This is an astonishing book: a subversive, feminist take on marriage and women’s roles in society, written by a man in the 1890s. I suspect that’s not a coincidence, that a woman couldn’t have gotten away with this book and its criticism of Victorian marriage and Victorian men. And to round out the praise, it is also an excellent story, with fascinating and believable characters, that had me turning the pages as quickly as any contemporary novel.
Late 19th century England had a marriage market in crisis – the country had many more women than men (presumably due to colonization), yet there was no provision for the “odd women out”; in society’s eyes a woman’s life was worthless if she failed to marry. The problem is considered so severe that a male character in this book urges marriage on his friend as a charitable duty, to save some poor woman from spinsterhood. This is the backdrop to a story primarily about two women, though not the two you’ll see in the blurb or the first chapters. Alice and Virginia Madden are our prototypical Victorian spinsters, who after their father’s death are forced to make their living as a governess and a companion respectively: work they find unfulfilling and precarious. They mope quietly in the background of this novel, too plain to hope for husbands and too timid to break out of their roles, serving as the example its other women react against.
Anyway, on to our real protagonists. First, Rhoda Nunn, now one of my favorite literary heroines. Like her friends Alice and Virginia, Rhoda is not pretty and was forced to make her living at a young age; unlike them, she is independent, bold and uncompromising, and went about learning the skills she needed to find work with dignity. When the story opens she and her friend Mary Barfoot are running a typing school for young women, enabling them to make a decent living. Rhoda and Mary are active feminists and represent different sides of the movement, Rhoda the militant who dislikes the idea of marriage, Mary the gentler side whose goal is helping others. Of course Rhoda’s world is shaken when she starts to fall for Mary’s cousin, the charming Everard.
Our other heroine is Monica, the youngest and prettiest of the Madden sisters. Monica is briefly a student at the typing school, and picks up some feminist ideas without quite realizing it, but at heart she is a conventional woman afraid of becoming an “old maid.” So when a wealthy older man begins to stalk her, she marries him in spite of her misgivings, and her story is one of trying to negotiate the boundaries of a Victorian marriage, in which her husband expects to rule her in all things.
As you can see from the above, while this book has the drawing-room conversations and reticence about sex you’d expect from a Victorian novel, otherwise it’s unlike anything I’ve read from the 19th century. It engages frankly with issues of class and gender, and I loved reading about the early feminist movement. First-wave feminism is known for being exclusive, and we see the characters thinking and arguing about that: should they include poor women? What about “fallen” women? (Women of color do not come up, and the book is much less progressive when it comes to race. The n-word pops up twice – jarringly, in contexts not meant to be offensive.) Exclusivity wins out in the end, but it’s important to see that it isn’t without debate; at any rate I can hardly blame these women for it, given where they started and how much we owe to women like them.
But it is also simply an excellent story, well-written and very readable, with an engaging plot that grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. This is not a story you’ve read before; there’s genuine suspense regarding the outcome. The characters are realistic, three-dimensional people, all of them with strengths and flaws, and it’s a great strength of Gissing’s writing that different readers can come to wildly different conclusions about them. You don’t have to be especially interested in feminism to enjoy this book, though if you are it’s a real treat.
I do have a couple of reservations, for which it gets 4.5 stars rather than 5. One, the will-they-or-won’t-they between Rhoda and Everard in the middle of the book is drawn out a bit too long. And two, there’s a bit too much unnecessary female jealousy, some of it bizarrely retconned into an otherwise beautiful scene. However, I forgive all of this in light of the end; this book can’t be intelligently discussed without talking about the ending, so my interpretation is included below. But I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to know before reading the book, so be warned.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
So, this is basically the most feminist ending ever. First off, Rhoda rejects Everard in favor of devoting herself to her work. Name me one other novel, please, whose heroine chooses herself over an acceptable man! Some critics have seen this as pride getting the better of her, and causing her to lose out on romantic love and motherhood. But every choice in life means giving up the alternative, and given Rhoda’s immediate regrets when she initially agreed to the marriage, this seems to be the choice that will bring her the most happiness. And I doubt this couple would have worked out anyway; sparring might make exciting courtship but the endless power struggle would have lost its luster. And the way Everard thinks about marriage, in terms of conquest and domination, is in no way attractive; when he says he wants a strong woman, he means the submission of a worthy opponent. He doesn't care about Rhoda herself nearly as much as the excitement of the chase. I admit to getting a little caught up in the romance myself, but on reflection the misunderstanding really was fortunate for them both.
And Monica. A lot of reviewers have interpreted her death as a punishment for considering adultery, and yes, the "unfaithful" woman's death is a common trope in Victorian novels. However, this is not a moralistic novel, and Monica never actually cheats, so it’s hard to see why Gissing would have felt the need to punish her. And look at the simple cause-and-effect: Monica dies giving birth to the child she conceived with her husband, not in any way related to her potential affair. Had she rejected Widdowson, she would have lived. That’s right: marriage
killed Monica, not immorality. I told you this book was subversive.