Attitudes towards “Womanliness” in Victorian England: a Literary Analysis of George Gissing’s “The Odd Women”

The predominant Victorian attitudes towards women’s nature relegated roles of women to the domestic and household spheres. Managing of the household, taking care of the children, and entertaining the husband were commonly considered the duty of a good wife and a good woman. Her place was viewed to be in the home in privacy and was not one of sociability or of any sort of public capacities; her nature was believed to preclude her from any such activities which were the domain of men. As the nature of women was viewed as a natural complement to men, the ambitions and desires of Victorian women were relegated to marriage. The essence of womanliness according to Victorian attitudes was in domesticity and duty to her husband and family, anything remotely outside of which would be deemed unwomanly. George Gissing’s The Odd Women emphasizes Victorian attitudes towards women’s nature and womanliness, shedding light on the burdens of obligation that sexual divisions—legitimized by views of men and women’s differing natures—created for both men and women.

Edmund Widdowson, the novel’s conservative proponent, represents the prevailing attitudes in support of gendered divisions based on men and women’s distinctive natures. He inherits Victorian conservative John Ruskin’s views of women’s nature as being childlike and dependent on relation to men. In reflecting on his wife Monica, he thinks, “Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief. Therefore the blessedness of household toil, in especial the blessedness of child-bearing and all that followed.” 1) Widdowson, representative of Victorian attitudes towards women’s nature, believes women to be simple-minded and unintelligent—unfit for public life or responsibilities of any real significance and therefore belonging to the domestic sphere where she could be kept “out of mischief.”

The Odd Women shows that from a young age, girls are brought up to believe womanliness to be synonymous with childlike and with an incapability to handle matters outside of the domestic sphere. Dr. Madden, father of the Madden sisters, tells his daughters his beliefs on financial matters over dinner: “I don't think girls ought to be troubled about this kind of thing. Let men grapple with the world; for, as the old hymn says, ‘tis their nature to.” 2) He teaches his daughters early in their lives that women’s nature inhibits them from matters associated with the social role of men.

Limited to domestic and private affairs and profoundly lacking in economic opportunity, women were brought up in preparation for marriage and little more. The attitude that women’s nature was wholly intertwined with marriage was commonplace in Victorian Britain and it therefore represented the ambitions of most women. Monica Madden, after meeting and corresponding with Mr. Widdowson several times, shares her thoughts on the importance of marriage to her:3)

“As things went in the marriage war, she might esteem herself a most fortunate young woman. It seemed that he had really fallen in love with her; he might prove a devoted husband. She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation. The chances were that she might never again receive an offer from a man whose social standing she could respect.”

Monica’s thoughts on marriage echo the implications of the societal views of women’s nature as centered on marriage. Her words hint that her choice of whether or not to marry Mr. Widdowson hinged not on her love for him but the fact that he was willing to marry her. Victorian attitudes towards womanliness firmly tied her supposed nature to marriage to the point that she had “little room for hesitation” for fear that she would not have another chance to marry if she declined his offer of marriage.

Furthermore, The Odd Women emphasizes the notion not only that marriage is the ultimate end for a woman but that it is the principal criterion for their identity. However much a woman may desire to have meaning in her life outside of marriage or to be identified not solely by her husband, Victorian attitudes towards women’s nature and therefore the role of women established that a woman’s duty in marriage superseded any other callings or responsibilities. As Everard tells his cousin Mary, “Remember that when a man chooses his calling he chooses it for life. A girl cannot but remember that if she marries her calling at once changes. The old business is thrown aside—henceforth profitless.” 4) His words reinforce the predominant Victorian notion that women’s nature relegated their sex to the domestic sphere and thus that marriage was to be the sole criterion of women’s ambitions, desires—and in essence—their identity.

Sexual divisions arising from prevailing Victorian attitudes on men and women’s nature created burdens for men as well as women. As marriage was expected to be aspired to by women, men too were expected to marry. For their part, men were supposed to work and provide an estate for himself and his wife in marriage. Micklethwaite, a friend of Everard Barfoot’s in Gissing’s The Odd Women remarks to him of the woman he had fallen in love with:5)

“Now, the remarkable thing was that she took a liking for me, and when I was scoundrel enough to tell her of my feeling, she didn't reject me…I hadn't a penny in the world. I lived at the school, and received a salary of thirty pounds, half of which had to go towards the support of my mother. What could possibly have been more villainous? What earthly prospect was there of my being able to marry?”

As Victorian attitudes towards women’s nature precluded respectable women from work and public life, men were left with the burden of supporting their wives and families despite the fact that many men—as proven by the case of Micklethwaite—did not earn inordinately more than the “odd women” that necessarily had to work to support themselves independently of husbands.

As Micklethwaite later said to Everard, “You are in debt to some worthy woman to the extent of half your income. Be quick and find her. It will be better for you,” 6) exhibiting the normality with which the financial burden of marriage and supporting a family fell squarely on the shoulders of Victorian men. Victorian attitudes towards manliness surely established social precepts which necessitated that men alone were capable of and responsible for shouldering this burden.

Everard Barfoot, cousin of the feminist Mary Barfoot in Gissing’s The Odd Women, makes the point that the insufficiency of women’s education makes them an intellectual burden on their husbands: “Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous…The vast majority of men must make a marriage that is doomed to be a dismal failure…I tell you the simple truth when I say that more than half these men regard their wives with active disgust.” 7) According to Everard, men—already pressured by a society that emphasizes marriage—are forced to take intellectually inferior wives, inherently dooming their marriages to unhappiness. Victorian men he argues therefore are burdened by the gendered divisions that stem from social attitudes towards men and women’s nature. Obligated to public, financial, and academic matters by social conceptions of manliness, while women are restricted from those very spheres by social conceptions of womanliness, Victorian men according to Everard are doomed to unhappiness.

He goes on to tell tale after tale of great friends of his that have needlessly suffered at the hands of women brought up under Victorian social precepts. His brother Tom, he claims, though he promised to be a genius has been inhibited by a marriage in which his wife claims to suffer of frequent imaginary ailments. Telling of his friend Poppleton, Everard implies that his wife’s lack of humor is responsible for his admission to an insane asylum: “Mrs. Poppleton not only never made a joke, but couldn't understand what joking meant…[She] no more understood the nature of a pun than of the binomial theorem…Shall I ever forget her. ‘Oh—yes—I see’?—when obviously she saw nothing but the wall at which she sat staring.” 8) Clearly Everard supports the women’s movement because of the intellectual burden that uneducated women place on their husbands, painting Victorian marriage to be incredibly confining for men.

His cousin Mary goes on to agree: “When one thinks how often a woman is a clog upon a man's ambition, no wonder they regard us as they do,” 9) to which Rhoda Nunn, the novel’s representative of militant feminists, replied, “Of course, women are always retarding one thing or another. But men are intensely stupid not to have remedied that long ago.” 10) The supporters of women in Gissing’s The Odd Women appear to agree on the notion that the stupidity and ignorance that has come to embody the term womanliness is profoundly confining and burdensome for Victorian men. As such, the proper and equal education of women was proposed by early feminists as a step towards reconstruction of the conception of womanliness from one of un-intellectuality and ignorance to one of intellectual equality with men that might lift both the repressive implications of womanliness for Victorian women and the burden of women’s intellectual inferiority for Victorian men.

Mary Barfoot, an early feminist that runs a business school for women in The Odd Women, espouses a re-conceptualization of women’s nature and thus of the confining hierarchy of manliness and womanliness that had come to define Victorian society. In contrast to the miserable married life of Monica Madden, she espouses in society “a new type of woman, active in every sphere of life: a new worker out in the world, a new ruler of the home.” 11) She strives to eliminate gendered barriers that stem from supposed differences between men and women’s nature to help women to become independent—educated and able to work to become self-sufficient—rather than relegating themselves to a life solely for marriage.

Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, in attempting to establish for women the ability to lead independent lives, strive to reconstruct the conceptions of womanliness that relegate them to lives of marriage and nothing more. To do so according to Miss Barfoot requires “a revolution in the social order greater than any that yet seems possible…an active warfare.” 12) Thus, early Victorian feminists believed that in order to overcome the precepts of womanliness and the resulting hierarchy in work and public matters, women had to invade “manly” spheres—those “which men have always forbidden us to enter.” 13) By educating women and allowing them entrance to the public sphere to work, early feminists argued that women would free themselves “from the heritage of weakness and contempt” 14) and thus would be free from a principle basis by which women were repressed socially.

Early proponents of this women’s movement did not seek to usurp men’s nature but rather to reform the hierarchy of social conceptions of manly and womanly. On one hand, the movement sought to combat the predominant Victorian attitude of womanliness that “a woman’s life is wasted if she does not marry,” 15) “to help those women who, by sheer necessity, must live alone—woman whom vulgar opinion ridicules” 16) and furthermore to legitimate the means by which those women may support themselves.

On the other hand, the movement—by establishing for women the ability to lead independent lives—would lift the burden of obligation for men to marry women of intellectual inferiority who might inhibit their ambition or crush their spirit. As Mary Barfoot remarked, “The mass of women have always been paltry creatures, and their paltriness has proved a curse to men. So, if you like to put it in this way, we are working for the advantage of men as well as for our own.” 17) Early Victorian feminists worked to re-conceptualize men and women’s nature in order to legitimate the shift of women into previously male spheres and to lift the burdens of women’s idleness and lack of education from both sexes. Thus, in seeking to remedy the hierarchy of Victorian conceptions of manliness and womanliness, early feminists sought to emancipate both men and women from its limitations on society.

Literary Analysis | History


Gissing, George. The Odd Women. Penguin Classics, 1994.

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