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.

BOOK CLUB: Outsiders

FINUALA DOWLING reviews Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon and wonders what has changed.

Outsiders by Lyndall Gordon

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).

POEM: How to heal a wound

BY PORTIA MABASO

You take a bowl of warm water, add a spoonful of sea salt,
dip cotton into the bowl and apply the contents to the wound.
The result is piercing pain and grandmother swears that’s the sign of the medicine working.
Basically, hurt the place that hurts; help the pain run its course for healing to come.
Name these things.
Uncle Joe touched me without consent.
Yes, it’s a blue eye, my boyfriend hit me
And no, I will not put make up on it.
All feeling stays for as long as it must.
This is the same for bad feelings as much as the good ones.

When you are done salting your wound (which is the same as flavoring it), sterilize your room, open the windows, rollup the curtains and let the breeze soothe the wound.
This she says because wounds hidden in bandages rot and take long to heal so free it from all coverings.
This morning I had coals for breakfast and they tasted like dead trees protesting in flames the axe that chopped them, the hand that kindled them and the match that set them ablaze.
In place of full and satisfied, I had sparks dancing in my stomach.
When fire meets fire, and you are the subject in between, pray that you are precious enough to be refined and not burnt alive.
I write with breath in my lungs, the remedy must be working.

BOOK CLUB: The Power

TARAH DARGE lauds the thrilling thought experiment that is Naomi Alderman’s latest novel, The Power, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Power

I am reading The Power while watching the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and man it’s messing with my mind. Like two sides of the same coin, both are set in dystopian future and both concern womankind’s fate. But while Atwood depicts a patriarchal theocracy in which women are enslaved and subject to endless horrors, Alderman envisions the status quo reversed to a dramatic effect almost too audacious to imagine.

The ripple of change begins with teenage girls. Worldwide, they awaken to a new power that allows them to emit shocks from their fingertips that can hurt or even kill. Videos of electric outbursts flood the internet, schools are segregated to protect boys, and men are warned not to venture out alone at night. Soon it spreads, in a collective swell that involves not just girls but older women too until nearly the entire female population is zapping their way to the top. As a female reader, there is an immense but barbed sense of satisfaction. Rapists, abusers and oligarchs get their comeuppance and women previously shackled in so many varied ways are suddenly free. However, this is no utopia, but rather a study in the corruption of power, whoever happens to wield it.

The story unfolds through the lives of four main characters, representative of the religious, political, cultural and criminal impact of the growing ‘crisis’. There is Allie – the American foster kid who refashions herself into the new world faith leader ‘Mother Eve’, Roxy, the tough-as-nails daughter of an infamous London mobster who uses her immense strength to rule the drug and arms trade, Margot – the ambitious senator with eyes on an increasing larger prize and Tunde – the lone male character who documents the tide of change as it happens across the globe, posting his vlogger footage on a YouTube-esque channel while the growing vitriol from disenfranchised men rages in online forums.

The structure is set to thrill, each chapter a countdown towards the global cataclysm, while the book itself is presented as a ‘historical novel’ – written by one Neil Adam Armon thousands of years into the future. In it, he questions how women came to be the dominant sex, and, in a playful spin, writes to lauded novelist ‘Naomi Alderman’, who, in turn, rejects his notion of a patriarchal society in a brilliant suggestion that cements the inevitability of the dominance of women. ‘With babies to protect’, women have always had to be ‘aggressive and violent’. There are also jabs at the male dominated publishing industry that hit home – an extra nail surely inspired by correspondence Alderman might have actually received.

Where it falls down in places, is the dialogue. The rough speak is a little twee and excessively sweary, with the action sequences reading more like the TV adaptation it’s bound to become partially obscuring the nuanced criticism it offers. But if Sci-Fi, comic-book like battles are your bag, it’s compelling, as is the well-researched commentary on rape-culture, porn, religious extremism and mercenary armies.

Zaps, fucks, and mafia rule book lines aside, The Power is fast-paced, important thought experiment and deft at illuminating the absurdity of our gender inequality gap, bound as we are in a world where the dysfunction is all too real.

The Power is published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.