Cultural Studies . Film and TV

“Is Such A Life Worthy of the Name?”: Christopher Douglas on the Adaptation of George Gissing’s The Odd Women (Part 1)

by Tom Ue

George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women (1893) opens, in 1872, with Dr Madden declaring his intention to insure his life for a thousand pounds. Things are looking up for the family.

“[P]rofessional prospects,” he assures his eldest daughter Alice (and himself), “were more encouraging than hitherto.”

For years, he was merely getting by—“with such trifling emolument that the needs of his large family left him scarce a margin over expenditure”—but Clevedon is now “growing in repute as a seaside resort; new houses were rising; [and] assuredly his practice would continue to extend.” Notwithstanding his eye for business, Dr Madden is, to quote Conan Doyle when discussing Dr Watson, “the one fixed point in a changing age.” He may not have been in a position to make many provisions for his six daughters, but he has always sought to protect them by concealing from them the cares of the world. As he explains to Alice: “I don’t think girls ought to be troubled with this kind of thing [i.e., pecuniary affairs] . . . . Let men grapple with the world . . . . I should grieve indeed if I thought my girls would ever have to distress themselves about money matters.” He does more harm than good.

By the end of chapter, Dr Madden is dead, his life is uninsured, and his property—a sum of eight hundred pounds—is left to his children. He will never hear the “doleful litany” about money that Alice and her sister Virginia will recite with such regularity 16 years later in the small room that they occupy. Their maxim? “[W]e must never intrench upon our capital—never—never!” By then, three Madden sisters have died, and Monica, the youngest, is apprenticed to a draper. The Odd Women brings together their stories, and others, and it has become a staple to conversations about the Victorian Woman Question. The novel has been given new life thanks to a new production, on BBC Radio 4, by writer-actor Christopher Douglas, whose credits include the 2016 adaptation of Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) (see here and here).

Douglas’ radio play Tristram Shandy: In Development (2020) earned the 2021 Writers’ Guild Tinniswood Award, and he is best known as actor and co-writer of BBC Radio 4’s Ed Reardon’s Week (2005—present), which won the Broadcasting Press Guild Award for Best Radio Programme both in 2005 and in 2010.

In what follows, Douglas and I discuss his reading of The Odd Women, the creative choices that he made, and Gissing’s salient social commentary.

You have worked on several Gissing projects, including a full-scale adaptation of New Grub Street. What do you find distinctive about this Victorian writer?

I admired New Grub Street for its accurate depiction of the life of freelance writing. As I read more of Gissing’s novels, I became a devotee of his operatic stories. They are masterfully constructed and often undercut, in a peculiarly English way, by uncomfortable realism and comedy, and it’s these qualities which perhaps distinguish him from his European contemporaries. The opening of The Odd Women is brutally funny: Dr Madden dies almost immediately after announcing his intention to insure his life. The Emancipated (1890), set in a community of trustafarian expats living in Naples, is shot through with humour. One of my favourite Gissing comic characters is the careerist churchman Bruno Chilvers in Born in Exile (1892): charming, athletic, handsome with “ineffable self-content,” and completely untrustworthy. Most mornings in London, you can spot a modern-day Bruno Chilvers folding his Brompton and sauntering into New Broadcasting House or the Palace of Westminster.

What about The Odd Women interested you initially?

The territory: women at work, in their lodgings, drinking, laughing, and talking politics. Of course, they discuss men sometimes, but Gissing’s writing consistently passes the modern screenwriter’s Bechdel test—that is, scenes with “two women talking about something other than a man.”

What interests you about the novel now?

Having spent a year reading and rereading it, I am in awe with the grand scale of a story which offers romance, satire, a gripping narrative, and a passion for a cause. There’s not a hint of sentimentality, and then there’s that cruel English sense of humour. I am not alone in thinking that it’s his best work. And he wrote the first draft in five weeks! Just breathtaking. It took me five months to write the two one-hour episodes.   

You allude to a number of different Victorian works throughout the play, including Schubert’s songs and Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885). What is so important about recovering the artistic and musical scene in which Gissing was working?

We know quite a bit about Gissing’s tastes from his diaries and his letters. And, rightly or wrongly, I have allowed some of that to creep into my adaptations of New Grub Street and The Odd Women. Gissing’s comments on the quality of work in the Royal Academy summer exhibitions are the same grumbles you might hear from Londoners nowadays. Connections like this can help an audience identify with a 130-year-old story.

The song with which Bevis sweeps Monica off her feet is not specified. Bevis merely says that he learnt it in Germany. I chose Schubert’s “Heidenröslein” (1799). Luckily, Freddy Carter, who plays Bevis, has a wonderful voice. I don’t quite know what we would have done if he hadn’t been a singer, but my mother-in-law (who supplied the musical fingers for Bevis and Rhoda) was on stand-by to rattle through some Chopin (figure 1). As for The Mikado, I like the way Gissing places Everard in opposition to seemingly the whole of London in his dislike of Gilbert and Sullivan.     

A group photo of the cast of The Odd Women.
Figure 1: Christopher Douglas and the cast of The Odd Women

I’m impressed by your ability to reveal character by means of dialogue. Widdowson and Monica, for example, were speaking at cross purposes in an early meeting; and their marriage was literally described, by their best man, as a business transaction. Were there any specific challenges to capturing Gissing through dialogue?  

In the text, Widdowson hardly ever asks Monica a question about herself. It’s surely deliberate, and I wanted to make it a feature of their early scenes. I’m pleased that you spotted it.

Widdowson’s best mate Newdick had much more to say in my early drafts. He’s such a hilariously dull character. Sadly, all that remains is his ill-judged, clerkly toast to the newlyweds.

The challenge with rendering Gissing in dialogue is to do it concisely and convincingly. I have done a fair amount of parody writing over the years in scripts, books, and newspaper columns—which has probably helped me. And I may have plundered a few phrases from other Gissing novels, but I can’t remember which. I’ve often been tempted to make use of the phrase “at all events” which Gissing uses 643 times in his novels, but I don’t think I’ve ever resorted to this.

Did you consider giving more attention to Alice and Virginia?

The two 57-minute episodes run to roughly 10,000 words each. The novel is 142,000 words long which means that six out of every seven words have to be cut, so there wasn’t much space for the other Madden sisters. My producer Jane was adamant that we keep Virginia’s drinking. I complied but, when we edited the first drafts, I was in favour of dropping it for another two or three minutes with Rhoda and Everard. I was persuaded by Jane’s contention that there is no other scene in literature prior to 1892 in which a middle-class woman goes into a pub on her own.

The Odd Women airs, on BBC Radio 4, on Sunday 9 October 2022 and Sunday 16 October 2022.

For more on Gissing, check out my special of Victoriographies on Born in Exile.

Acknowledgements

I thank Rachel Bowlby, Christopher Douglas, and Diana Maltz for our conversations about Gissing. I am enormously grateful to the Office of the Vice President Research & Innovation at Dalhousie University and to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

About the author

Tom Ue is Co-Editor of Film International and Assistant Professor in Literature and Science at Dalhousie University. He is the author of Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming) and George Gissing (Liverpool University Press, forthcoming); and the editor of George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). Ue has earned the prestigious Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and a 2022 Dalhousie University President’s Research Excellence Award for Emerging Investigators. He is an Honorary Research Associate at University College London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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