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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.

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

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”