EXTRACT: Outsiders

LYNDALL GORDON reflects on the five extraordinary women writers whose lives she explores in Outsiders.

Lyndall Godon

All five of my choices were motherless. With no female model at hand, they learnt from books; if lucky, from an enlightened man. Common to all five was the danger of staying at home, the risk of an unlived life. But if there was danger at home, there was often worse danger in leaving: the loss of protection; estrangement from family; exploitation; a wandering existence, shifting from place to place; and worst of all, exposure to the kind of predator who appeared to offer Olive Schreiner a life – marriage – when she went to work as a governess at the age of seventeen.

In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion. How far was it willed – how far, for instance, did Emily Brontë will her unpopularity at a Brussels school, or was it involuntary? Were the acts of divergence necessary if each woman was to follow the bent of her nature? Mary Ann Evans fled a provincial home where a brainy girl was regarded as odd. In London, she called herself an ‘outlaw’ before she became one by living with a partner outside the legality of marriage. Yet it was during her years outside society in the late 1850s that George Eliot came into being. Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) settled in Bloomsbury as part of a group. Her brothers, sister, and their mostly homosexual friends, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, provided a shield. In such stimulating company, Virginia and her sister turned themselves into unchaperoned young women, flaunting words like ‘semen’ and ‘copulation’ in mixed company until all hours of the night. It was scandalous, but not dangerous. Danger, for Woolf, was the threat of insanity, bound up with what Henry James called ‘the madness of art’.
No one, of course, can explain genius. Women are especially hard to discern outside the performing spheres assigned to them in the past, the thin character of angels in the house. In contrast, Virginia Woolf explores the secret thing: women’s enduring creativity as it takes its way in shadow; in her generation and before, it did not proclaim itself.

What we now know is that after these writers’ lifetimes, families concocted myths, playing down the radical nature of these women. George Eliot’s widower presented a flawless angel; at the opposite extreme, Schreiner’s estranged widower branded her with his annoyance. The devoted son and daughter-in-law of Mary Shelley cast her in the Victorian mould of timid maiden and mourner. But voices sing out past the tombstones of reputation. The words of these five altered our world; certainly they changed the face of literature. We do more than read them; we listen and live with them.

To say I chose these writers was actually wrong; they chose themselves. For each had the compulsion Jane Eyre expressed when she said, ‘Speak I must’.

Outsiders is published by Virago. Read our review of the novel here.

Head in the clouds

BY SAMANTHA GIBB

Elon Musk is an objective account of the South African-born CEO of Tesla and SpaceX‘s labyrinthine life. Superbly written, by Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Ashlee Vance, its elegant style reads like sophisticated fiction; a great balance between conversational tones and easygoing humour that make the technical content seem more accessible to the layman.

As the book informs you in its opening pages, Musk desires to make Mars habitable for humans, and to turn mankind into space colonisers. While this may seem fantastic or even naïve to many, particularly supporters of incumbent aeronautical endeavours, this stated purpose is what has driven Musk from the start of his business ventures, and fuels his vision for his companies. Only with this goal in mind does one begin to grasp the motivation and intense passion behind the rather complicated persona of Musk, who lies in the grey region between likeable and detestable.

Although Musk comes from an exceptional family with many successes to their name, his achievements have more to do with hard work and endurance than genetic favours. True, he has a photographic memory and very high IQ, but he is also a slave to his own obsessive work ethic. The true fault herein is that Musk subscribes his employees to the same standards, which has fuelled his reputation as an unlikeable megalomaniac.

Musk is best known for his work at Tesla and SpaceX. However, these enormous victories naturally started as humble beginnings. Musk initially founded a company called Zip2, in which his first millions were made when the company was sold, and in which he first experienced rejection when he was ousted as CEO. Despite the company’s success, Musk was no natural-born leader. A similar scenario occurred at PayPal, in which Musk walked away richer but was ousted. His brilliant mind did not (and according to Vance and his many sources still does not) extend to individual empathy. Musk is the driver of a frightening train and will stop for no obstacle, including the people aboard it.

However, it was not until the start of Tesla and SpaceX that Musk truly shone as a businessman and philanthropist. Where his previous endeavours had surrounded him with an air of immense egotism and brutality, Musk’s true passion – and the above-mentioned goal regarding Mars – was evident in these two companies. Despite each being on the brink of financial ruin – regardless of Musk’s personal fortune being pumped into numerous projects contained within the buildings – Musk achieved success. While he and his companies came so near to total failure, the important fact is that they did not fail. Regardless of competition from well-established companies, lack of funds, enormous technical faults and personal drama, Musk and his companies proved that hard work pays off. In fact, Musk’s success is so enormous that he is currently worth over $10 billion dollars.

Yet money is not what motivates Elon Musk. His desire to evolve the technologies behind the automotive and aeronautical industries to provide better products and opportunities for humanity are what infuse him with a passion that is borderline crazy and equally infectious, if the cult of admirers around him is anything to judge by. Admittedly, for much of the book it is difficult to see Musk as anything other than unlikeable and abrasive, yet his desire to improve humanity is admirable. With the success of SpaceX’s first launches and subsequent builds, Musk is bringing humanity a step closer to his goal. Tesla’s line of cars has not only been voted safest and most environmentally friendly, but is a design dream and sophisticated to the point of verging on science fiction.

That notion is key when considering all that Musk has achieved and hopes to achieve. He is literally a man ahead of his time. Elon Musk is making the world appear as an episode of some far-out science show, and yet he does it as though it were not revolutionary; his achievements speak to the immense possibility of humankind. If one man can do so much (theoretically – for he does have several thousand employees) what can we do together?

Vance articulates Musk’s ideas with detail that makes the excitement palpable. While not necessarily personally approachable, Musk is undoubtedly amazing, and has great things in store for the world. This may sound a lofty claim, particularly given the corporate investment and sway of oil companies and rivals which may stymie his every move, yet I believe it is possible to accomplish Elon Musk’s goals. The future is bright, and Elon Musk holds a powerful light to illuminate it.

Elon Musk is published by Virgin Books.

Heavy mettle: revealing the Iron Lady’s hidden layers

BY TONY LEON

There is a twist of irony in one of the many put-downs which Margaret Thatcher received from the Labour Party, whose government she ejected from office when she was first elected Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979, the first of three hugely consequential and epoch-changing terms in which she served in this post, during which she profoundly altered the terms of political and economic trade in her country.

It came from the opposition party’s intellectual “bully boy’” or “bruiser” — as top politician Denis Healey became known. He accused the famous “Iron Lady” of being a prime minister who “wraps herself in the a Union Jack… and glories in slaughter”, a reference to her decision to reclaim by force the Falkland Islands from the Argentine military junta which occupied them in 1982. Although he was forced to withdraw this remark by the Speaker of the House of Commons, this hard fought conflict is the end point of the Charles Moore’s first volume of his official biography which was published in 2013, shortly after Thatcher’s death in April, at the age of 87. But as Moore correctly asserts, the triumphant recapture of the isolated South Atlantic Islands, “made her all the more unassailable in the time to come”.  But in several instances, as this exhaustively researched, fluently written and unusually insightful book — which is both generally admiring of its subject without ever lurching into hagiography — reveals, Healey was wide off the mark. Thatcher in fact was deeply preoccupied at all times during the conflict at the peril faced by the young servicemen of her armed forces. Badly advised by her foreign office, she increasingly relied on her armed services’ chiefs. Contrary to her well-earned reputation for hard-headed hectoring of subordinates, in all military matters, at least,  she deferred almost entirely to her generals’ and admirals’  advice and never overrode it. For all her bullying and imperious manners, often on display elsewhere in the volume, when it came to the lives of the  task force members engaged in the campaign she displayed a very different side: after an early set-back in the war, Moore reveals: “she wept… because it was the first military adventure of the war, it was her first experience of what it was like to send men to into situations in which they might die. Her natural, maternal instincts human sympathy and her ardour for the British servicemen’s welfare made her even more sensitive to this than the average male political leader would have been.” There were hidden layers behind the armour of the Iron Lady and Moore is adept at revealing them.

But Healey also in general terms declaimed how important it was for politicians to have what he termed “hinterland”, by which he meant measures of intellect and interest outside the corridors of power and parliament. It could be argued that 758-pages are perhaps too exhaustive a study to consider before Thatcher’s first term in office even ends. But in fact this book, which commences with Thatcher’s birth in 1925, above her father’s grocery store in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham, is worth the effort: it plumbs the many levels, seldom on display in public, of its multi-faceted subject. But it also provides a fascinating social and economic exploration, alongside the obvious political emphasis, of life in Britain, after the First World War and in the crucial years pre- and post-World War Two.

Moore states his biographical purpose upfront in the introduction.  Although his subject was driven by significant doses of egoism and vanity, she was interestingly little concerned with how history would remember her; and unlike many other famous political she was seldom confronted by either self-doubt or even very much introspection at all. “So Mrs Thatcher’s biographer,” Moore notes, “finds himself examining a life unexamined by the person who lived it.” He certainly succeeds in this task of opening the shades on some of the great themes, the nature of her ambition, the foundations of her beliefs, the development of her political skills, her attitude to love, marriage and children, not least among them. And then there is one of the most obvious and hitherto less examined aspects of all, her sex: “The fact that she was the first and only woman leader of a British political party made everything different… The attitudes of  colleagues, rivals (especially the misogynist Tory leader Edward Heath whom she ousted in 1975) and voters towards her – and her approach to them – were radically affected by her sex. Her handbag became the sceptre of her rule.”

Indeed, there is copious detail how, from a very young age, Margaret Thatcher was preoccupied by the clothes she wore, the challenges of her figure and even the flirtations of her political polar opposite, French socialist president Francois Mitterrand.

But, as to be expected from a biographer who variously held the editorial helm at three of Britain’s most prestigious publications – The Spectator, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph – this volume provides far more than fascinating personal revelations. It zeroes in on the postwar economic and political malaise which afflicted Britain with the tag in the 1970s of “the sick man of Europe”, and chronicles the processes which Thatcher undertook, often in the teeth of the most stringent opposition (not least from those in her own ranks whom she dismissed as “wets”) to put things to rights. The epic internal and external battles she waged against those determined to prevent her from pursuing her rigid monetary policies to cure the high inflation and high deficit public finances which confronted her on achieving office, are well told and chronicled.

Given that Thatcher had little time for those she dubbed “terrorists” whether of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the African National Congress (ANC) sort, South African readers will have to await the second volume to glean more of her views on the latter. Ironically, she held a  strong regard for Nelson Mandela after he was released,which he apparently reciprocated despite seldom agreeing on any major policy. But of some local interest will be the first foreign policy crisis  which she faced shortly after achieving power in 1979, the resolution of the conflict  in Rhodesia. This biography provides many interesting perspectives on how she tackled this challenge, and contrary to prejudice (especially  from her husband Denis who believed that “the whites will fight and the whites will be right” in the event of Robert Mugabe and his “Marxist terrorists” taking over). But her ultimate decision showed a cautious pragmatism and a cleaving to the political centre. She wore dark glasses on her arrival at Lusaka airport for the critical Commonwealth summit there in July 1979. Her Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington enquired why this was necessary: “Margaret answered very clearly, ‘I am absolutely certain that when I arrive in Lusaka they are going to throw acid in my face.'”

In fact, cajoled by Carrington and charmed by the autocratic but kindly Kenneth Kaunda, Thatcher settled for an all-inclusive process involving all the warring parties at Lancaster House. It was precisely her rightwing disposition and prejudices, a la Nixon-in-China, which forced her own party, predisposed toward Ian Smith and “kith and kin in Rhodesia” to accept it.

One of the Conservative colleagues who was elected to parliament for the first time in October 1959, and who (having met them both I can attest to this fact ) unlike the more famous Thatcher enjoyed a sense of humour, Julian Critchley, once memorably said, “Margaret Thatcher was a woman of very common views, with extremely uncommon abilities.” Moore does not quote this put-down in his book. But by the end of it, he demonstrably proves that only the latter part of the quotation is indeed accurate.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning is published by Allen Lane, and is available from Kalahari.com. Read AERODROME’s interview with the author, Charles Moore, here.

Tony Leon is Executive Chairman of Resolve Communications (Pty) Ltd and served as Leader of the Opposition, Parliament of South Africa, and then as South African Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

10 QUESTIONS: Charles Moore

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Charles Moore is Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biographer. The first volume of the biography, Not for Turning, was recently released. Moore studied at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He has served as editor of the Spectator, the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Telegraph.

How did your appointment as authorized biographer come about and when did you start writing the biography?

It came about in 1997, at the instigation of Lady Thatcher. I did not know it was in the offing. She wanted to choose someone with whom she had a good relationship and allow that person access to herself, her family, her papers and, by extension, government papers. I was honoured that she chose me. I interviewed Lady Thatcher a good deal in the late 1990s, before her health failed. I did most of the research and all of the writing, however, from 2004 until the present time. I am still working on Volume Two.

Your most special memory of Margaret Thatcher?

I remember her telling our seven-year-old son, who had asked her, about what she had done in office. She got across the key points in about three sentences, and treated him like a grown-up.

The thing you liked the least about her?

She never did anything dislikeable to me, and was always courteous and – surprising to some people – fun to be with. She was always kind to people who worked for her. However, she could be highly disagreeable to political colleagues who worked with her. She was suspicious, and bullied some of them. This may have caused her downfall.

The biography’s biggest challenge?

There was too little about her early life, and too much about her premiership. I think I overcame the first problem by discovering completely unknown letters which she wrote to her sister from the age of 13 to about 40. They revealed the private girl and woman for the first time. The second problem remains!

The most enjoyable thing about writing this book?

Discovering how a woman can be a great leader without losing her female qualities. Learning about someone who was conservative and revolutionary at the same time.

The most surprising thing you learnt about Thatcher while writing this?

How she thought even more about clothes than about politics.

What was her greatest legacy?

Her story will still be interesting to people hundreds of years hence.

What was the most remarkable moment from her first few years in politics?

Getting selected as a candidate for a safe Conservative seat (in 1958). This only happened because the chairman secretly ‘lost’ two votes for her male opponent and declared her victorious. I don’t think she ever knew she had been selected on a fraud.

What was the most useful source you used when researching this book?

The single most useful source were her letters to her sister (see above). The key to the sources is to get the right balance between oral testimony (I interviewed 315 people for this volume) and contemporary paper records. The first is very inaccurate, but gives you the feeling of what it was all like. The second is much more factually reliable, but sometimes conceals the human truth.

What impact did Thatcher’s years in power have on gender equality?

She proved that everything is possible for a woman.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning is published by Allen Lane, R335.

Charles Moore
Author photograph © Jochen Braun