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The passionate genius of a neurotic

June 29, 2003|Vivian Gornick | Vivian Gornick is a contributing writer to Book Review.

One of the great neurotics among 19th century English urban novelists is George Gissing, a writer who lived on intimate terms with an ego so damaged that it forced him into a shabby isolation of his own making from which, paradoxically, came books of luminous intelligence and a startling timeliness. To read Gissing today is to find oneself in the company of a contemporary spirit. His style is plain, his obsessions sex and money, his resentments undisguised. We know this man. Of all the writers of his generation -- Thomas Hardy, Henry James, George Meredith, Joseph Conrad -- it is Gissing alone whose angry, brilliant projections most persuade us that a man recognizable in our time is writing.

I first came to Gissing's work 25 years ago when a friend urged on me "The Odd Women." I reread the book every six months for years. Great books about "new women" had been written by men of Gissing's time and place -- within 20 years there had been Hardy's "Jude the Obscure," James' "Portrait of a Lady," Meredith's "Diana of the Crossways" -- but, remarkable as these others were, this was the one that spoke most directly to me. I could see and hear the characters as if they were women and men of my own acquaintance. I knew intimately what was tearing these people apart. What's more, I recognized myself as one of the "odd women."

The novel is set in London in 1887. Mary Barfoot, a gentlewoman in her 50s, is running a secretarial school to prepare middle-class girls for occupations other than that of teacher or governess. Her colleague is Rhoda Nunn, 30, darkly handsome, intellectually superior, uncompromising in her contempt for love. Against these two are set a group of friends from Rhoda's girlhood: the three Madden sisters, daughters of a country doctor whose death has left them nearly penniless and fit for nothing, all their hopes pinned on a successful marriage for the youngest, pretty Monica. Enter Edmund Widdowson and Everard Barfoot -- the first a timid clerk in his 40s, just come into a modest fortune, who picks Monica up on a Sunday afternoon in the park; the second, Mary's smart, well-to-do, strong-willed cousin, whose intellectual sparring with Rhoda (the glory of the book) becomes steadily, and mutually, eroticized.

These two couples -- the one progressive, the other conservative -- are the heart of the novel. Monica will marry Widdowson only to learn what a life sentence marriage to a narrow, frightened man can be. Rhoda will not marry Barfoot, who challenges her to a free union that, in the end, she has neither the trust in him nor the confidence in herself to make. The story of these four is the one that Gissing tracks, with neither sympathy nor contempt but with skill, patience and immense understanding. Ultimately, the men are undone by their need to master and the women by their lack of courage. Monica and Widdowson come to disaster, Barfoot makes a conventional marriage, and Rhoda retreats into a sexless feminism that passes for independence. For one brief moment only, a small part of each of these people reached out to embrace the difficulty of struggling toward the self-awareness required to form a "new" alliance -- and then fell back, in anxiety and confusion, to that place in the spirit where it is acceptable to no longer go on making the effort.

Now, of course, this is exactly what happens in the great Hardy, James and Meredith novels too, the crucial difference being only that Gissing is the master realist among them. It's the sheer verisimilitude of the talk in "The Odd Women" that makes the book so exhilarating. The conversations are extraordinary for their length and breadth -- their pace, fluidity, powers of observation -- and for the excitement of this particular exchange flying back and forth among well-matched protagonists.

It is especially exciting to follow Rhoda Nunn as her polemics and her emotions flare and as we see that she cannot rise to the consequences they have set in motion. Hardy's Sue Bridehead, James' Isabel Archer, Meredith's Diana are magnificent creatures, one and all; but in Rhoda, Gissing captures the fears, anger, smarts and untested bravado that so characterized a generation of American women who came of political age during the 1970s women's movement. As Rhoda moves inexorably toward the moment when she fails to reconcile the distance between declared independence and achieved independence, she becomes a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the place in which so many of us have found ourselves, time and again.

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