At first glance, these novels have little in common, aside from their mutual preoccupations with women's potential and marital politics. But the famous "Prelude" to Middlemarch also opens up a different avenue for comparison. Noting the disappearance of latter-day St. Theresas, the narrator writes,
That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill- matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.
The tragedy of the "later-born Theresas," that is, is specifically historical: in the modern, post-Reformation world, the female subject who once might have aspired to "epic" finds herself awash in a fragmentary sea, her goals no longer quite intelligible either to herself or to others. Nineteenth-century women have all been consigned to Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," unable--thanks to "circumstances"--to find narrative shape. Without the "coherent social faith" that organizes all action toward a recognizable goal, such women merely flounder about, imagining possible futures without the language (or even the determinate ideals) to articulate them. They neither write themselves into history nor can be written; by modern definition, any such goal simply becomes some sort of feminine excess ("extravagance") or feminine lack ("lapse"), and thus worthy of being forgotten instead of being remembered.*
Whatever Eliot may have thought of Spanish Catholicism in general, here she suggests that it offered a genuinely organic "context," one in which female "thought and deed" were not necessarily alienated from each other. George Gissing's The Odd Women, by contrast, posits a world in which such faith neither offers nor can offer such an organic organizing principle. It's not that religion is entirely absent from The Odd Women. The Madden family is very loosely religious in a High Church way, although their religion clearly does nothing for them. Moreover, religious language pops up now and again, but often wrested into an explicitly secular context: the very non-religious and eternally celibate Rhoda bears the appropriate last name of Nunn, while Mrs. Cosgrove calls for "martyrs" in the cause of drastic marriage reform (ch. 27). And even when Monica Widdowson gives way to "the old faiths" and perceives herself as a "sinner" in need of "redemption," it proves transitory; her "confession" to Rhoda, which begins in religious impulses, ends in her relying on Rhoda's strength instead of God's (ch. 29). The closest thing this novel has to a sacred text is John Ruskin's essay "Of Queen's Gardens" in Sesame and Lilies, which pops up now and again as the various characters' bugaboo. Miss Barfoot sees Ruskin's theory of gender complementarity as a coverup for thoughts "the reverse of charming" (ch. 13), and The Odd Women certainly offers a bleak commentary on this theory's workability.
Instead, The Odd Women proposes a secular alternative to Eliot's "coherent social faith," one in the making instead of received: "A woman with brains and will may hope to distinguish herself in the greatest movement of our time--that of emancipating our sex" (ch. 8). Rhoda's politics are entirely secularized; even sexual morality is strictly referred to social needs instead of divine law. The paradox of this project, as Mrs. Cosgrove reminds Rhoda, is that it may result in temporary "anarchy" instead of coherence (ch. 27)--no construction without destruction. With the possible exception of Miss Barfoot, however, the novel's main characters all hover anxiously before this threat of radical disruption, Rhoda included. Monica's daughter, without a mother and abandoned by her father, offers no purely optimistic promise for the future; while "the world is moving," as Rhoda Nunn announces (ch. xxxi), where is it moving to?
*--That being said, one cannot help but notice that Lydgate, Bulstrode, Casaubon, and Ladislaw are equally consigned to the "life of mistakes" or the "tragic failure." Even Mr. Farebrother (the clergyman who should have been a naturalist) or Fred Vincy (the college-educated "gentleman" who must work for his living) must compromise in order to survive. It's only the men lacking entirely in real ambitions or real ideals who survive the novel without experiencing this self-consciousness of error--Mr. Vincy, Mr. Brooke, Sir James (who exchanges Dorothea for Celia with remarkable ease), and so forth.