will be tricky the first time and easier the next couple of times as the dough gets more coherent. There’s a great photo series of an initial stretch-and-fold here: https://littlespoonfarm.com/sourdough-bread-recipe-beginners-guide/ , and you can watch infinity videos on Youtube if you want more guidance. Cover the dough back up and leave it alone for a while.
  5. Do the stretch-and-fold another couple of times over the next hour and a half, whenever it’s convenient for you. If you want more rules about this, the Internet is full of very prescriptive advice, but this level of care works for me. Always cover the bowl afterward.
  6. Leave the dough alone until it is 2-3 times its initial volume and has at least a couple of small visible bubbles (1/2-inch diameter or bigger). Overnight is OK assuming you’re not sleeping in.
  7. Preheat the oven to 475: if you’re using a dutch oven, put it in the oven now, including the lid.
  8. Now you’re ready to shape the dough. Have some flour at your elbow as you do it, and flour a cutting board or your counter/table. Have a well-floured banneton (baking basket) or a piece of parchment paper ready to hold the shaped bread. Sprinkle a handful of flour over the edge of the dough you’re attacking first, and also make sure your hands are quite floury. Now, carefully pull the dough away from the edges of the bowl, sprinkling some flour on especially sticky parts if you need to. You want to remove the dough in a single mass* without disturbing its internal bubbles as much as possible, so don’t knead or squish it.
  9. Plop the mass on the cutting board and if necessary, clean and dry your hands. Then pick up the blob again with the most intact side upward, lightly flouring any gacky surfaces, and carefully pull the sides of the dough underneath to form a smoothish ball. This takes practice and it won’t be perfect at first but the bread will still be good! You’re aiming for some surface tension on the top and a bunch of slightly messy seams underneath.
  10. Transfer the blob seam-side down to a banneton or a piece of parchment paper, and cover it with a kitchen towel. Set a time for 30 minutes. (If you aren’t using a dutch oven, see the addendum.)
  11. When the timer goes off, remove the towel. If you used a banneton, cover it with a big square of parchment and invert it, thwacking the bottom of the basket so the loaf comes out cleanly. (If it doesn’t not the end of the world but next time flour it better.)
  12. Take the lid off the heated dutch oven and, holding the sides of the parchment, carefully and quickly ease the dough into the dutch oven. Then cover it. Use oven mitts! I burn myself a lot.
  13. Close the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
  14. Take the loaf out of the dutch oven and bake it on the oven rack for another 15. When it’s done, it will be a deep golden-brown and make a hollow sound when you tap the bottom.
  15. Let it cool before you eat it! Otherwise it will squish inside. You’ll probably have to test this a couple of times because your kitchen smells great right now, but if you want to preserve the full elevation of the bread don’t cut till it’s just faintly warm.

Addendum: No Dutch Oven Method

If you don’t have a dutch oven, modify the recipe from step 8 on as follows:

  • Use an oiled baking sheet instead of parchment, or put parchment directly on the baking sheet in lieu of oiling.
  • Just after you put the baking sheet in the oven, scatter a handful of ice cubes on the oven floor, or pour some boiling water into baking sheet set on the lower rack. Steam makes the crust.
  • You should still do step 14 so the lower crust gets direct heat.

So, You Want to Bake Bread

crusty bread with holes

There are a couple of things to know if you’ve decided to start making bread, and as someone who has been baking at home for a long time, here are a few of my idiosyncratic opinions and insights about it.

What do you need to make bread?

Here is a list of things you need to make pretty, tasty bread without pain and suffering:

  • Flour, water,  salt, yeast and maybe some other common grocery staples.
  • Measuring cups and spoons.
  • A bowl big enough to hold a bunch of dough. At least 4 quarts is good–you want room for 6 cups of dough and your hands, and then you also want room for rising. 
  • An oven. 
  • A kitchen timer or clock.
  • Some bread pans (if you want loaf bread). If you want rustic bread, a dutch oven is nice but not required. If you don’t have either, though, you can always bake free-form loaves on a cookie sheet or even in a foil pan.

Here are some things you might enjoy but don’t need. I rarely use any of them.

  • A bread machine, a food processor, or a mixer with a dough hook
  • A scale
  • An instant-read thermometer
  • Instant yeast
  • A razor blade tool called a lame for slicing the bread tops

There is no doubt that some people greatly enjoy the chemistry angle on baking, and that you can make your results more reliable by weighing everything to the gram and paying close attention to hydration and temperature and close timing. But you don’t need those things to make very good bread, and if you develop a knack for baking, you’ll eventually develop a sense of the look and feel of dough that’s a bit too wet or dry and what it needs.

Only you know whether you feel more comfortable being a kitchen scientist or a handy kitchen crone with bread magicks in your fingers, but even if you don’t end up being either your bread will be FINE. Provided you don’t kill your yeast (about which more later), your bread mistakes will almost certainly be more than edible, and indeed tastier than store bread.

Choosing a Recipe

Kneaded Versus No-Knead

Many people handwavily assume no-knead must be quick and low-effort, and kneaded bread is a slog. This isn’t really accurate. They require different timing and different kinds of work.

When considering kneaded bread, people tend to overestimate the labor of the kneading process. Kneading does take a little time–but the time is not HOURS. It’s around 7-10 minutes. Also, it’s fun to smack the dough around and pretend it’s your enemy’s head. You don’t have to be The Rock, either. 

Kneaded bread typically has a two-stage rising process that can be completed in a few hours,  during which you need to be around to stop the rising at the correct time. However, it’s not a life sentence. You can stick your dough in the fridge and get back to it later if you suddenly get invited to a fancy lunch when you were planning to stay home baking. Then bring the dough back to room temperature to shape it or bake it. 

When you make no-knead bread, you are free to leave your mixed dough in the fridge for literally days and days before shaping it, and you don’t ever have to knead it. However, you will still have to wait for a long slow initial rise (four hours to overnight), and you’ll still have to let the dough sit for 40 minutes to an hour after you shape it. 

And don’t underestimate the hassle of dealing with the heavy, wet, sticky doughs required for no-knead. You can fairly quickly develop a knack for handling these doughs, but they can make a big mess while you’re learning, or if you misjudge the hydration of the dough. That guy in the video tenderly stretching the dough and shaping it into a ball in about six seconds without leaving any sticky dough splotches anywhere on the floor or counters has been doing it for a long time.

What’s a Good Beginner’s Recipe?

For starters, you might as well pick a recipe based on whether you think you’ll like the bread. If you crave that crusty rustic bread with a crackling crust, make no-knead (for really crisp crust, you’ll want a dutch oven). If you want a soft sandwich bread or rolls or a nice sweet wheat bread with seeds in it or challah or dinner rolls, you probably want kneaded bread. I would suggest not starting with a recipe that’s heavy with sugar and eggs–these ingredients can delay your rise for a frustratingly long time, and they’ll make your dough heavier and sometimes harder to handle. But mix-ins like seeds or fruit or herbs or roasted garlic will not change your outcomes much, so if they’re exciting, there’s no reason not to try such a recipe as a beginner.

Next, look at the number of rises required by the recipe, as well as any preliminary stages (like making oatmeal, or mixing a sponge), before you commit. Some no-knead recipes want days of creating starters, levains, and other precursor science projects before you mix the main dough, and others want you to hang around doing stretch-and-fold tweaks to the dough several times an hour. This can result in amazing bread but you’re vastly increasing the number of variables between you and success, as well as your time and energy commitment. The very finest crusty breads are based on sourdough, which requires careful timing of phases and a fair amount of lead time [what’s the lead time for?].

This is my idea of a good starter recipe for no-knead bread: King Arthur No-Knead Crusty White Bread. It uses one bowl and has no preliminaries; it is quickly mixed with no further tampering, and it can handle sitting around in the fridge for days on end.

This is my idea of a good kneaded bread to start with: Easy Honey Oatmeal Bread. It has a very short “sponge” phase ( a sponge is a kind of risen batter that you mix and then let bubble before you mix the rest of the ingredients in and knead), but after kneading you just shape the dough and let it rise in the pans. So you can make it after dinner and still get to bed at a decent hour.

A Note on Yeast

Recent recipes tend to ask for instant yeast, which can be combined with dry ingredients rather than added to liquid to moisten. However, this shouldn’t limit your choice of bread recipes. Any instant yeast recipe should be easily translatable to regular yeast. Just add your yeast to the liquids the recipe calls for, stir for a couple of seconds, and let it sit while you gather your dry ingredients. Done. The wet ingredients should be mildly warm but not uncomfortably so. It’s OK to err on the side of coolness; your bread will catch up over time and rise, just a little slower.

Yeast packets contain about 2 and 1/4 teaspoons of yeast, and are a horrible ripoff at typically more than $1.50 a packet. Go to Costco and buy a lifetime supply (OK, not really, but about a pound) for $6–share it with your friends, and store it in a jar in your freezer for a year or more.

Go Forth and Bake

Whatever imperfect breads you bake in your own home oven have a high chance of being delicious. Very few home-baked yeast breads are even unpleasant, so you and your friends and family will likely enjoy eating your mistakes, and, eventually, your triumphs. Excelsior.

 

 

Easy Honey Oatmeal Bread

adapted from George Greenstein’s Secrets of a Jewish Baker.
This is a sweet, high-rising, soft bread that makes great toast and sandwiches.

 

Sponge

  • 2 cups warm water
  • 2 packages (4 and 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
  • 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water to soften it; stir to dissolve. Add the flour and stir till smooth. Cover with a kitchen towel and set aside for 30 minutes or till doubled.

Dough

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 2/3 cup skim milk powder
  • 1 cup cooked oatmeal
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 3 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt

After the sponge has risen, stir it until it deflates and stir in the honey, milk powder, oatmeal, and butter. In a separate bowl, combine the salt and flour. Add the dry ingredients to the other bowl and stir the dough until it comes away from the sides of the bowl.

Turn the dough out on a floured board and knead it for about 8 minutes, adding small amounts of flour as you go to keep it from sticking to the board. The dough should be pushing back a little and have an elastic feel. Cut the dough in half and let it rest under a kitchen towel for ten minutes or so while you grease two loaf pans. To keep bread from sticking, I’ve been making a slurry out of flour and cooking oil and painting a thin layer on with a pastry brush–this seems to be no-fail for me. But you can try using butter or shortening.

Shape the dough into loaves (I flatten each piece into a rectangle longer than the pan, then roll first the long sides, then the short sides under, pinching the seams to seal them.) Put the loaves seam-side down in the pans and cover them with the towel. Let them rise until the loaves form rounded tops above the edge of the pans. This won’t take more than an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375. Put a broiler pan or some other kind of metal pan on a lower shelf, to hold water for steam. Also, put some water on to boil.

Slash each loaf lengthwise down the center with a sharp knife or a razor blade. Brush the surface with cold water. Right before you put the pans in, pour 3/4 of a cup of hot water into the pan in the oven to make steam, then quickly put the bread pans in and close the oven. This will give you a good crust.

Bake for 35 minutes, then take the loaves out of the pans and bake them on the oven rack for another ten minutes. Tap the side of the loaf: a done loaf will sound hollow. Cool the loaves on a rack.

TBR 5: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This is a turgid sort of book.  I knew nothing about it going in other than that Steinbeck is a practitioner of the High Seriousness and that he is one of the people to define what California is, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from it. I definitely did not expect psychopathic hookers, so score one for Steinbeck in the surprise department. You could call this a multigenerational family saga, and it has some of the interest and weaknesses of that genre: you want to know how things will come out, but the authorial temptation for redemption narratives is regrettably high.

The opening, which gives us the entire childhood of the main character, Adam Trask, and his half-brother Charles, is actually very interesting in its depiction of dirt-poor post-Civil War life (the father becomes a very successful fraudulent government military expert who later leaves the boys a lot of sketchy money!) except that it is so unremittingly depressing that it’s sure to weed out all but the most motivated readers. Both brothers yearn for love they can’t get from their respective parents, who are both broken themselves and also subscribe to harsh principles of child-raising, so no one feels loved. This doesn’t bring the brothers together, of course, but pits them against each other, with Adam in the role of the pure soul burned by life and Charles as The One Who Understands Evil.

The themes of the novel are set up here, and so much much later in the novel when Adam has to name the twins his psycho hooker wife abandoned when she fled from his repressively moral clutches, we do not actually need the lengthy discussion of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel that Steinbeck injects via his gratuitous educated secondary characters. (He ends up naming the sons Caleb and Aaron. Like Cain and Abel and Charles and Adam. Same initials HMMMM. I bet there are several thousand undergrad papers about this symbolism available on the Internet.)  The novel is working out questions of heredity and individual free will, and of generational debt, and of self-fashioning in a changing America, and so on and so forth. Like many such novels it ends with the First World War, which has always been a convenient way to truncate plot lines: see Downton Abbey.

Here are some parts I enjoyed:

  • The parts about Northern California land and landscape.
  • The parts about post-frontier and small-town life there.
  • The characters who are thrown in there to cast the light of literature and philosophy over brutish, meaningless life because they have Read Books. This is a somewhat ridiculous literary device, but the characters themselves (a well-read but not very successful rancher and the main character’s Chinese cook) are enjoyable company.
  • Whorehouse gossip.
  • The family stories about Samuel Hamilton, the literary neighbor: the Internet says he’s based on Steinbeck’s actual family. Hamilton’s family is a loving but not completely happy one based on a marriage between an intellectual husband and a pragmatist wife, and their kids go very different ways, and one of them is a woman who creates a little women’s circle and haven in her dressmaking shop and then after a disappointment in love dies of, apparently, stomach cancer. Her sister (John Steinbeck’s mother) is a strongwilled teacher who gives it up to get married. The brothers are not strictly allegorical, either. I could read about these people a lot more.

Here are some parts I really didn’t enjoy:

  • The early parts are sickening. So much beating and abuse and general yuck, right there on the page. Yes, we get that brutality is not a modern invention. No, we don’t need to wallow in it.
  • Even though there was abuse in her childhood, Cathy the psycho hooker is more or less depicted as a crazy psychopath, and yet she also is incredibly smart and competent at work–she gets her claws into a whorehouse owner by earning everyone’s trust and running the place flawlessly down to saving money on the meals while improving the cooking. But instead of getting her own whorehouse, she decides it would be easier and more convenient to kill the owner of this one and then turn it into an EVIL whorehouse devoted to S & M hijinks. She collects photos* of community leaders getting their rocks off from whips etc., but never actually blackmails any of them for cash. Apparently she just can’t resist living in an atmosphere of petty criminality, sadism and cowering minions?  This is weak.
  • Adam Trask is a nearly unlovable character. His purity seems to consist almost entirely of being a dumbass who can’t recognize evil. And he is awful and controlling to Cathy in the guise of saving her. Why do other characters find him so appealing?
  • It’s very much a Between Men book. OK, Aaron’s fiancee Abra gets a look-in toward the end, but her life decisions aren’t significant and she has no interests.

I’m not sorry I read this, but if I were a slower reader I might be annoyed to have spent almost 600 pages reading a book that is so heavy-handed, instead of the Cliff Notes.

*On reflection, how is Cathy getting these photos made given pre-WW I film technology? Does she have an actual brothel photographer on staff and do the developing onsite? I am skeptical.

TBR 4: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

It is unfair to judge this novel against Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, but I finished that novel in the last year sometime and it did what the very best nineteenth century novels do: it jumped from one grouping of people to another, effortlessly engaging you in their lives and making you excited to see each group again next time they pop up. It also made some very complicated and more historically distant history immediate.  It sucks for Kiran Desai that Seth wrote India’s Middlemarch already, but there it is, fresh in my mind still.

The Inheritance of Loss is trying to do some of the same things–talk about how the personal is political, show how seemingly distinct groups are connected to each other in unexpected ways, show personal life against a backdrop of political turmoil, bring emotion out of the distance between generations–and the writing is lovely from page to page. It does all those things adequately. But it was hard to care about the characters. They’re mostly static: the judge long stuck in his resentment of the universe, Sai with no particular plan or direction, her tutor who suddenly jumps from shyly courting his student to furiously resenting her, the cook’s son thrown around from job to job with no apparent trajectory.  What is it all for? The cook is the only one who seems to see a future, and his is vicarious. I guess the novel demonstrated the enormous losses of cultural imperialism in a tragicomic way, but not in a way I could connect to.

I ended up skimming the last quarter to find out how it all worked out and without spoiling the plot–meh. I also wish I hadn’t read the horrifying parts about the abusive marriage.

TBR 3: Travels with a Donkey Through the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson

I read this more than a month ago and I’d like to say it was memorable, but it’s more of an atmosphere than a narrative in my head. After the opening hijinks with the donkey, Stevenson is pleasant but not terribly memorable company. There’s an interesting interlude where he spends the night in a monastery and is majorly proselytized, in part by the other visitors who are there to be Very Catholic, but all in all I probably would have liked it better if I had seen any of the places it describes. I don’t regret reading it and might again but it didn’t burn with a hard, gem-like flame. It is what it says it is: a well-written travel journal with not many events.

Fun fact: the donkey’s name is Modestine, which is why there is a donkey named Modestine belonging to some grungy academics in one of Angela Thirkell’s novels.

TBR 2: The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott

Yes, it’s the end of March and I need to wedge in another book or I’ll be seriously behind soon.

The Antiquary is a bit of a puzzle for modern readers who are used to being addressed on their level by a book. It’s full of everything you tend to dread in a nineteenth-century novel: florid descriptions of landscape; references to historical events you know nothing about;perilously-constructed sentences with multiple dependent clauses; untranslated Latin tags. And so, so much Scottish dialect! Although the dialect is mostly from people in low life: one wonders if it’s supposed to be the equivalent of the script of Trainspotting, minus the swearing. (I really need an edition with actual notes. Mine had none. I pride myself on being the kind of reader who forges on past bafflement and extracts only the relevant context, but I came close to foundering a couple of times.)

Here is a sample of the eponymous Antiquary talking (and he is supposed to be overeducated and baffling):

“You must know,” he said, “our Scottish antiquaries have been greatly divided about the local situation of the final conflict between Agricola and the Caledonians; some contend for Ardoch in Strathallan, some for Innerpeffry, some for the Raedykes in the Mearns, and some are for carrying the scene of action as far north as Blair in Athole. Now, after all this discussion,” continued the old gentleman, with one of his slyest and most complacent looks, “what would you think, Mr. Lovel,—I say, what would you think,—if the memorable scene of conflict should happen to be on the very spot called the Kaim of Kinprunes, the property of the obscure and humble individual who now speaks to you?” Then, having paused a little, to suffer his guest to digest a communication so important, he resumed his disquisition in a higher tone. “Yes, my good friend, I am indeed greatly deceived if this place does not correspond with all the marks of that celebrated place of action. It was near to the Grampian mountains—lo! yonder they are, mixing and contending with the sky on the skirts of the horizon! It was in conspectu classis—in sight of the Roman fleet; and would any admiral, Roman or British, wish a fairer bay to ride in than that on your right hand? It is astonishing how blind we professed antiquaries sometimes are! Sir Robert Sibbald, Saunders Gordon, General Roy, Dr. Stokely,—why, it escaped all of them. I was unwilling to say a word about it till I had secured the ground, for it belonged to auld Johnnie Howie, a bonnet-laird hard by, and many a communing we had before he and I could agree.”

And here is one of ye olde rustics, Edie Ochiltree, who is a professional licensed beggar, holding forth:

“Few folks ken o’ this place,” said the old man; “to the best o’my knowledge, there’s just twa living by mysell, and that’s Jingling Jock and the Lang Linker. I have had mony a thought, that when I fand mysell auld and forfairn, and no able to enjoy God’s blessed air ony langer, I wad drag mysell here wi’ a pickle ait-meal; and see, there’s a bit bonny dropping well that popples that self-same gate simmer and winter;—and I wad e’en streek mysell out here, and abide my removal, like an auld dog that trails its useless ugsome carcass into some bush or bracken no to gie living things a scunner wi’ the sight o’t when it’s dead—Ay, and then, when the dogs barked at the lone farm-stead, the gudewife wad cry, Whisht, stirra, that’ll be auld Edie,’ and the bits o’ weans wad up, puir things, and toddle to the door to pu’ in the auld Blue-Gown that mends a’ their bonny-dies—But there wad be nae mair word o’ Edie, I trow.

As you may be able to tell through all that language there are a lot of comic elements going on, with the antiquary and Edie both fond of their own personas and expressing them in oratory. Woven in between these two characters is a plot that involves secret identity, possible incest, the succession to a title, and, in possibly the novel’s oddest moment, a seal beating up a soldier who tries to hit him with a staff. (The Antiquary, who is his uncle, teases him about seals for the next many chapters, using its Latin name, “phoca.” There, we learned something.) From the perspective of the modern novel which values control and focus and tone and all those things, this book seems crazily maximalist. It’s very unlike, say, Austen. High life and low life interact all the time. Comic and tragic interweave. Characters break into ballads and get into digressive arguments about poetry.

There is plenty of fun in the book and the characters are amusing, but it’s hard to imagine listening to this kind of thing as a middlingly educated nineteenth-century person. And yet we know that Scott’s novels were extremely popular, and that they were read by children as well as adults. The gothic and comic elements must have been more important than grokking every word. Is this a side effect of listening to sermons all the time? Is it just that people in the early nineteenth century didn’t have as much entertainment to choose from? I don’t know! If you read some Scott, please tell me your reactions.

 

TBR 1: The Odd Women by George Gissing

(TBR=To Be Read Challenge: a list of 12 books already in your possession but unread, to be polished off within a year.)

I’m fond of smacking my head up against the least familiar sensibilities of the Victorian period–classical digressions, croquet anxiety, moral panics. George Gissing offers up the other side of the coin, which is to say the ways in which the Victorians seem to suffer from all the same problems we do. New Grub Street, which I read a few years ago, is about a journalism market where sensationalism sells and serious journalists starve. The Odd Women tackles feminism, mostly sympathetically.

It’s unfamiliar in showing us a world where women are thought to need protectors and are in constant danger of “falling” out of society (by having been known to have sex out of wedlock, for pay or otherwise). But the question of whether women can seriously focus on a career when marriage is the obvious fallback is still a live one. As is the existence of jobs that could be sustainable only with another source of income, what some of my friends term “joblets”–the non-profit, arts, home industry, or other limited-hours, low-paying jobs that these days often stand in for careers for married women who have lucked into a partner with a “real job.” (Parents with a trust fund work too. Most of these jobs are handled by the independently wealthy or people who are successfully financially dependent, although very young people with the luxury of living on the edge for a few years sometimes take them too, barely making it until they go back to school or find better-paid employment.)

In this novel, for middle-class “ladies,” joblets are the only jobs for middle class women, since the default career IS marriage. (Working class women have it even harder with long hours and terrible pay, offset by a little more freedom.) And the “odd women” who must rely on jobs like “companion” and “nursery teacher” for a real income are living on the edge of starvation, especially as they age.

I started this novel more than once and got too depressed by the opening situation to go on, although it eventually became funny as well as tragic. A family of daughters whose father found serious education to be unwomanly are orphaned, and none of them are terribly accomplished or beautiful. Three sisters die before the action begins, two from physical and mental illness due to overwork; the remaining older sisters, Alice and Virginia, are in their thirties and sharing a boardinghouse room. (Their youngest sister Monica is working 12-hour days in a shop. She has other problems; read on.) Their health is lousy and this is the sort of financial conversation they’re having:

‘I almost wish,’ said Alice, ‘that I had accepted the place at Plymouth.”Oh, my dear! Five children and not a penny of salary. It was a shameless proposal.’

‘It was, indeed,’ sighed the poor governess. ‘But there is so little choice for people like myself. Certificates, and even degrees, are asked for on every hand. With nothing but references to past employers, what can one expect? I know it will end in my taking a place without salary.’

‘People seem to have still less need of me,’ lamented the companion. ‘I wish now that I had gone to Norwich as lady-help.’

‘Dear, your health would never have supported it.’

‘I don’t know. Possibly the more active life might do me good. It might, you know, Alice.’

The other admitted this possibility with a deep sigh.

‘Let us review our position,’ she then exclaimed.

It was a phrase frequently on her lips, and always made her more cheerful. Virginia also seemed to welcome it as an encouragement.

‘Mine,’ said the companion, ‘is almost as serious as it could be. I have only one pound left, with the exception of the dividend.’

‘I have rather more than four pounds still. Now, let us think,’ Alice paused. ‘Supposing we neither of us obtain employment before the end of this year. We have to live, in that case, more than six months—you on seven pounds, and I on ten.’

‘It’s impossible,’ said Virginia.

‘Let us see. Put it in another form. We have both to live together on seventeen pounds. That is—’ she made a computation on a piece of paper—’that is two pounds, sixteen shillings and eightpence a month—let us suppose this month at an end. That represents fourteen shillings and twopence a week. Yes, we can do it!’

She laid down her pencil with an air of triumph. Her dull eyes brightened as though she had discovered a new source of income.

‘We cannot, dear,’ urged Virginia in a subdued voice. ‘Seven shillings rent; that leaves only seven and twopence a week for everything—everything.’

‘We could do it, dear,’ persisted the other. ‘If it came to the very worst, our food need not cost more than sixpence a day—three and sixpence a week. I do really believe, Virgie, we could support life on less—say, on fourpence. Yes, we could dear!’

They looked fixedly at each other, like people about to stake everything on their courage.

‘Is such a life worthy of the name?’ asked Virginia in tones of awe.

‘We shan’t be driven to that. Oh, we certainly shall not. But it helps one to know that, strictly speaking, we are independent for another six months.’

This reminds me of the way the economy is going now for bigger swaths of people of both sexes who don’t have the protection of family money. Will our Gen Y 20-somethings who don’t luck into a job end up perpetually in scanty roommate situations or bad boyfriend situations for life while they make not enough as admins? Maybe.

By the time they’re having this conversation Alice is already an invalid. Virginia is on her way to alcoholism, and they’re both quietly having fainting fits from the meals they’re skipping. At this point they re-encounter Rhoda Nunn (get it? Nunn?) whom they had met in her girlhood. Rhoda has lifted herself out of dependency through self-education and is now the formidable co-head of a benevolent organization that trains genteel but poor girls in typing and other office skills. She’s energetic and a bit menacing, is prone to argue the necessity of the marriage institution with her more tenderhearted compatriot Miss Barfoot, and is improbably a tiny bit sexy, which is to say we’re given to know she has a lot of hair she could let down if she chose. Mostly she doesn’t choose. She’s sorry for lost causes like Virginia and Alice–but she becomes interested in saving Monica, the youngest at 21.

Our main conflict happens because Monica might not “have to” work. She is the pretty one, and thus may have the option of marriage. Miss Nunn wants to save her from “having to” get married to whoever offers himself, but Alice and Virginia don’t much care whether she is rescued from her 12-hour, declasse, health-wrecking shop job by a husband or by better-paid work. In the event she acquires a middle-aged stalker/suitor, and a very unhappy marriage ensues, proving Miss Nunn’s point pretty well. There is a counterplot involving Miss Barfoot’s slightly caddish cousin Everard, who decides to court Miss Nunn on a whim but finds himself falling in love with her and becoming more attracted to intellectual women than before.  We get little glimpses of a future where women would routinely be educated equally with men and how nice that would be for men (lucky Everard), and the hell of being married to someone intellectually incompatible (for men). But the major risks are still all for women, who are mostly raised dependent.  (New Grub Street shows how this dependency can wreck a man’s life too.)

Gissing gets that this must change but also how hard that is for everyone, and after the initial hump of the opening I found this to be very readable but interesting and, if axe-grinding, also fairminded. None of the characters are saints. They all are very smart about some things and very annoying about some other things, despite their allegorical names, and thus the resolution does not put the blame on any one person but on human frailty and societal baggage. Well worth the reading time.