Lyndall Gordon’s Outsiders builds links between women writers across the generations

If you are looking for inspiration for the fight, this book will be your companion.

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In 1929 Virginia Woolf reworked a set of talks she’d given the year before to the women’s colleges at Cambridge, Newnham and Girton; talks in which she’d imagined the fate of Shakespeare’s imagined sister. “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school,” Woolf had said, and so her fate was sealed. Woolf called her edition of these talks A Room of One’s Own: a title that resonates even for those who have never read a word of her writing.

In Outsiders, Lyndall Gordon picks up something else Woolf wrote that year, a brief biographical essay on Mary Wollstonecraft. In this essay, Gordon argues, Woolf set out to redeem Wollstonecraft’s image from the biographers who had painted her as “depressive and wanton”. Woolf wrote that Wollstonecraft, pioneer of women’s rights, mother of Mary Shelley, “cut her way to the quick of life”, and that what mattered was not her melancholy but her desire for experiment. This was a strength that Woolf, battling her own melancholy, shared. And so Gordon loops elegantly back to the opening of her thought-provoking group biography of five writers “who changed the world”.

Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner, Shelley and Woolf: these are the women Gordon calls “Outsiders”, women who struggled against the conventions of their time to live the lives they wished to live. Gordon is an imaginative and rigorous biographer who has already addressed the lives of Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Brontë and Woolf in full-length books, but the pleasure in this compact volume is the way in which she weaves these lives together, building links across the generations. Her object is simple: “I’m curious how an outsize voice came to each of the five writers. How did they become writers despite the obstacles in a woman’s way?” A simple question demands a sophisticated answer, one which this subtle book amply provides. But there is at least a straightforward answer to the question of what these women had in common. “All were on the margin or outside society in one way or another, and all were readers,” Gordon writes. “Books were their companions across time, seeding a new kind of woman.”

One of Gordon’s strengths is always to recognise the tension inherent in biography’s form: finally, how can we know anything? Evidence of anyone’s life is only ever fragmentary. “Twenty-five years ago a biographer tried to nail Emily Brontë as anorexic; now it’s Asperger’s syndrome. It was ever thus. The personal will remain largely unknown,” she writes. The truth of these artists’ lives can be found in their writing, and it is to their writing that Gordon listens, closely, attentively, always resisting easy biographical links, and noting an early, unsigned review that Woolf wrote of the Carlyles’ love letters: “the more we see the less we can label”.

This is no primer to the authors’ works, but it’s not meant to be. That said, it is never rebarbative to the reader with a lesser knowledge of those works – indeed it is enticing. I’ll confess I’ve never read a word of Schreiner, but now, with an understanding of the place this writer holds in both feminist and colonial history, I will add The Story of an African Farm to my reading list. The real strength of Outsiders, however, is its vivid portrayal of its subjects’ energy, their ability – often at great cost – to find ways to speak. If there is an argument to be had with this book, it’s with that subtitle, and the cliché of “changed the world”. I have a sneaking suspicion that Gordon would be among the first to admit that – alas, just look around – they didn’t. The battle is still to be won.

If you are looking for inspiration for the fight, however, this book will be your companion. Gordon quotes Schreiner in Woman and Labour:

I should like to say to the men and women of the generations, which will come after us – “You will wonder at passionate struggles that accomplished so little… but what you will never know is how it was thinking of you and for you, that we struggled as we did and accomplished the little which we have done; that it was in the thought of your larger realisation and fuller life that we found consolation for the futilities of our own.” 

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World
Lyndall Gordon
Virago, 336pp, £20

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world