In 2018 I volunteered at the Cardiff Book Festival and one of the authors doing a panel was Lyndall Gordon. It was about how women authors have helped shaped the literary world today which is something I am so interested in, but as I was helping out I couldn’t go! So to make up for it I bought a copy of her book Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World.
Outsiders is a group biography that tells the stories of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf. These women are now all hugely respected and considered literary titans but that wasn’t always the case during their lifetimes. Each of them were treated as outcasts, ostracised for both their lifestyle choices and their writing. Gordon groups the woman together to form ‘The Outsiders Society’ and they each have their own title. They are the Prodigy, Visionary, Outlaw, Orator and Explorer respectively.
It goes without saying that each of these writers are regarded as genius’ and have incredible stories. They each could – and obviously do – easily fill biographies all on their own! What makes Outsiders really shine is the way that Gordon links them together, highlighting the overlaps between the women and their attempts to push the boundaries. The women are connected across time through their reading, sometimes of one another as role models. I found that this elevated the book from being a potentially dry piece of academic writing to an engaging read.
Building on that, even though this is a biography, the writing style is almost more prose-like than you’d imagine. Gordon does a wonderful job of weaving together facts, elements from their writing and some imaginative creative licence to paint a rich, textured picture of their lives. There are somethings we simply can’t know without letters or records. However, Gordon does an amazing job of bringing all that we do know together in a stimulating and informative way.
I had more knowledge on some of the writers than others, but it was fascinating to learn about them all. All five of the Outsiders have things in common; they’re razor sharp and hungry for more knowledge. Without the option for further education, they all turned to books to learn. And another thing, they all risked the one thing that could truly protect them during their times – their reputation.
All of these women lived on the outskirts of society, cast aside because of their reluctance to conform or decisions to follow their own hearts. They only truly relied on and loved men when they found intellectual compatibility. It’s from this outside position, in their solitude, that they were able to create the masterpieces that they did. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that women had no chance of being published under their own names. Yet these five all found a way to get their voice heard.
One of the things I liked is that Gordon didn’t deify these women. She highlights their achievements and how paved the way for future women, but she doesn’t paint them as perfect. They are complex women where the genius coexists with someone expected to be a mother, sister, wife and friend. Sometimes they were good at managing that, sometimes not so good. To me, that is the epitome of what their writing embodies. They knew the intricacy and desires of women, so they wrote about it in a way that had never been heard before.
Outsiders is a wonderful combination of incredibly thorough research and glorious storytelling. It reminds us that these women, alongside others, are crucial to the literary world that we know today.
You can get a copy here if it sounds like something you’d like!