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).

Exceptional eloquence


It’s because it’s not enough to say, ‘I love you… miss you … fear death … wonder why I’m here… feel strange… cry sometimes… doubt reality’ that we need poets of Michael Symmons Roberts’ exceptional eloquence.  As his poem ‘In Babylon’ suggests, most of us have forgotten how to sing: ‘All they do is jabber now… our harps grew out of reach.’

In an era in which much poetry is composed by the tin-eared, favouring clichés, unedited blurts and facile carriage returns, Symmons Roberts reaches up to unhook a forgotten harp from its willow frond. His Forward and Costa award-winning Drysalter stands out as a virtuoso collection, combining consolation, craft and muscular imagination with a rare musicality.

Much has been made of the sheer feat of Symmons Roberts’ sixth collection — 150 poems, each one (well, there’s one, deeply-buried, exception) 15 lines in length — and of the clever play on ‘psalter’ in the title. But while the design is impressive, it is also risky.

Drysalter is a long collection which initially gives the impression both of containing too much and of being too contained. In a BBC4 interview with Mark Lawson, Symmons Roberts admitted that after a while, ‘I kind of knew what a Drysalter poem would feel like, what it would sound like’.

The risk is that the reader, having grasped the 15-line length restriction (though with varied stanza patterns), the poet’s drive to match the Bible’s psalm-count, and the rhythmic and tonal patterning that marks the collection, will share the quoted prescience, and put the book down.

This would be a mistake. As with famous sonnet cycles and sequences, the display of bravura ultimately proves necessary. The whole exertion of the exercise pushes the poet to the limit of his powers. As the collection expands, it develops a geography that one inhabits.

Poems in Drysalter start up conversations with one another and with the reader. The invitation to participate is hard to resist.  ‘Lachrima Negativa’, for example, which begins ‘Someone told me not to cry’, not only answers my implied question about that which is ‘dry’ in this psalter, but also makes ‘Portrait of the Psalmist as a Man in Tears’ all the more affecting.

When you write an admiring book review, you have to have a sense of who you’re recommending the book to. I do not think my Bradfordian great-grandfather Mollin, who actually described himself as a ‘drysalter’ (an importer of chemicals, salts and dyes) would have understood many of these poems. It’s testimony to Roberts’ extraordinary bending of the planes of time, his easy passage between the real and the unreal, that I even consider the long-dead among his target market.

Like the great metaphysical poets, Symmons Roberts writes with conceptual flourish. Almost every poem casts aside readymade thoughts and ponders the alternatives.  ‘What gives the real such precedence?’ he asks in ‘Night Freight’, and then goes on, in a series of nighttime poems, to present an argument for the transcendent. Perhaps the night train is

Lit not so that she can see to clip our tickets,
nor so we can read the news, but lit
to make of us and it an eel-shared full

vivarium to show the wild hills what
a world can be

In other poems, this technique of inversion is used for a spiritual or ethical purpose. The effect is to insist that the reader sees the world from the point of view of ‘the others’ who ‘being other… have not met you yet,/but some – with time and chance – could love you,/if you would let them get that close’.

A powerful poem in this vein is ‘Smitten’, which gently mocks the absurd reasoning we use to define our ‘enemies’: ‘we do not like the cut/of their suits’, ‘their taste in jokes,/their labial plosives, their coffee too/sweet and too hot’, ‘the way they look out/over strong drinks at chiselled mountains’.

In this advanced secular age, Michael Symmons Roberts writes poems for people who still have moral belief. The series of poems entitled ‘The Wounds’ make a powerful anti-war statement; the beautiful poem ‘The Count’, and the bookended pair of poems both titled ‘A Plea for Clemency’, work with a George Herbert-like intensity to urge wisdom and mindfulness.

Michael Symmons Roberts is that phenomenon we call a poet’s poet.  His poems demand close reading and knowledge of the tradition of poetry, especially elegy.  Poems echo the first lines of Auden’s ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’, of Empson’s villanelle ‘Missing Dates’, Frost’s ‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening’ and perhaps even William Carlos Williams’ ‘Red Wheelbarrow’.

They’re not cover versions, but inter-texts. In ‘The Road Retaken,’ we leave Frost not behind but ahead as the poet offers a brilliantly witty vision of evolution in reverse. ‘Elegy for the Unknown Elegists’ is a compassionate memorial for amateur obituarists.

Drysalter is a collection I would recommend to students of poetry. In these poems you can hear the unforced music of the metrical yet nevertheless fully contemporary line. The collection demonstrates form — stanzaic form as well as the genres of elegy, hymn, psalm, vow – and how to reinterpret it.

Above all, Drysalter is an exemplar of the possibilities of imagery. These lines say all that needs to be said about both the power and the duplicity of metaphor:

Hours away, he finds a hair of hers
stitched into his shirt like fuse-wire,
though he will later tell her like brocade.

Beyond the enduring poetic themes of love, death and transcendence, Symmons Roberts is preoccupied with questions about the future and whether or not we have a destiny. The poem ‘It is Coming’ faces up to our inevitable obsolescence; ‘Footfall’ neatly sets out a range of different shoes to signal future possibilities for a baby; ‘Automatic Soothsayer Booth’ mocks our quest for clairvoyance.

As the pun on psalter/salter suggests, Symmons Roberts knows that the role of psalmist/singer comes with the less noble task of salter/preserver. Like the ‘walking desiccants’ in ‘The Guild of Salters’, he knows that this job of preservation —  keeping up the poetic tradition, administering the rites of consolation, performing the role of commemoration — comes at a price:

sandpaper for eyelids,

thirst that never pales,
ingrown lips and tongue as biltong.

A poet for South Africans, too.

Drysalter is published by Jonathan Cape and is available from

Poetry of the now


I feel that we’ve been waiting for it, Sam Riviere’s debut collection. Haven’t we asked for this unashamed poetry of the now that turns its back firmly on the age-old quest for the universal and the enduring?

81 Austerities emerged out of a blog, and its 81 poems — instant, unpunctuated and ephemeral — play with and speak to bloggers and tweeters everywhere, an audience whose short attention has been born out of necessity. As the speaker in one of Riviere’s poems says, “I’d be screwed if I woke up one day / without all my cultural supports’.

Poetry has the reputation of being deep, but Riviere makes a virtue of shallowness: “I dreamed I wrote a poem / beginning ‘Hi!’ and ending ‘See you later!’ / the middle part was amazing / that’s the part I don’t remember”.

Titles like “Buffering 15%” and “POV” emerge from a contemporary world that is always moving on, in search of the Next Big Thing which turns out, disappointingly, to be a small, passing fragment. As you would expect, it’s a life that suffers from boredom (“mostly I watch films / and stare and try to decide what / to wear”).

The poet is uneasy about the reverence with which poets and poetry are treated. The opening poem reveals that while he has happily accepted £48 000 in funding over the past few years, what he has really been up to is developing “a taste for sushi / decent wine”, that he has bought his friends “many beers many of whom / have never worked a day in their lives”.

Like the poets he belongs with (Frank Bidart and Frank O’Hara), Riviere does not shy from the one thing Walt Whitman asked poets for: candour. To write as well as he does about porn, you have to watch it.

Riviere’s poetry is spot-on in its self-consciousness. It mimics a generation which is always watching itself. In the age of connectivity, everything is explicit, already confessed, already known and depicted.

True to their postmodern ethos, his poems come with readymade endnotes that sound like the criticisms and affirmations of a busy creative writing tutor (“yeees, sort of, ok, worth keeping”; “not sure what’s going on here: the contexts elude me”).

Bathos like this is everywhere. Big, ineffable questions of the universe are replaced with more to-the-point queries: “tell me why did we let the internet / unmoor its radiant cloud from/above our home…?”.

Love gets the kind of cynical working-over that it’s had coming to it for a long time: the poems “No touching”, “The Pinch”, “What Do You Think about That” and “Heavily” (“Today is a day of zero connectivity … am I not a child at the opera of emotions”) are absolute triumphs.

Another success is “Council of Girls” (“my jury of sunflowers”) who are relentless in questioning and accusing the hapless texter-poet. The imagery of their knots-in-wood eyes and the mock-capitulation of the closing lines are master-strokes.

Riviere’s poem “Adversity in the Arts” undermines the kind of praise I’ve just given, so perhaps I should mention that while loving his wit and audacity, I found the unpunctuated run-on lines tedious at times and, yes, the context sometimes eluded me.

But my abiding impression is that in 81 Austerities we encounter that rarest of things, a witty poet who never abandons feeling, a satirist who never ditches the lyrical.

81 Austerities is published by Faber and Faber and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.