You know that I normally like to review books in pairs, right? Well, I’ve been waiting to review this one that I read in February for AGES, and I am not hugely close to finishing either of the current reads, which are both enjoyable but rather slow-going, so I’ve decided just to go for this one. I’m not hugely happy that my March reading is going to slowly already, but I hope to get in some more reading time and make some more progress, even though I will be fiddling around with the order in which I read my TBR (I know, shocking!) in order to promote a) books on Iceland and b) a book by an author whose event I’m going to next week. I do have a trip to London next week, although it’s on the fast train rather than the slower train or the still-slower coach, so some reading will get done then. In the meantime, one review of a slightly odd book …
George Gissing – “The Odd Women” (Virago)
(16 July 2013, Oxfam, Penrith)
A lovely Original Green Virago, this is yet another in the series of books I seem accidentally to have read on the problem of the ‘extra’ (or here, ‘odd’) women who will remain single throughout their lives, in contrast with the New Woman of the late nineteenth century. This one looks at the problems of a set of sisters, the two oldest, Alice and Virginia, unattractive and worn out by their working lives (the reason being that they were not adequately prepared for such lives) and the younger, Monica, grasping some faint attraction to men and therefore consciously embarking upon a plan to get married and escape the drudgery of her sisters’ lives. We also encounter Rhoda Nunn and her employer Mary Barfoot, who are campaigning to fit such women for more lucrative careers and, in Rhoda’s case, actively to promote the single life over the married one.
There’s an interestingly drawn sub-plot where Rhoda meets a cousin of Mary’s and finds her principles being challenged – but can she use their growing attraction as a method to shore up her own principles and show the men what’s what while remaining a role model for the particular kind of women they are trying to educate (Rhoda has strict and moralistic rules on who she will help, which brings her into conflict with the more flexible Mary). Meanwhile, Monica is drawn into the kind of subterfuge and scandal peculiar to times before ours, where being seen visiting a man unaccompanied could bring terrible punishment.
It’s an interesting novel of ideas, although pretty harsh and brutal. The lack of a conventionally attractive (in any sense) hero or heroine is noteworthy, and the characters and their relationships are drawn precisely, sometimes unbearably so. The plot does jump between the different characters in a slightly dislocating way. There are some flashes of immense charm, however, such as when Rhoda, decrying the unachievable ideals that are placed in women’s psyches (while holding just such a rigid set of principles herself) opines that all novelists should be strangled and thrown into the sea, and startlingly perceptive descriptions, such as that of a young man, seemingly a masculine hero, who actually trembles like a woman when the need to act positively is thrust upon him. Rhoda despises weakness and Gissing seems to, too, and there are no easy or happy endings, with immorality being punished (by the author or society? I’m not sure) and society and its mores shown up under the harsh light of his examination.
So, an uncomfortable read but an interesting one, and it does hold the interest; even at the bleakest moments, I would not have stopped reading for the world, and I did become addicted to the psychological detail and precise delineation of events, places and reactions that Gissing achieves.
New book in – another book on Iceland (for a holiday, so these Do Not Count), and a little one which slipped through the letterbox yesterday. Billed as a light-hearted guide to “what makes the Icelanders Icelandic”, this slim volume does seem to cover the basics of how society works, attitudes to all sorts of things, etc., and will be read with interest but a pinch of salt.
So, I’m STILL currently reading “The Double Life of Jane Austen” (which pushes against my ‘death of the author’ espousal like MAD and assumes a knowledge of Austen that does leave me racking my brains for the book in which someone appears but is good on the whole) and “Waterlog” (which is still making me sleepy but again, is enjoyable). Up next will be Charlie Hill’s “The Space Between Things”, as I’m going to an event in Birmingham next week where he’ll be talking about his books and hopefully reading from his new one, “Books”, which I will then buy. “The Space Between Things” is set in early-1990s Moseley in Birmingham, somewhere I spent time at that time, and just flicking through the first few pages, I can see so much great observation and recognisable places and types, so I’m really looking forward to that. And then possibly the Laxness – has no one who reads this blog read any Laxness? I did put out a shout-out to see if anyone can shed light on why he’s so revered, from personal experience. Do let me know!