chapter  3
16 Pages

Gissing’s Failed New Men: Masculinity in The Odd Women

The Odd Women (1894) is George Gissing’s most concerted effort to enter the debate on New Womanhood. In addition to the novel’s thematic focus on the struggles of late-century feminists and their less radical counterparts, The Odd Women also details the way that men in this period of sexual change often felt ‘odd’, isolated and out of touch. Fin-de-siècle social changes, such as the integration of women into higher education and the workforce, and legislative acts that improved women’s legal status in marriage, challenged long-held beliefs about gender difference.1 An inability to adapt to the social transformations that had so profoundly altered women’s lives led some men to feel detached and nostalgic for earlier-Victorian ways of life.2 When Mary Barfoot tells Rhoda Nunn that her cousin Everard ‘won’t admit to any ambition’, Rhoda responds, ‘After all, what ambition should he have? … There’s one advantage in being a woman. A woman with brains and will may hope to distinguish herself in the greatest movement of our time – that of emancipating her sex. But what can a man do, unless he has genius?’3 Rhoda’s question hints at the aimlessness that many men confronted during the cultural shifts of the late century. Gissing’s QRYHOV DUH ¿OOHG ZLWK PHQ ZKR H[SHULHQFH WURXEOHG RU IDLOHG PDVFXOLQLW\ most often due to ¿QDQFLDO ZRHV VXFK DV 5HXEHQ (OJDU DQG 5RVV 0DOODUG

from The Emancipated (1890), Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen from New Grub Street (1891), and Godwin Peak from Born in Exile (1892).4 In The Odd Women (YHUDUG%DUIRRW DQG (GPXQG:LGGRZVRQ DUH ¿QDQFLDOO\ VHFXUH EXW they struggle to adapt to the social changes of the 1890s, especially to the New Woman’s increased freedom. This paper will examine the way that these two very different characters respond to the New Woman, and how they relate to her male counterpart, the New Man. Feminists imagined the New Man as D ¿JXUH ZKR VXSSRUWHG WKH 1HZ:RPDQ¶V YLHZV IRU HTXDOLW\ DQGZKR ZLWK KHUKHOSZRXOGFUHDWHQHZLGHDOVDQGGH¿QLWLRQVRIPDUULDJH*LVVLQJ¶VGHVLUH throughout his career to write otherness – to describe, for instance, the lives of lonely spinsters or those men close to Gissing’s heart who were ‘well-educated, fairly bred, but without money’ – extends to his characterizations of Barfoot and Widdowson and the way that they react to their cultural moment. The rise of the New Woman invariably meant that men had to respond to what Rhoda calls ‘the greatest movement of our time’ (p. 87). *LVVLQJ¶VSHUVSHFWLYHRQWKHIHPLQLVWPRYHPHQWKDVEHHQQRWRULRXVO\GLI¿FXOW

WR GH¿QH 5HÀHFWLQJ WKLV DPELYDOHQFH 'DYLG *U\OOV FDOOV *LVVLQJ D µZRPDQ worshipping misogynist with an interest in female emancipation’, while Jacob Korg argues that he was ‘an enemy of the Victorian myth of the inferiority of women, >[email protected]¿UPO\WKDWZRPHQZHUHWKHLQWHOOHFWXDODQGVSLULWXDOHTXDOVRI men’.5 Gissing did not have a group of feminist acquaintances to draw upon for his depictions of Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot; in fact, Paul Delany claims that the only New Woman Gissing knew was the writer and reformer Edith Sichel.6 Gissing thus relied primarily on books and newspapers for his depiction of the women’s movement. While it must have been challenging for Gissing to imagine WKHGDLO\OLYHVRI1HZ:RPHQLWZDVOLNHO\HYHQPRUHGLI¿FXOWIRUKLPWRLPDJLQH what the relationship between the New Woman and New Man would be like. As critics have pointed out, Barfoot and Widdowson are radically different men, but Gissing has both characters exhibit desires for control in romantic relationships, showing that even more modern men like Barfoot ‘struggle for predominance’ (p. 268).7 While such struggles are key to understanding Gissing’s representation

of late-century masculinities, a different element of his representational strategy in this novel will here be emphasized: his engagement with the New Man.8