And the Women Shall Inherit the Earth: Late Victorian Over-Population and the Condition of England on the Threshold in George Gissing’s The Odd Women

by Carroll Clayton Savant

“‘But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?[…] Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives…I look upon them as a great reserve…’” (Gissing 44). Rhoda Nunn’s concern for the future of the “odd women,” who far outnumber the population of men and remain unmarried, is one of the many undercurrents found throughout George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women. Set in the overcrowded, industrial, and overwhelming late-Victorian London, Gissing’s pessimistic novel of decay and devolution investigates the anxieties facing Victorian society, brought about by overpopulation. The Odd Women portrays the plight of the New Woman within the context of this changing paradigm, as Gissing’s hysterical “odd women” negotiate their way through London in a deluge of people and technology. The tone of Gissing’s novel creates a pervasive sense of melancholic anxiety that is indicative of the late-Victorian devolution/degeneracy debates that dominated the 1890s. Noting this pervasive tone, Nicholas Shrimpton argues that the nineteenth century saw a series of philosophical and psychological waves of pessimism, which culminated in the pessimism at this time. He writes that

Christians, positivists, and Hegelians continued to insist that the world was essentially a good place, and that the pattern of history was progressive. Pessimists responded with a view of existence summed up by one of the aphorisms in Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena of 1851: ‘No rose without a thorn. But many a thorn without a rose’…the contest between optimism and pessimism was a prominent feature of the intellectual life of the late nineteenth century. (42-43)

Gissing’s The Odd Women adds to this debate on pessimism and decay by setting the tone of the interaction between the disenfranchised “odd women” and the overpopulated and dehumanizing city of London. The goal of this project is to investigate the social and philosophical functions of Gissing’s novel and show that by addressing the anxieties of his day about the future place of the individual within the overpopulated, industrial city, his text contributed to the growing hysteria facing the late-Victorian period. By placing Gissing’s text within the context of the degeneration/devolution novels of the 1890s, I intend to show that Gissing’s novel allows him to draw on and contribute to the philosophical and intellectual debates of his time by illustrating the philosophical/psychological impact of the industrial city and its overpopulation on the individual.

       In a New Historicist reading of Gissing’s The Odd Women, I intend to look at Gissing’s representation of overpopulation in order to show that the anxiety and “hysteria” seen in Gissing’s novel is an extension of the devolution and degeneracy debates of the 1890s. In looking at the way Gissing addresses the “population problem,” I intend to show, in a Malthusian vein, that the “odd women’s” misery is symptomatic of the miseries of overpopulation. In looking at the historical population statistics of Victorian England, I aim to show that Victorian Britain, spurred by the industrial and technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution, effectively avoided the Malthusian population “checks,” but that these very technological advances produced the misery seen in The Odd Women. By investigating the population “boom” of the mid-to-late Victorian period, I plan on showing that Gissing’s overpopulated and over-stimulated London is the genesis of the many social and industrial problems addressed in his novel.

       The fin de siècle marked a turning point in Victorian society and was illustrated in a new trend in literature, which attempted to understand this social, economic, and industrial paradigm shift. Shrimpton argues that the pessimistic philosophies that began circulating in the mid-nineteenth century had spread to the literary discipline by the century’s end. In particular, Shrimpton writes that it was the “second wave” of pessimism, dominated by the Romantic movement, and exacerbated by Matthew Arnold, that was a driving force in the Victorian “anxieties” about technology, population, and, most importantly, the future. He writes that “[i]t was an economist rather than a poet, however, who provided the most influentially pessimistic statement of the Romantic period. Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1793) was an empirical study of the way in which population outstrips food supply” (51). For Shrimpton, the authors of the 1890s caught on to this “climate” of pessimism and sought to express it in their works. He writes that “English writers in the late nineteenth century [and notes Gissing in particular] were feeling the effects of the third of the three great—and increasingly powerful—waves of modern philosophical pessimism” (49). The pessimism of which Shrimpton writes was illustrative of the artistic and literary Aesthetic movement, as artists turned to artistic disciplines in order to try to come to terms with the anxieties concerning social devolution and degeneration.

       According to degeneration and devolution theorists and writers, late-nineteenth century civilization had evolved as far as possible and risked devolving back into its more “primitive” state. As early as 1880, Edwin Lankester attempted to place the “problem” of degeneration [1] in its connection to Darwinian evolution and the ability of humanity to adapt to the evolving environment.[2] He writes that “[d]egeneration may be defined as a gradual change of the structure in which the organism becomes adapted to less varied and less complex conditions of life…” (3). For Lankester, the threat of degeneration lay in the possibility that humanity, having reached its pinnacle of “civilization,” could no longer adapt to changing environmental conditions; in this instance, environmental conditions were becoming more and more industrial, as an overpopulated society turned to technology in order to assuage the problems of population. In this way, the individual was becoming unable to “adapt” to the evolving conditions of life, thereby risking “devolving” into a more primitive state. Lankester writes that “[t]he traditional history of mankind furnishes us with notable examples of degeneration. High states of civilisation have decayed and given place to low and degenerate states. At one time it was a favourite doctrine that the savage races of mankind were degenerate descendants of the higher and civilised aces” (4). In a similar line, science fiction and science writer H.G. Wells takes Lankester’s concept further, as he notes the social ramifications of biological devolution of the individual. Using the metaphor of zoological species degradation to reinforce the anxieties facing human devolution, Wells writes that

[i]t has decided that in the past the great scroll of nature has been steadily unfolding to reveal a constantly richer harmony of forms and successively higher grades of being, and it assumes that this ‘evolution’ will continue with increasing velocity under the supervision of its extreme expression—man. This belief, as effective, progressive, and pleasing as transformation scenes at a pantomime, receives neither in the geological record nor in the studies of the phylogenetic embryologist any entirely satisfactory confirmation. (6)

For Wells, the threat of devolution and degeneration is clear: one species can only progress so far before it begins to regress on its evolutionary path of progress. And for Gissing’s late-Victorian world, this is seen in the overreliance on technology and industry in order to “survive” in the overpopulated and congested city. Wells writes that “…degradation may perhaps suffice to show that there is a good deal to be found in the work of biologists quite inharmonious with such phrases as ‘the progress of ages,’ and the ‘march of mind.’ The zoologist demonstrates that advance has been fitful and uncertain; rapid progress has often been followed by rapid extinction or degeneration” (12). For Lankester, Wells, and Gissing alike, this hysterical anxiety about the trajectory of mankind and mankind’s ability to survive (and thrive) in an overpopulated and industrial world dominated the aesthetics of the late nineteenth century. The various trends that marked the late-nineteenth century Aesthetic movement captured the hysterical pessimism of these debates on devolution and degeneracy and illustrated them through their various art forms.

       The rise of the Aesthetic movement offered a new literary form in which to voice and illustrate the anxieties facing late-nineteenth century England, in particular, the pessimistic debates on devolution.[3] Tracing the rise of “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” Arthur Symons [4] writes that

[t]he most representative literature of the day [for Symons, 1893]…is certainly not classic, nor has it any relation with that old antithesis of the Classic, the Romantic. After a fashion it is no doubt a decadence: an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity. If what we call the classic is indeed the supreme art…then this representative literature of today, interesting, beautiful, novel as it is, is really a new and beautiful and interesting disease. (105)

This degenerate and “diseased” literature of which Symons writes is the aesthetic fulfillment of the degeneracy/devolution debates of which Wells and Lankester were warning, and one might add, predicting. This highly decadent, over-the-top literature relies, according to Symons, on “la nervose” and is a product of the “maladie fin de siècle”, which contributes to the hysteria of the collapse and devolution of society (105). This, as Joyce Carol Oates argues, is the “Aesthetics of Fear.” Though tracing the historical/aesthetic function of the role of horror and fear in literature, Oates writes that “[w]e can presume that the aesthetic fear is not an authentic fear but an artful simulation of what is crude, inchoate, nerve-driven and ungovernable in life; its evolutionary advantage must be the preparation for the authentic experience, unpredictable and always imminent” (176). This “diseased” and decadent literature of the late-nineteenth century is the fear-mongering fruition of the “pessimistic” debates on devolution (and, as will be pointed out later, the culmination of the late-Victorian debates on population, overcrowding, and, inherently, industrialization). Symons writes that

…this literature is certainly typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct. It reflects the moods, all the manners, of a sophisticated society: its very artificiality is a way of being true to nature: simplicity, sanity, proportion…how much do we possess them in our life, our surroundings, that we should look to find them in our literature—so evidently the literature of a decadence? (106)

This decadent literature highlights all of the social, political, and economic ills of the late nineteenth century. Studying the social, and one could further, devolutionary, effects of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oates writes that “Stoker was dramatizing the clash of Darwinian evolutionary theory with traditional Christian-humanist sentiment…In the austere Darwinian model of our beleaguered Earth, the individual counts for virtually nothing; only the species matters, the replication of DNA” (184). For Oates, though she chooses not to call it such, Stoker’s novel is a “degeneracy” novel, illustrating and highlighting the anxieties of Stoker’s time, in this instance, the “progressive march,” of society. Though Oates attempts to place Stoker’s novel within a historical/theological context, if we eliminate any discussion of theology and investigate Stoker’s novel as a historical artifact, we begin to see the Aesthetic function of literature as an illustration of the social and cultural anxieties of its day. Similarly, this is the function of George Gissing’s The Odd Women.

       From the very beginning of his novel, Gissing’s The Odd Women is illustrative of the degeneracy and devolutionary tone infiltrating society during of the 1890s. Robert Selig notes this tone throughout Gissing’s novel, noting that

[t]he first seven chapters and scattered later ones depict the sufferings of ‘The Odd Women’ [sic] with both sympathy and authentic social detail. The six Madden sisters provide the central examples of unfortunate single females. Their father has given them genteel educations but dies without leaving them a large enough income to support genteel ways. Within 10 years three have suffered early deaths, and three struggle on ill-paid and degrading work[…] (62)

This tone is the undercurrent for the entire novel and Gissing introduces the reader to it from the very beginning. The novel opens with an introduction to the Madden family, as Alice Madden remembers her mother while she speaks with her father, Dr. Madden, about the family’s precarious future. Gissing writes:

Mrs. Madden, having given birth to six daughters, had fulfilled her function in this wonderful world; for two years she had been resting in the old churchyard that looks upon the Severn sea…A sweet, calm, unpretending woman; admirable in the domesticities; in speech and thought distinguished by a native refinement, which in the most fastidious eyes would have established her claim to the title of a lady. She had known but little repose, and secret anxieties told upon her countenance long before the final collapse of health. (5-6)

What is interesting to note in Gissing’s description of the late Mrs. Madden is her temperament; in this way, the Maddens embody the “anxieties” of the future that we see in figures like Symons, Wells, and Lankester. Though the Maddens hail from the remote coastal town of Clevedon, it is clear that Mrs. Madden, described as a “sweet, calm” woman, lacks the evolutionary ability to “adapt” to her surroundings, even in the remote countryside, and therefore declines, devolves, and dies away. As if to reiterate the melancholic anxious tone of the novel and press his point further, by the end of the first chapter, after Dr. Madden has run an errand to escort home a family friend, Rhoda Nunn, news of the Doctor’s trip alters the Madden sisters’ futures irreparably. Gissing writes:

[…]Dr. Madden, driving back from Kingston Seymour, had been thrown from his vehicle, and lay insensible at a roadside cottage[…]For some time the doctor had been intending to buy a new horse; his faithful old roadster was very weak in the knees. As in other matters, so in this, postponement became fatality; the horse stumbled and fell, and its driver was flung head forward into the road. Some hours later they brought him to his home, and for a day or two there were hopes that he might rally. But the sufferer’s respite only permitted him to dictate and sign a brief will; this duty performed, Dr. Madden closed his lips forever. (10)

Dr. Madden’s death throws the family into a tailspin as sister after sister dies as they venture into the “maddening,” overwhelming city of London in an attempt to survive. Gissing chronicles the various sisters’ fates as they slowly dwindle in numbers. He writes that “Gertrude and Martha were dead; the former of consumption, the other drowned by the over-turning of a pleasure boat[…]Alice plied her domestic teaching; Virginia remained a ‘companion.’ Isabel, now aged twenty, taught in a Board School at Bridgwater, and Monica, just fifteen, was on the point of being apprenticed to a draper at Weston, where Virginia abode” (15). Once the sisters reach a point of “stability,” the struggle for survival catches up with them, overwhelming them in an age of overpopulation and over-industrialization. Gissing writes that “Isabel was soon worked into illness. Brain trouble came on, resulting in melancholia. A charitable institution ultimately received her, and there, at two-and-twenty, the poor hard-featured girl drowned herself in a bath” (emphasis added, 16). It is quickly obvious that life in the overcrowded, industrial, and “maddening” city has its effects on the individual. Gissing’s novel picks up with the three remaining sisters struggling, where their other sisters could not adapt (in a Malthusian and Darwinian sense), for survival. The fact that Gissing introduces the reader to an entire family, only to end up with over half of the family dead within the first two chapters sets up the tone for the entire novel. Throughout the novel, one begins to see how Gissing’s London affects the individual on an “organic” level.

       As if anticipating the “pessimism” debates that marked the 1890s hysteria of devolution and degeneracy [5], Malthus’ 1798 essay on population examines the unstable trajectory of the future—and the theoretical warning in which Gissing and the Victorians, found themselves one century later: an overpopulated land plagued with dwindling resources (and over-industrialization as society worked, through machines, in order to survive). In language that anticipates the Darwinian struggle for survival, Malthus writes “[…]that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio” (4). For Malthus, population booms are contributed to by increased human industry that allows the population to increase unchecked; however, he argues that the natural resources available for humanity will always dictate the population trajectory. Malthus writes that “[t]he reason that the greater part of Europe is more populous now than it was in former times, is that the industry of the inhabitants has made these countries produce a greater quantity of human subsistence” (17). However, Malthus argues that no matter how many technological and industrial improvements society has made, there are only so many resources physically available in order to sustain a growing population. Similarly, this is the problem we see in Gissing’s London: an overpopulated city has turned to an overreliance on technology to attempt to meet the demands of survival (and Gissing shows us the “cost” of this overreliance throughout his novel). According to Malthus, and one could argue later, in Darwin, the scarcity of resources promotes competition among individuals in order to survive.[6] For Malthus, this struggle for survival is rooted in the trajectory of population, which, when continued unchecked, outstrips all available resources, creating miserable living conditions. He writes that “[…]the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice, the ample portion of these too bitter ingredients in the cup of human life and the continuance of the physical causes that seem to have produced them bear too convincing a testimony” (11). Thus, as sustenance dwindles, population numbers come in check due to the lack of available resources, essentially creating the “misery” that effectively puts a damper on population growth.[7] The anxieties and hysterics that Malthus forewarns of are exactly part and parcel of the problem that Gissing’s “odd women,” and to a greater extent, the Victorians, faced in the late nineteenth century.

       Late-Victorian Britain marked a turning point in British population growth, as economic and foreign affairs affected the population “boom” made possible by the advances of the Industrial Revolution. In a study of the population demographics of Victorian Britain, Robert Woods notes that “[…]the Victorian period was so important as a [population] turning point in England” (4). For Woods, this “turning point” was marked by a lower mortality rate and higher fertility rates. The implication, as Jeremy Black and Donald MacRaild suggest, is that increased technological and industrial advances allowed such a population boom and prevented the traditional Malthusian checks to population.[8] Black and MacRaild write that Victorian Britain saw a population boom on the scale of which Malthus warned. They write that “[p]opulation grew dramatically in this period without famines[…]in other words, without the ‘positive checks’ on population which were seen as so vital by the Reverend Thomas Malthus[…]” (59). Black and MacRaild argue that the “checks” Malthus warned would produce misery and vice were relatively minimal, due to the technological and industrial gains that produced such a boom. Black and MacRaild state that though Malthus’s “prophesies of a population crisis never occurred,” this population boom clearly put a strain on the new urban-centered English societies (59). What is interesting is that Black and MacRaild focus on the “relief valve” of emigration as a way to help assuage the pressure resulting from the booming population in the absence of Malthusian population checks (59). Historical consensus indicates that the Victorian period marked a break with Malthusian population theory and altered the shape and geography of Britain, resulting in a new “debate” on the population trajectory of British society.

       The population boom that dominated the Victorian period, made possible by the technological and industrial advances spurred by the Industrial Revolution, altered the very geography of Victorian society. Woods notes that population growth was spurred by an increasingly urban culture (27). Tracing The Population History of England in their seminal study, E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield claim that h, h,istorically London was the epicenter of all population booms and declines. They write that “[i]t was the very size and untypicality [sic] of London that made it seem advisable to make separate estimates of the numbers of ecclesiastical [population] events occurring there and to incorporate them explicitly in the estimated national totals of events[…]” (170). Similarly, Black and MacRaild note that the population growth that dominated Victorian Britain was overshadowed by that which was seen in London, specifically. They write that “[b]etween 1861 and 1911, it [London] burgeoned from 2.8 m[illion] to 4.5 m[illion] inhabitants. While much of this was due to net immigration, natural increase accounted for 85 per cent of all growth by the end of the century” (81). According to Wrigley and Schofield, London’s population “boom” began to take hold at the beginning of the nineteenth century when London comprised 3.6% of the entire total population of England (168). For Wrigley and Schofield, as for Woods, the nineteenth century marked a turning point in London’s population trends, which continued to grow exponentially throughout the rest of the century. Black and MacRaild write that the total population of England in the mid-nineteenth century was 17.93 million, booming to 29 million by the end of the century. While the urban population made up 50.2% of the total population of 17.93 million in 1851, by 1891, the urban population comprised 72% of the 29 million residents of England. Black and MacRaild, similar to Wrigley and Schofield, argue that London, due to its immense size, made up the majority of this “urban population” (80). While the traditional Malthusian checks to population increase were greatly reduced in the new highly-industrialized Victorian England, particularly in London the Victorian population boom produced an overtly new form of society, one that was just as miserable as Malthus’ “lower orders.” As Woods argues, overcrowding and dwindling resources did have an effect on London society. He writes that

[t]he crowding together of people affected disease patterns, especially those of infectious diseases; it created a more lethal sanitary environment; and it also led to new, higher and more concentrated levels of air pollution. These hazards were faced by all those living in cities, but there were other problems—those associated with poverty and type of employment, with housing and diet—whose effects were borne differentially depending on one’s social group or class. (27-28)

This is exactly the society that Gissing and his fellow Aesthetes attempt to illustrate in their late-Victorian novels.

       The London that Gissing’s Madden sisters inhabit is crowded and over-stimulating, an indication of the overpopulation seen at the end of the nineteenth century. This overcrowding has a clearly visible effect on the individual. After the death of her father, Virginia Madden finds herself living in London with her sister Alice in a small, single-room apartment, struggling to survive. Gissing writes that

Virginia (about thirty-three) had[…]an unhealthy look, but the poverty, or vitiation, of her blood manifested itself in less unsightly forms[…]For she was rapidly ageing; her lax lips grew laxer, with emphasis of a characteristic one would rather not have perceived there; her eyes sank into deeper hollows; wrinkles extended their net-work; the flesh of her neck wore away. Her tall meagre body did not seem strong enough to hold itself upright. (14)

It is clear that the mix of the overpopulated London and lack of resources has taken a toll on Virginia’s health. As she sits down for lunch with her sister, we see the extent of their problem. Gissing writes:

[t]hey were preparing their mid-day meal, the substantial repast of the day. In a little saucepan on an oil cooking-stove was some plain rice, bubbling, as Alice stirred it. Virginia fetched from downstairs[…]bread, butter, cheese, a pot of preserve, and arranged the table[…]at which they were accustomed to eat. The rice being ready, it was turned out in two portions; made savoury with a little butter, pepper, and salt, it invited them to sit down. (17)

The Madden sisters at once illustrate the Malthusian population problems facing London at the end of the nineteenth century: an overpopulated, overcrowded city, struggling (in a Darwinian way) for resources and survival.

       We see the full effect of the city on the individual when Virginia ventures out to buy a present for her other surviving sister, Monica. Gissing writes that

“[a] very long walk was before her. She wished to get as far as the Strand book-shops, not only for the sake of choice, but because this region pleased her and gave her a sense of holiday. Past Battersea Park, over Chelsea Bridge, then the weary stretch to Victoria Station, and the upward labour to Charing Cross. Five miles, at least, measured by pavement. But Virginia walked quickly[…]. (22)

Throughout her “quick walk,” the fast pace of London life takes a toll on Virginia. Gissing makes references to the “anxiety” and “clamorous life” that she finds throughout London. Ultimately, it is this “anxiety” that causes Virginia to turn back from her “holiday.” As she approaches the railroad in order to return home, Gissing writes that “[a]t the entrance [to Charing Cross Station] again she stopped. Her features were now working in the strangest way, as though a difficulty of breathing had assailed her. In her eyes was an eager, yet frightened look; her lips stood apart. Another quick movement, and she entered the station. She went straight to the door of the refreshment room…” (23). Virginia’s movements, like the technologically-driven London environment, become quicker and more mechanical, as she becomes “one” with the industrial, “maddening” city. In the refreshment room, Virginia seeks out solace and begins to establish a pattern and a means of coping with life in the overpopulated and over-stimulated London. Gissing writes that “[b]ending forward, she said to the barmaid in a voice just above a whisper: ‘Kindly give me a little brandy.’ Beads of perspiration were on her face, which had turned to a ghastly pallor. The barmaid, concluding that she was ill, served her promptly and with a sympathetic look” (23). It is clear that the cacophonous city has had an effect on Virginia. By the end of the novel, the extent of Virginia’s drinking problem is clear, as she strives to find a way to survive in London. After the “scandal” of Monica’s “affair,” we see Virginia alone in the room she shares with Alice and Monica, turning once again to gin and water for respite. Gissing writes that this was “[t]he last, the very last, of such enjoyment; so she assured herself[…]If she abstained from strong liquors for three or four days it was now a great triumph; yet worthless, for even in abstaining she knew that the hour of indulgence had only been postponed. A fit of unendurable depression soon drove her to the only resource which had immediate efficacy” (333). Invocative of the vice of which Malthus warned would envelop the working classes, overwhelmed by the overpopulated city and their struggle to survive there, Virginia turns to drink in order to calm her nerves. Gissing writes that

[h]er bottle was almost empty; she would finish it to-night[…]To sit comfortably at home, the bottle beside her and her novel on her lap, was an avoidance of the worst shame attaching to this vice[…]Brandy had first of all been her drink, as is generally the case with women of the educated classes. There are so many plausible excuses for taking a drop of brandy. But it cost too much. Whiskey she had tried, and did not like. Finally she had recourse to gin, which was palatable and very cheap. (333-334)

Virginia turns to alcohol to calm her nerves from the over-stimulation wrought by the crowded, fast-paced city. What is clear in Virginia’s alcoholism is that the overpopulated city has had an effect on her, biologically and psychologically.

       Just like Virginia Madden, the few men who populate Gissing’s London are altered radically, essentially devolved, by the influences of the overpopulated city. The first man (of the few) we encounter in the novel is clearly altered by his surroundings. As Monica wanders in the park on her birthday, contemplating her precarious fate, her future husband, Edmund Widdowson, approaches her as she sits in the grass.[9] Gissing writes that

[t]he gravity of his appearance and manner, the good-natured commonplace that fell from his lips, could not alarm her; a dialogue began, and went on for about half an hour. How old might he be?[…]His utterance fell short of perfect refinement, but seemed that of an educated man. And certainly his clothes were such as a gentleman wears. He had thin, hairy hands, unmarked by any effect of labour; the nails could not have been better cared for. (38)

Edmund’s appearance indicates, other than his class, that he is “soft” and not used to working with his hands, contrary to the industrial male laborer. The men who populate industrial London are effeminate and weak in this way. As Edmund “courts” Monica, he essentially stalks her, manipulating her through his fits of heightened emotions, effectually bullying her into a miserable marriage. Similarly, Mary Barfoot’s cousin, Everard, is portrayed just as effeminately. After returning to London from his journeys around the world, Everard dines at Mary’s house. Gissing writes that

[h]e had a tall, muscular frame, and a head of striking outline, with large nose, full lips, deep-set eyes, and prominent eyebrows. His hair was the richest tone of chestnut; his moustache and beard[…]inclined to redness. Excellent health manifested itself in the warm purity of his skin, in his cheerful aspect, and the lightness of his bearing[…]On sitting down, he at once abandoned himself to a posture of the completest [sic] ease, which his admirable proportions made graceful[…]he had a soft voice, and used it with all the discretion of good-breeding, so that at times it seemed to caress the ear. (88)

Though Everard appears physically healthy and masculine, one could argue that his healthy demeanor is derived from his time abroad[10] and is undermined by his speech and mannerisms. Everard and Edmund are the inverted effete “new men” who counterbalance the populous “new women,” and who take up the traditional “masculine” roles in order to survive in an increasingly effeminate world.

       The industrial late-Victorian city was overrun with people; however, the people who overran this city were predominantly women, as Gissing’s novel illustrates. This indicates a drastic shift in the population demographics that marked the Victorian population boom. Many factors contributed to the evolving demographic changes in the Victorian industrial city. Black and MacRaild state that “[t]hroughout the century, women outnumbered men. Industrial accidents and wars took a heavier toll on men and accentuated the statistical fact that live female births were anyway more numerous than male” (57). By the time Gissing’s novel appeared in 1893, the population ratio of women to men was 106 to 100 (Black and MacRaild 57). At heart in Gissing’s The Odd Women is the way these women view their function and place within this new, overpopulated, predominantly feminine world.

       The state of marriage seen in The Odd Women is indicative of the predicament in which late-Victorian women found themselves: outnumbering men proportionately, women in the late-nineteenth century had to turn to other means in order to support themselves. Though one of the population checks for which Malthus advocates is the postponement of marriage, particularly among the “lower orders,” Gissing’s “odd women” do not have that luxury; instead, they are the very women left over after all of the “available” men and women have been “matched.” Poole writes that “[t]he theme of the novel is explicit. The ‘odd women’ are the unwanted, unmarried minority, being quietly crucified on the social fiat that a woman’s role is marriage and motherhood” (186). In lieu of marriage, Gissing’s “odd women” turn to other means in order to survive: education and the professional workforce. This alternative echoes one of Malthus’s positive checks to population growth; however, in Gissing’s novel, this alternative is not simply an alternative, but a means of survival. Emma Liggins writes that “[b]y the early 1890s the female desire for greater economic independence, produced by the lack of financial support available from fathers and the increasing surplus of single women, ensured that more women than ever before felt compelled to enter the labour market” (ix). This “viable solution” appears quite early in Gissing’s novel. When she visits the Madden sisters to “recruit” them, Rhoda Nunn lays out the new mode of survival for women in this overpopulated, industrial society. She states that

I went to Bristol to learn everything I could that would help me out of school-life. Shorthand, book-keeping, commercial correspondence—I had lessons in them all, and worked desperately for a year [responding to a job offer, Rhoda leaves Bath and moves to London]. It was a move towards London, and I couldn’t rest till I had come the whole way. My first engagement here was as a shorthand writer to the secretary of a company. But he soon wanted some one who could use a type-writer. That was a suggestion. I went to learn type-writing, and the lady who taught me [Mary Barfoot] asked me in the end to stay with her as an assistant. (27)

Rhoda’s practical education serves as a means of survival in the absence of marriage. As an assistant to Mary Barfoot, Rhoda’s career in life is to help train and educate the unmarried “odd women,” so they may survive outside the economic and social institution of marriage. She says that Ms. Barfoot “makes it her object to train young girls for work in offices, teaching them the things that I learnt in Bristol and type-writing as well” (27-28). Ms. Barfoot’s school, in training the “odd women” in the skill of typewriting, allows the unmatchable women to enter the workforce, attempting to support themselves in the absence of eligible bachelors. By taking up traditionally “masculine” white-collar careers, the “odd women” effectively invert their own gender paradigms and “devolve” in the social hierarchy of industrial London society. Outpaced and outstripped of resources, these “odd women” cling to whatever means for survival.

       Gissing’s “odd women” negotiate their way through the increasingly industrial, overpopulated London in an attempt to survive in a period that witnessed a population boom on the scale of which Malthus had warned. Through looking at the “debates” surrounding the late-Victorian population boom, we can see how the Victorians themselves were concerned about the overpopulation of the industrial city, in particular, how the dwindling resources (in a Malthusian and Darwinian vein) available to urban residents occupied a special place in Victorian thought and created a sense of social “hysteria.” We see this in the devolutionary/degeneracy debates of the 1890s, as figures like Wells and Lankester debated the ability of mankind to survive life in an (overly-industrialized) overpopulated Victorian (mega) city. Gissing’s novel illustrates these anxieties circulating throughout late-Victorian society concerning futurity, population, sustenance, and cultural progress. While The Odd Women has conventionally been investigated through the feministic cultural work that it performs, when one looks at the philosophical history in which the novel is rooted, it is clear that Gissing’s novel is an approach to the “hysteria” facing late-Victorian England amidst the concerns about the overpopulation of the industrial city, and in particular, the individual’s ability to “adapt” (Darwinistically) to life in this overpopulated, over-industrialized city.

Works Cited

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Gissing, George. The Odd Women, reissue, Patricia Ingham, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, revised seventh edition. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Print.

Lankester, Edwin Ray. “Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism.” The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Liggins, Emma. George Gissing, the Working Woman, and Urban Culture. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006. Print.

Malthus, Thomas. An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, m. Condorcet, and Other Writers. <129.237.201.53/books/Malthus/population/Malthus.pdf> Web. 3 September 2012.

Maltz, Diana. “Practical Aesthetics and Decadent Rationale in George Gissing,” Victorian Literature and Culture 28:1 (2000): 55-71. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

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Notes

[1] Here, “devolution” and “degeneration” are interchangeable terms, as both concepts are interested in humanity’s evolutionary progress.

[2] We could posit that the “evolving environments” in which humanity now found itself was the overpopulated city, overrun with technology as mankind attempted to find his place in this new overpopulated landscape, in this instance, through the mediation of technology.

[3] The late-Victorian Aesthetic movement had many currents. Diana Maltz writes that Gissing participated in all forms of the Aesthetic movement, whether the Decadence of Gissing’s early formative years or the anti-Aestheticism, advocated by Walter Pater, in Gissing’s later texts, in particular, The Odd Women.

[4] It is interesting to note that Symons’ treatise on literary decadence was published in the same year as Gissing’s novel.

[5] Malthus’ voice sounds remarkably similar to the “doom-and-gloom” pessimists of the late nineteenth century. Very early in his Essay, he writes that “[i]t has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived [sic] improvement, or be condemned to perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal” (1).

[6] Peter Bowler makes the correlation between Malthus and Darwin in tracing the two types of struggle. He writes that “[…]the competition between the different individuals of the same species to see which of them shall survive and reproduce[…]” is the very root of the Darwinian, and one could claim, Malthusian, struggle for survival.

[7] Bowler writes that “[s]ince the supply of food can never be increased at the same rate as the population, the number of births must be artificially limited if misery is to be avoided. But Malthus classed birth control as a vice, and hence came to feel that the only solution lay in teaching the whole population the need for moral restraint” (642).

[8] Yet the industrial technologies that allowed the Victorian population boom exacerbated the very miseries of life in an overpopulated and over-industrialized world that we see in Gissing’s novel.’

[9] Widdowson’s audacity to approach a “lady” sitting alone in the park should be a marker for Victorian readers. This is indicative of an imbalance seen in Widdowson, one that is characteristic of his behavior and heightened emotions.

[10] Everard, who Gissing notes has spent his time traveling the world, in Egypt, Turkey, Spain, and Japan, lives a life of effeminate luxury, the very life denied to the Madden sisters.