(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.