Odd Women in the City

Bus Stop No. 98 by Mark Garbowski
Bus Stop No. 98 by Mark Garbowski

In her recent book, The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick aligns herself with what she calls the Odd Women, taking the phrase from George Gissing’s novel, which, in turn, took it from the perception that there was an excess of single women in England at the time, and that so many women were destined to find themselves the odd woman out, unable to find a man to marry them. Gornick, as usual, weaves a moving and thought-provoking series of reflections on love and loneliness around this theme of people who find themselves the odd person out, living alone in a world that tends to equate life in a relationship with success and happiness.

Gornick cites the example of Mary Britten Miller, who, as Isabel Bolton, published three critically celebrated novels in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when she was well into her sixties. As described in her 1966 book, Under Gemini, discussed here back in 2011, Miller’s great tragedy was the loss of her identical twin sister, Grace, in a swimming accident in their early teens. When she reached adulthood, Miller settled in Greenwich Village, where she lived alone until her death at 92: “She was never married, and she seems not to have had a lover anyone ever knew. What she did have was friends, some of whom described her as witty and mean, entertainingly haughty, and impressively self-educated.”

In her novel, Do I Wake or Sleep?, Bolton wrote: “Christ, how we loved our own aloneness… We were incapable of giving because there was so much within our reach to grab and snatch and gather for our own, our solitary souls.” As Gornick writes, “She sees what Freud saw–that our loneliness is anguishing and yet, inexplicably, we are loath to give it up. At no period in psychological time are we free of the contradiction: it is the conflict of conflicts.”

It struck me in reading The Odd Woman and the City that a fair amount of my two years of focusing exclusively on the work of women writers has been devoted to what Gornick would call odd women: Alice Koller, whose book An Unknown Woman: a Journey to Self-Discovery could be considered the Bible of odd womanhood; Eve Langley, who was packed off to a mental asylum when her oddness grew too much for her husband to bear; Abbie Huston Evans, whose geologic sense of time could make her 101 years seem like a jog through a very small park; Ouida, who, having wasted a fortune on a wastrel lover and other lost causes, died in neglect, surrounded only by her many dogs; Stella Bowen, who learned her lesson in love at the hands of Ford Madox Ford and, thus the wiser, devoted her remaining years to surviving and to putting her own art first. Even Dorothy Richardson, though she spent over thirty years in a rather odd sort of marriage to Alan Odle, wrote, in Pilgrimage, the magnum opus on the challenge of living one’s own life–alone more often than not.

In discussing another odd woman, the novelist Evelyn Scott, Gornick quotes a letter from Louise Bogan that I will take the liberty to reproduce in full:

Dear May:

I had a sad and rather eerie meeting, early this week, with poor old Evelyn Scott. I sad old advisedly, since she really has fallen into the dark and dank time–the time that I used to fear so much when I was in my thirties. She is old because she has failed to grow–up, in, on … So that at 62, she is not only frayed and dingy (she must have been a beauty in youth) but silly and more than a little mad. She met me only casually, years ago, with Charlotte Wilder [sister of Thornton Wilder], but now, of course, she thinks I can do something for her–so transparent, poor thing. She is not only in the physical state I once feared, but she is living in the blighted area of the West 70’s, near Broadway: that area which absorbs the queer, the old, the failures, into furnished or hotel rooms, and adds gloom to their decay. It was all there! She took me out to a grubby little tea-room around the corner, insisted on paying for the tea, and brought out, from time to time, from folds in her apparel, manuscripts that will never see print. I never was able to read her, even in her hey-day, and her poetry now is perfectly terrible. Added to all this, she is in an active state of paranoia–things and people are her enemies; she has been plotted against in Canada, Hampstead, New York and California; her manuscripts have been stolen, time and time again, etc., etc. –We should thank God, that we remain in our senses! As you know, I really fear mad people; I have some attraction for them, perhaps because talent is a kind of obverse of the medal. I must, therefore, detach myself from E. S.. I told her to send the MS to Grove Press, and that is all I can do. “But I must know the editor’s name!” she cried. “I can’t chance having my poems fall into the hands of some secretary….” O dear, O dear….

Love from your hasty

Yet Bogan herself spent her share of decades as an odd woman, in what she called the faubourg of Morningside Heights. And she could write, in a notebook quoted in her posthumous autobiography, Journey Around My Room,

When we have not come into ourselves we say, in solitude: “No one loves me; I am alone.” When we had chosen solitude, we say, “Thank God, I am alone!”

For Bogan, however, the struggle with loneliness never ended. She wondered as the spirit she saw in others her age and older:

But people keep hopeful and warm and loving right to the end–with much more to endure than I endure. –I see the old constantly, on these uptown streets–and they are not “depressed.” Their eyes are bright; they have bought themselves groceries; they gossip and laugh–with, often, crippling handicaps evident among them.

Where has this power gone, in my case?

I weep–but there’s little relief there.

How can I break these mornings?

And she found herself rising too early, as she wrote her friend Ruth Limmer less than a year before her death in 1970:

I waken at v. odd hours, having gone to sleep so early. –Remedy I: Put on light and try to read. II: Get up, and do not light a cigarette, but pour yourself a nice slug of Gordon’s Gin. This usually works ….

For Gornick, it’s living in a city that provides the only effective remedy:

It’s the voices I can’t do without. In most cities of the world the populace is planted in centuries of cobble-stoned alleys, ruined churches, architectural relics, none of which are ever dug up, only piled one on top of another. If you’ve grown up in New York, your life is an archaeology not of structures but of voices, also piled one on top of another, also not really replacing one another.

I think one reason the works of these odd women have so interested me is that they all, in one way or other, get to the heart of the fundamental question of what it means to be an individual. Defining oneself inherently involves separating from the things and people you are not, and there is no way to do this without risking some amount of loneliness. Which requires a certain share of courage and rarely comes without a fair share of second-guessing as well. I’m still figuring much of this out for myself, but I know that I draw more than ever on the words and experiences of women like Gornick, Koller, Bolton, and Bogan.