FINUALA DOWLING reviews Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon and wonders what has changed.
How does a woman writer become an outsider? Let me count the ways.
Her mental solitude begins in childhood, when she cannot even jump over a puddle without thinking: ‘How strange – what am I?’ In having a voice at all she ‘veers from the path laid out by custom’, and the very sound of that emergent voice may cause her mother to beat her with a switch made of twigs. Her arrival at maturity is a mystery; she is ‘like a thorn-tree, which grows up very quietly, without any one’s caring for it, and one day suddenly breaks out into yellow blossoms’.
She thinks differently from everyone else, perhaps especially other women who have been trained to ‘seem’ rather than to ‘be’. Knowing that what she needs is to be found in books of great complexity, she grabs an education where she can –a lecture on electricity or private lessons in Greek. She dares to know what men know. She devours her father’s library, even though it contains not a single book by a woman. Lost in the world of books and thought, she is absent-minded or careless of her own appearance. As a result of this radical combination of thought and thoughtlessness she looks odd: people mock her when she appears in public.
It is hard for her to find a sympathetic life partner, and sometimes she goes without. Or she takes a risk – loves a married man, perhaps – and is duly ostracised, especially by respectable women. She is called names: ‘slut’ and ‘stinkpot of humanity’. She is disowned or slighted by her father and her brother whose ideas of a woman’s limits cannot be stretched to include a daughter or sister who chooses writing over marriage, who openly follows her passions.
She puts into her fiction creatures like herself, shunned, unforgiven, unforgettable. Fearing that the book she has written will be turned down because she is a woman, she hides beneath a male pseudonym. When her book is published, reviewers find fault with it: ‘coarse in language and coarse in conception’. The passion in her writing is misread as the spinster’s hunger for a man; her public speaking, ‘a molten torrent of white rage’, is declared ‘unwomanly’.
Her happiest moments are spent in the company of the select few who recognise her genius, and in reading the books of her predecessors, fellow pioneers in the creation of a new model of womanhood. Like them, she is against arms, patriotism, violence. ‘As a woman, I have no country,’ she announces. Her opinions and actions infuriate powerful men.
If she is to get on in the world she must have a male champion or mentor. In this she may choose well or ill. Even if she finds a champion, she must guard her writing time jealously – turning away distressed relatives seeking succour – or pay the consequences. Above all, she must avoid falling pregnant, or she will be slowed, even stopped, by the burden of repeated pregnancies and childcare.
Poverty consolidates her outsider status. Rarely successful in her own lifetime, she scrapes by with bits and pieces of editing and translating or, worst of all, the skivvy work of being a governess.
Abandoning and abandoned by the ordinary world, she spends more and more time alone, in self-imposed exile, thinking and writing. She makes a virtue of necessity, proclaiming herself ‘an outlaw’, positioning herself ‘at the outposts of existence where the clamour will not reach’. She writes: ‘it is a curious solitary life I live here, seldom speaking to or seeing a human being’. Inevitably she suffers from an isolating depression, perhaps brought on by expecting something when the world has told her to expect nothing.
Long after she is dead, her life is celebrated. Long after she has any need for it, her books become bestsellers and money pours in.
The women writers whose lives underpin these paragraphs are Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf – the five subjects of biographer Lyndall Gordon’s latest book, Outsiders. The sting of being slighted; the pressure of unexpressed passion; enforced loneliness: Gordon lays bare the afflictions that have, ironically, produced some of the world’s most sublime writing.
It was a relief, really exhilarating to read Outsiders. Gordon’s composite biography brings to light the overlaps between the lives of five visionary women who went willingly to the margins, risking the opprobrium of family and society, in their quest to give expression to truths that their original natures allowed them to perceive. Shunned, undervalued or misunderstood in their own time, they continue to speak to one another, and to us, long after their critics’ voices have died.
The lives of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf are not historical curiosities. When I finished reading Outsiders, I picked up a wonderful ‘Diary’ piece by Anne Enright in the London Review of Books showing that the ‘outsider’ status of women writers persists to this day.
Enright begins with the story of a writer who two years ago submitted the opening pages of a new novel under both her real name, Catherine Nichols, and a psedonym, George Nichols, only to discover from the responses that George was ‘eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.’ Next, Enright analyses possible gendered readings of the sentence, ‘The cat sat on the mat’. If authored by a man, the sentence might be judged to be tough, precise, percussive, allusive, symbolic: ‘it somehow says it ALL.’ If authored by a woman, the sentence is judged domestic and banal, limited.
Enright’s statistics reveal the inequality of column inches devoted to reviews of books by men as opposed to books by women, the literary prize that is handed to one male writer after another over a decade-long period, and the paucity of reviews by men of books by women. It was painful to read about the condescension or disregard with which a woman writer of Enright’s stature is treated. Yet there was a feeling of relief, too, that she had laid this down, had spoken up, had risked being dismissed as a bad sport for telling the truth.
Because the truth is that to be a woman writer is to live inside Emily Dickinson’s lines: ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you – Nobody – too?’ I was once introduced at a literary festival by a staff member who declined to study my CV or read my books but said she’d get to know me over a cup of coffee and then extemporise. Unfortunately, she spent our coffee date talking about herself. Not to worry, what is there to know about a woman writer anyway? ‘Finuala is a very quiet person who loves her daughter,’ she said when we came onto the stage for my reading. I set the record straight with my loudest, least maternal poem.
I have sat on my fair share of ‘women writer’ panels, so I feel entitled to wonder why an event consisting of four male writers around a table is billed not ‘Male writers in conversation’ but ‘South Africa’s literary lions’. Though the word ‘lion’ is a clue. I suspect there is something sexually alluring about a male writer of literary fiction. Do the male writer’s novels, with their combination of sensitive mind-reading and ‘the cat sat on the mat’ toughness, hold an erotic charm for his mostly straight and female audience? After all, his book is capable of going to bed with a woman, staying the night beside her. I once heard a woman sigh orgasmically as she told me how much she was looking forward to the next novel by one of the lions. I admit that I experienced a bit of a twinge.
A day or two later I was standing in the queue at Woolworths and the young woman in front of me turned around and began to speak to me as if we were old friends, without preamble. She remembered something from my first novel; something she’d really liked. We spoke directly, easily, as though we were continuing a conversation we’d started sometime earlier. I am grateful that it did not cross her mind to shun me because I have occasionally been disgraceful, because I refer to sex, use unladylike language, say what I think or have dared to write at all, and under my own name.
I have had other encounters with readers, but in this case memory’s flashbulb went off. Even though we were women holding baskets, I was a writer, she was a reader. It was the kind of come-in-from-the-cold moment one would have wished for Mary Shelley; a moment that Emily Brontë, being exceptional, never wanted. George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf sometimes had it: not a magazine cover, prize, platform, or laudatory review, but one voice saying to another voice: ‘You’re not alone. Thank you for writing this’.
Outsiders is published by Virago. Read an extract from the book here. Dowling is AERODROME’s poetry editor; her most recently published novel is The Fetch (Kwela).