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“Like many as a child, I made friends with characters in books.”
So opens the foreword to Lyndall Gordon’s latest biography, Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World. In this book Gordon takes five women writers who battled against the social norms and takes us behind the characters they created to look at both the lives and works of Mary Shelley (“Prodigy”), Emily Bronte (“Visionary”), George Eliot (“Outlaw”), Olive Schreiner (“Orator”) and Virginia Woolf (“Explorer”).
All of these women are individually famous and their greatness has long been celebrated, but what Gordon cleverly does here is to link them together and show how their shared outsider status was so important in shaping their work. While she deftly gives us both a critical and personal portrait and tells us what, in her view, makes each one of them an outsider, she also traces what binds them together. They have many things in common and she shows how the later writers were influenced strongly by the ones that came before, as well as including plenty of nods back to other writers who also played a crucial part in their development, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Dickinson and Claire Clairmont.
All of these women were motherless and had to find their own definitions of what it meant to be a woman (and, in Shelley’s case, a mother herself) as well as what a woman’s voice on the page could be. All were incredibly intelligent but without access to higher education, so they all learned from books and sometimes from their male companions. Gordon tells us what drove them to produce the art that they did, breaking the conventions of their time along the way. It’s not just in the personal sense that these women were outsiders, which led them to be shunned by society and even sometimes by the people they looked to for friendship (for example, Shelley and Eliot both entered into relationships with married men, while Schreiner took a strong and vocal anti-war position during the Boer war) but they were also outsiders in the works they produced and the voices that they gave flight to on the page. Here their outsider status came into its own, allowing them to challenge the accepted rules of fiction and the dominant social order to create works that were new and innovative. While this status undoubtedly caused them pain and isolation, it also gave them the freedom to create something truly unique, full of depth, bravery and passion.
Gordon’s style is extremely readable and she manages to achieve a balance between their personal and work lives so that the reader feels they are getting a rounded picture of each woman. She is also honest – when she doesn’t know something or is making a supposition, she tells us so. There is much to say about all of these writers and she could easily romanticise them, but she doesn’t and she exposes their flaws as well as their virtues. On a practical level, the book contains a comprehensive list of sources and further reading, should you wish to dig deeper into any of the subjects.
There are, of course, questions around the definition of an outsider and how these writers were selected for inclusion when there are other writers who might also fit (should Jane Austen, for example, have been included?). It can also be asked whether those who had a secure private income which allowed them to devote themselves entirely to writing, or family connections to the political and artistic elites, can also truly be classed as outsiders; would other writers without any of those advantages be worthier of inclusion? Possibly – but the term outsider also means “someone who is not accepted by a particular group, or who feels that they do not belong in it” and all of the writers that Gordon has included here lost their reputation in one way or another and didn’t fit neatly into the accepted social norms, and this most definitely marked them as outsiders. Personally, I feel that these five writers fit well together and that they are a natural grouping. As Gordon says: “These lives and books, as they commune with one another across time, converge in their hatred of our violent world.” It is this convergence that makes for an interesting, very readable exploration of the lives, work and incredible literary achievements of these five women.
Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World is published by Virago.