Edited by Charles Aldarondo (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Odd Women
By George Gissing
THE FOLD AND THE SHEPHERD
'So to-morrow, Alice,' said Dr. Madden, as he walked with his eldest
daughter on the coast-downs by Clevedon, 'I shall take steps for
insuring my life for a thousand pounds.'
It was the outcome of a long and intimate conversation. Alice
Madden, aged nineteen, a plain, shy, gentle-mannered girl, short of
stature, and in movement something less than graceful, wore a
pleased look as she glanced at her father's face and then turned her
eyes across the blue channel to the Welsh hills. She was flattered
by the confidence reposed in her, for Dr. Madden, reticent by
nature, had never been known to speak in the domestic circle about
his pecuniary affairs. He seemed to be the kind of man who would
inspire his children with affection: grave but benign, amiably
diffident, with a hint of lurking mirthfulness about his eyes and
lips. And to-day he was in the best of humours; professional
prospects, as he had just explained to Alice, were more encouraging
than hitherto; for twenty years he had practised medicine at
Clevedon, but with such trifling emolument that the needs of his
large family left him scarce a margin over expenditure; now, at the
age of forty-nine - it was 1872 - he looked forward with a larger
hope. Might he not reasonably count on ten or fifteen more years of
activity? Clevedon was growing in repute as a seaside resort; new
houses were rising; assuredly his practice would continue to extend.
'I don't think girls ought to be troubled about this kind of thing,'
he added apologetically. 'Let men grapple with the world; for, as
the old hymn says, "'tis their nature to." I should grieve indeed if
I thought my girls would ever have to distress themselves about
money matters. But I find I have got into the habit, Alice, of
talking to you very much as I should talk with your dear mother if
she were with us.'
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. Father and
daughter sighed as they recalled her memory. 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
lady. She had known but little repose, and secret anxieties told
upon her countenance long before the final collapse of health.
'And yet,' pursued the doctor - doctor only by courtesy - when he
had stooped to pluck and examine a flower, 'I made a point of never
discussing these matters with her. As no doubt you guess, life has
been rather an uphill journey with us. But the home must be guarded
against sordid cares to the last possible moment; nothing upsets me
more than the sight of those poor homes where wife and children are
obliged to talk from morning to night of how the sorry earnings
shall be laid out. No, no; women, old or young, should never have to
think about money.
The magnificent summer sunshine, and the western breeze that tasted
of ocean, heightened his natural cheeriness. Dr. Madden fell into a
familiar strain of prescience.
'There will come a day, Alice, when neither man nor woman is
troubled with such sordid care. Not yet awhile; no, no; but the day
will come. Human beings are not destined to struggle for ever like
beasts of prey. Give them time; let civilization grow. You know what
our poet says: "There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful
realm in awe - "'
He quoted the couplet with a subdued fervour which characterized the
man and explained his worldly lot. Elkanah Madden should never have
entered the medical profession; mere humanitarianism had prompted
the choice in his dreamy youth; he became an empiric, nothing more.
'Our poet,' said the doctor; Clevedon was chiefly interesting to him
for its literary associations. Tennyson he worshipped; he never
passed Coleridge's cottage without bowing in spirit. From the
contact of coarse actualities his nature shrank.
When he and Alice returned from their walk it was the hour of family
tea. A guest was present this afternoon; the eight persons who sat
down to table were as many as the little parlour could comfortably
contain. Of the sisters, next in age to Alice came Virginia, a
pretty but delicate girl of seventeen. Gertrude, Martha, and Isabel,
ranging from fourteen to ten, had no physical charm but that of
youthfulness; Isabel surpassed her eldest sister in downright
plainness of feature. The youngest, Monica, was a bonny little
maiden only just five years old, dark and bright-eyed.
The parents had omitted no care in shepherding their fold. Partly at
home, and partly in local schools, the young ladies had received
instruction suitable to their breeding, and the elder ones were
disposed to better this education by private study. The atmosphere
of the house was intellectual; books, especially the poets, lay in
every room. But it never occurred to Dr. Madden that his daughters
would do well to study with a professional object. In hours of
melancholy he had of course dreaded the risks of life, and resolved,
always with postponement, to make some practical provision for his
family; in educating them as well as circumstances allowed, he
conceived that he was doing the next best thing to saving money,
for, if a fatality befell, teaching would always be their resource.
The thought, however, of his girls having to work for money was so
utterly repulsive to him that he could never seriously dwell upon
it. A vague piety supported his courage. Providence would not deal
harshly with him and his dear ones. He enjoyed excellent health; his
practice decidedly improved. The one duty clearly before him was to
set an example of righteous life, and to develop the girls' minds -
in every proper direction. For, as to training them for any path
save those trodden by English ladies of the familiar type, he could
not have dreamt of any such thing. Dr. Madden's hopes for the race
were inseparable from a maintenance of morals and conventions such
as the average man assumes in his estimate of women.
The guest at table was a young girl named Rhoda Nunn. Tall, thin,
eager-looking, but with promise of bodily vigour, she was singled at
a glance as no member of the Madden family. Her immaturity (but
fifteen, she looked two years older) appeared in nervous
restlessness, and in her manner of speaking, childish at times in
the hustling of inconsequent thoughts, yet striving to imitate the
talk of her seniors. She had a good head, in both senses of the
phrase; might or might not develop a certain beauty, but would
assuredly put forth the fruits of intellect. Her mother, an invalid,
was spending the summer months at Clevedon, with Dr. Madden for
medical adviser, and in this way the girl became friendly with the
Madden household. Its younger members she treated rather
condescendingly; childish things she had long ago put away, and her
sole pleasure was in intellectual talk. With a frankness peculiar to
her, indicative of pride, Miss Nunn let it be known that she would
have to earn her living, probably as a school teacher; study for
examinations occupied most of her day, and her hours of leisure were
frequently spent either at the Maddens or with a family named
Smithson - people, these latter, for whom she had a profound and
somewhat mysterious admiration. Mr. Smithson, a widower with a
consumptive daughter, was a harsh-featured, rough-voiced man of
about five-and-thirty, secretly much disliked by Dr. Madden because
of his aggressive radicalism; if women's observation could be
trusted, Rhoda Nunn had simply fallen in love with him, had made
him, perhaps unconsciously, the object of her earliest passion.
Alice and Virginia commented on the fact in their private colloquy
with a shamefaced amusement; they feared that it spoke ill for the
young lady's breeding. None the less they thought Rhoda a remarkable
person, and listened to her utterances respectfully.
'And what is your latest paradox, Miss Nunn?' inquired the doctor,
with grave facetiousness, when he had looked round the young faces
at his board.
'Really, I forget, doctor. Oh, but I wanted to ask you, Do you think
women ought to sit in Parliament?'
'Why, no,' was the response, as if after due consideration. 'If they
are there at all they ought to stand.'
'Oh, I can't get you to talk seriously,' rejoined Rhoda, with an air
of vexation, whilst the others were good-naturedly laughing. 'Mr.
Smithson thinks there ought to be female members of Parliament.
'Does he? Have the girls told you that there's a nightingale in Mr.
It was always thus. Dr. Madden did not care to discuss even
playfully the radical notions which Rhoda got from her objectionable
friend. His daughters would not have ventured to express an opinion
on such topics when he was present; apart with Miss Nunn, they
betrayed a timid interest in whatever proposition she advanced, but
no gleam of originality distinguished their arguments.
After tea the little company fell into groups - some out of doors
beneath the apple-trees, others near the piano at which Virginia was
playing Mendelssohn. Monica ran about among them with her
five-year-old prattle, ever watched by her father, who lounged in a
canvas chair against the sunny ivied wall, pipe in mouth. Dr. Madden
was thinking how happy they made him, these kind, gentle girls; how
his love for them seemed to ripen with every summer; what a
delightful old age his would be, when some were married and had
children of their own, and the others tended him - they whom he had
tended. Virginia would probably be sought in marriage; she had good
looks, a graceful demeanour, a bright understanding. Gertrude also,
perhaps. And little Monica - ah, little Monica! she would be the
beauty of the family. When Monica had grown up it would be time for
him to retire from practice; by then he would doubtless have saved
He must find more society for them; they had always been too much
alone, whence their shyness among strangers. If their mother had but
'Rhoda wishes you to read us something, father,' said his eldest
girl, who had approached whilst he was lost in dream.
He often read aloud to them from the poets; Coleridge and Tennyson
by preference. Little persuasion was needed. Alice brought the
volume, and he selected 'The Lotus-Eaters.' The girls grouped
themselves about him, delighted to listen. Many an hour of summer
evening had they thus spent, none more peaceful than the present.
The reader's cadenced voice blended with the song of a thrush.
'"Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All thing' are taken from us - "'
There came an interruption, hurried, peremptory. A farmer over at
Kingston Seymour had been seized with alarming illness; the doctor
must come at once.
'Very sorry, girls. Tell James to put the horse in, sharp as he can.
In ten minutes Dr. Madden was driving at full speed, alone in his
dog-cart, towards the scene of duty.
About seven o'clock Rhoda Nunn took leave, remarking with her usual
directness, that before going home she would walk along the
sea-front in the hope of a meeting with Mr. Smithson and his
daughter. Mrs. Nunn was not well enough to leave the house to-day;
but, said Rhoda, the invalid preferred being left alone at such
'Are you sure she prefers it?' Alice ventured to ask. The girl gave
her a look of surprise.
'Why should mother say what she doesn't mean?'
It was uttered with an ingenuousness which threw some light on
By nine o'clock the younger trio of sisters had gone to bed; Alice,
Virginia, and Gertrude sat in the parlour, occupied with books, from
time to time exchanging a quiet remark. A tap at the door scarcely
drew their attention, for they supposed it was the maid-servant
coming to lay supper. But when the door opened there was a
mysterious silence; Alice looked up and saw the expected face,
wearing, however, so strange an expression that she rose with sudden
'Can I speak to you, please, miss?'
The dialogue out in the passage was brief. A messenger had just
arrived with the tidings that Dr. Madden, driving back from Kingston
Seymour, had been thrown from his vehicle and lay insensible at a
* * *
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 for ever.
Just before Christmas of 1887, a lady past her twenties, and with a
look of discouraged weariness on her thin face, knocked at a
house-door in a little street by Lavender Hill. A card in the window
gave notice that a bedroom was here to let. When the door opened,
and a clean, grave, elderly woman presented herself, the visitor,
regarding her anxiously, made known that she was in search of a
'It may be for a few weeks only, or it may be for a longer period,'
she said in a low, tired voice, with an accent of good breeding. 'I
have a difficulty in finding precisely what I want. One room would
be sufficient, and I ask for very little attendance.'
She had but one room to let, replied the other. It might be
They went upstairs. The room was at the back of the house, small,
but neatly furnished. Its appearance seemed to gratify the visitor,
for she smiled timidly.
'What rent should you ask?'
'That would depend, mum, on what attendance was required.'
'Yes - of course. I think - will you permit me to sit down? I am
really very tired. Thank you. I require very little attendance
indeed. My ways are very simple. I should make the bed myself,
and - and, do the other little things that are necessary from day to
day. Perhaps I might ask you to sweep the room out - once a week or
The landlady grew meditative. Possibly she had had experience of
lodgers who were anxious to give as little trouble as possible. She
glanced furtively at the stranger.
'And what,' was her question at length, 'would you be thinking of
'Perhaps I had better explain my position. For several years I have
been companion to a lady in Hampshire. Her death has thrown me on my
own resources - I hope only for a short time. I have come to London
because a younger sister of mine is employed here in a house of
business; she recommended me to seek for lodgings in this part; I
might as well be near her whilst I am endeavouring to find another
post; perhaps I may be fortunate enough to find one in London.
Quietness and economy are necessary to me. A house like yours would
suit me very well - very well indeed. Could we not agree upon terms
within my - within my power?'
Again the landlady pondered.
'Would you be willing to pay five and sixpence?'
'Yes, I would pay five and sixpence - if you are quite sure that
you could let me live in my own way with satisfaction to yourself.
I - in fact, I am a vegetarian, and as the meals I take are so very
simple, I feel that I might just as well prepare them myself. Would
you object to my doing so in this room? A kettle and a saucepan are
really all - absolutely all - that I should need to use. As I
shall be much at home, it will be of course necessary for me to have
In the course of half an hour an agreement had been devised which
seemed fairly satisfactory to both parties.
'I'm not one of the graspin' ones,' remarked the landlady. 'I think
I may say that of myself. If I make five or six shillings a week out
of my spare room, I don't grumble. But the party as takes it must do
their duty on _their_ side. You haven't told me your name yet, mum.'
'Miss Madden. My luggage is at the railway station; it shall be
brought here this evening. And, as I am quite unknown to you, I
shall be glad to pay my rent in advance.'
'Well, I don't ask for that; but it's just as you like.'
'Then I will pay you five and sixpence at once. Be so kind as to let
me have a receipt.'
So Miss Madden established herself at Lavender Hill, and dwelt there
alone for three months.
She received letters frequently, but only one person called upon
her. This was her sister Monica, now serving at a draper's in
Walworth Road. The young lady came every Sunday, and in bad weather
spent the whole day up in the little bedroom. Lodger and landlady
were on remarkably good terms; the one paid her dues with exactness,
and the other did many a little kindness not bargained for in the
Time went on to the spring of '88. Then, one afternoon, Miss Madden
descended to the kitchen and tapped in her usual timid way at the
'Are you at leisure, Mrs. Conisbee? Could I have a little
conversation with you?'
The landlady was alone, and with no more engrossing occupation than
the ironing of some linen she had recently washed.
'I have mentioned my elder sister now and then. I am sorry to say
she is leaving her post with the family at Hereford. The children
are going to school, so that her services are no longer needed.'
'Yes. For a shorter or longer time she will be in need of a home.
Now it has occurred to me, Mrs. Conisbee, that - that I would ask
you whether you would have any objection to her sharing my room with
me? Of course there must be an extra payment. The room is small for
two persons, but then the arrangement would only be temporary. My
sister is a good and experienced teacher, and I am sure she will
have no difficulty in obtaining another engagement.'
Mrs. Conisbee reflected, but without a shade of discontent. By this
time she knew that her lodger was thoroughly to be trusted.
'Well, it's if _you_ can manage, mum,' she replied. 'I don't see as
I could have any fault to find, if you thought you could both live
in that little room. And as for the rent, _I_ should be quite
satisfied if we said seven shillings instead of five and six.'
'Thank you, Mrs. Conisbee; thank you very much indeed. I will write
to my sister at once; the news will be a great relief to her. We
shall have quite an enjoyable little holiday together.'
A week later the eldest of the three Miss Maddens arrived. As it was
quite impossible to find space for her boxes in the bedroom, Mrs.
Conisbee allowed them to be deposited in the room occupied by her
daughter, which was on the same floor. In a day or two the sisters
had begun a life of orderly tenor. When weather permitted they were
out either in the morning or afternoon. Alice Madden was in London
for the first time; she desired to see the sights, but suffered the
restrictions of poverty and ill-health. After nightfall, neither she
nor Virginia ever left home.
There was not much personal likeness between them.
The elder (now five-and-thirty) tended to corpulence, the result of
sedentary life; she had round shoulders and very short legs. Her
face would not have been disagreeable but for its spoilt complexion;
the homely features, if health had but rounded and coloured them,
would have expressed pleasantly enough the gentleness and sincerity
of her character. Her cheeks were loose, puffy, and permanently of
the hue which is produced by cold; her forehead generally had a few
pimples; her shapeless chin lost itself in two or three fleshy
fissures. Scarcely less shy than in girlhood, she walked with a
quick, ungainly movement as if seeking to escape from some one, her
head bent forward.
Virginia (about thirty-three) had also an unhealthy look, but the
poverty, or vitiation, of her blood manifested itself in less
unsightly forms. One saw that she had been comely, and from certain
points of view her countenance still had a grace, a sweetness, all
the more noticeable because of its threatened extinction. 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 network; the flesh
of her neck wore away. Her tall meagre body did not seem strong
enough to hold itself upright.
Alice had brown hair, but very little of it. Virginia's was inclined
to be ruddy; it surmounted her small head in coils and plaits not
without beauty. The voice of the elder sister had contracted an
unpleasant hoarseness, but she spoke with good enunciation; a slight
stiffness and pedantry of phrase came, no doubt, of her scholastic
habits. Virginia was much more natural in manner and fluent in
speech, even as she moved far more gracefully.
It was now sixteen years since the death of Dr. Madden of Clevedon.
The story of his daughters' lives in the interval may be told with
brevity suitable to so unexciting a narrative.
When the doctor's affairs were set in order, it was found that the
patrimony of his six girls amounted, as nearly as possible, to eight
Eight hundred pounds is, to be sure, a sum of money; but how, in
these circumstances, was it to be applied?
There came over from Cheltenham a bachelor uncle, aged about sixty.
This gentleman lived on an annuity of seventy pounds, which would
terminate when _he_ did. It might be reckoned to him for
righteousness that he spent the railway fare between Cheltenham and
Clevedon to attend his brother's funeral, and to speak a kind word
to his nieces. Influence he had none; initiative, very little. There
was no reckoning upon him for aid of any kind.
From Richmond in Yorkshire, in reply to a letter from Alice, wrote
an old, old aunt of the late Mrs. Madden, who had occasionally sent
the girls presents. Her communication was barely legible; it seemed
to contain fortifying texts of Scripture, but nothing in the way of
worldly counsel. This old lady had no possessions to bequeath. And,
as far as the girls knew, she was their mother's only surviving
The executor of the will was a Clevedon tradesman, a kind and
capable friend of the family for many years, a man of parts and
attainments superior to his station. In council with certain other
well-disposed persons, who regarded the Maddens' circumstances with
friendly anxiety, Mr. Hungerford (testamentary instruction allowing
him much freedom of action) decided that the three elder girls must
forthwith become self-supporting, and that the three younger should
live together in the care of a lady of small means, who offered to
house and keep them for the bare outlay necessitated. A prudent
investment of the eight hundred pounds might, by this arrangement,
feed, clothe, and in some sort educate Martha, Isabel, and Monica.
To see thus far ahead sufficed for the present; fresh circumstances
could be dealt with as they arose.
Alice obtained a situation as nursery-governess at sixteen pounds a
year. Virginia was fortunate enough to be accepted as companion by a
gentlewoman at Weston-super-Mare; her payment, twelve pounds.
Gertrude, fourteen years old, also went to Weston, where she was
offered employment in a fancy-goods shop - her payment nothing at
all, but lodging, board, and dress assured to her.
Ten years went by, and saw many changes.
Gertrude and Martha were dead; the former of consumption, the other
drowned by the overturning of a pleasure-boat. Mr. Hungerford also
was dead, and a new guardian administered the fund which was still a
common property of the four surviving daughters. Alice plied her
domestic teaching; Virginia remained a 'companion.' Isabel, now aged
twenty, taught in a Board School at Bridgewater, and Monica, just
fifteen, was on the point of being apprenticed to a draper at
Weston, where Virginia abode. To serve behind a counter would not
have been Monica's choice if any more liberal employment had seemed
within her reach. She had no aptitude whatever for giving
instruction; indeed, had no aptitude for anything but being a
pretty, cheerful, engaging girl, much dependent on the love and
gentleness of those about her. In speech and bearing Monica greatly
resembled her mother; that is to say, she had native elegance.
Certainly it might be deemed a pity that such a girl could not be
introduced to one of the higher walks of life; but the time had come