George Gissing’s novel captured our two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey to the “new” woman and man.
It remains one of life’s great mysteries, that moment of political readiness when the elements of experience and circumstance are sufficiently fused to galvanize an idea whose time has come. For me, and a few thousand others like me, discovering feminism in the early 1970s provided such a moment. I was born into an immigrant working class family that was also Jewish and left-wing so I don’t remember a moment when I was not aware of and moved by the political-ness of life; but it was only now, in the seventies, that I felt it viscerally. I was in my thirties and already twice married, twice divorced, when that first feminist trumpet was sounded and I awakened, as though from a dream, to the single most important realization of my life: the conviction that men by nature take their brains seriously and women by nature do not was an acquired belief, not an inborn reality. It served the culture, and from it all of our lives followed. For the very first time I was not at the receiving end of political insight, I was at the beginning.
It was then that I found myself re-reading the culture in which I had grown through its domestic arrangements and its social agreements, its family mores and workplace behaviors. And then came the books, movies, plays—especially the books. It was really through them that I began to see how deeply the notion of women’s rights had penetrated me. Anti-Semitism in an otherwise admirable work of literary art had always astonished me, as had class or race hatred, but the sting had never felt life-threatening. Now, I saw that our literature was riddled through with sexism and it did feel life-threatening.
Above all, it was the novels that I’d been reading all my life that sent me spinning. To re-read Hardy, Lawrence, James, and yes, Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton as well, was to arrive at a completely different interpretation from what I’d always believed. I remember especially how in college I’d seen Clarissa Dalloway as cold and self-denying, fatally lacking in sensuality—and how my nineteen-year-old self had wailed: How could she give up the man she loved, even if the force of his personality was subsuming! But when I read the Woolf novel again in 1973, I said to myself, she’s just fighting to not go under. The real story here was Clarissa’s attempt simply to ward off the invasion of the soul that marriage inflicted on a woman of her time and place. So she marries a man who won’t object to her retreating into a sexless marriage, because that is her only means of retaining some measure of integrity.
Then I read anew the great novels about women that were written by men in the late nineteenth century, the ones that had begun ushering in modernism. Within twenty years there had been Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways. The one, however, that spoke the most directly to me was George Gissing’s The Odd Women. In this novel—published in 1893—I could see and hear the characters as if they were women and men of my own acquaintance. I knew intimately what was tearing these people apart. What’s more, I recognized myself as one of the “odd” women. Every fifty years from the time of the French Revolution, feminists had been described as “new” women, “free” women, “liberated” women—but Gissing had gotten it just right. We were the “odd” women.
The Odd Women is set in London in 1887. Mary Barfoot, a gentlewoman in her fifties, is running a secretarial school to prepare middle-class girls for occupations other than that of governess or teacher. Her colleague is Rhoda Nunn, thirty years old, darkly handsome, highly intelligent, a turn-of-the-century feminist who is uncompromising in her scorn for what she calls the slavery of love and marriage. There isn’t an argument in favor of legal union for which Rhoda doesn’t have a comeback.
Enter Everard Barfoot, Mary’s clever, well-to-do, strong-willed cousin whose intellectual sparring with Rhoda (the glory of the book) becomes steadily and mutually eroticized. Ambitious to occupy a world of “new” women and men, these two imagine themselves dedicated to the proposition of true partnership between the sexes, but in the final analysis, theirs is the two steps forward, one step back journey into self-knowledge that accounted then, and accounts now, for the snail’s pace at which social and emotional change progresses.
Barfoot genuinely believes that he seeks intellectual companionship in marriage. “For him marriage must not mean repose … but the mutual incitement of vigorous minds. Passion—yes, there must be passion at all events to begin with.” But, “be a woman what else she may, let her have brains and the power of using them! … intellect was his first requirement.” At the same time, an appetite for mastery exerts as strong, if not stronger, a pull on him. Side by side with the pleasure Rhoda’s intelligence gives him, his thoughts still linger on how much “a contest between his will and hers would be an amusement decidedly to his taste… It would delight him to enrage Rhoda and then to detain her by strength, to overcome her senses, to watch her long lashes droop over the eloquent eyes …” As for Rhoda—absolute in her conviction that women first and foremost must become “rational and responsible human beings”—she pronounces regularly on her position with a defensive bluntness that betrays her own emotional ignorance. When Barfoot tells her she makes too little allowance for human weakness she replies coldly, “Human weakness is a plea that has been much abused”; whereupon Everard smiles patronizingly. The smile frightens her into rudeness: “Mr. Barfoot, I have had enough of this … If you are practicing your powers of irony, I had rather you chose some other person. I will go my way, if you please.”
In truth, the exchange excites them both. The attraction between them is rooted in the classical antagonism of sexual infatuation at its most compelling and exhausting. Bereft of tenderness or sympathy, it both draws and repels, wears away at the nerves and consumes itself in self-division and self-regard. A year and many remarkable conversations later, when his feeling for Rhoda is considerably advanced, Barfoot is still of two minds: “Loving her as he never thought to love, there still remained with him so much of the temper in which he first wooed her that he could be satisfied with nothing short of unconditional surrender.” Concomitantly, Rhoda—her senses fully aroused for the first time in her life—is rapidly losing the comfort of her brash certainties. Now, openly drawn to Everard, she is gripped by anxiety at the thought of yielding to desire.
Ultimately, Barfoot is undone by his need to master and Rhoda by the power of self-doubt. For one brief moment, only a small part of each of them had reached out to embrace the difficulty of struggling toward the integrity required to form a “new” alliance—and had then fallen back to that place in the spirit where it is acceptable to no longer go on making the effort. Exactly like the recurring periods of activism in the women’s movement itself.
It has always been especially absorbing to follow Rhoda Nunn as both her polemics and her emotions flare, and we see that she cannot manage the consequences that the conflict between the two have set in motion. It is her confusion that makes her so real. Hardy’s Sue Bridehead, James’s Isabel Archer, Meredith’s Diana Warwick are all magnificent creatures—and all similarly confused, if you will—but it is in Rhoda that I see myself, and others of my generation, plain. No other writer has so precisely captured the progress of our smarts, our anxieties, our bravado as Gissing has by putting Rhoda Nunn through some very recognizable paces. Imagine (as I can all too readily), the joy of that cold passion with which she—having seen the feminist light—pronounces: No equality in love? I’ll do without! Children and motherhood? Unnecessary! Social castigation? Who cares! Words repeated by Greenwich Village moderns during the first decades of the twentieth century, and yet again by the most respectable of middle class women in the 1970s.
But that is not the way it has ever played out. Between the ardor of Rhoda’s rhetoric and the dictates of flesh-and-blood reality lies a no-man’s-land of untested conviction. How easy it was—for us as well as Rhoda—to call out angrily, “To hell with all that!” How chastening to experience the uncontrollable force of feeling that steadily undermined these defiant simplicities. As Rhoda moves inexorably toward the moment when she fails herself, she becomes an embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the place in which so many of us have found ourselves.
Two of the great novels of revolution—Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1860 What Is To Be Done? and Rabindranath Tagore’s 1915 The Home and the World—turn on this war within. In each case, the story is the emotional price exacted by an uncompromising ideology. It is the rare English-language novel that speaks as knowingly to this theme. For me, The Odd Women is that novel.
Vivian Gornick is an American writer and critic. Passages in this essay previously appeared in The Men in My Life (Boston Review Books). Copyright © 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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