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).

A pin in the flux


“There are a lot of mountains you have to cross to get here,” my partner Roxy Kawitzky says when Sarah Waters asks about our trip to Franschhoek. “And more mountains to go,” Waters smiles. It’s the second day of the Franschhoek Literary Festival, and I’ve been asked to interview visiting British author Waters, who is in the country to promote her latest novel The Paying Guests.

So I promised myself that if I ever met you I would tell you this story: When I was a student at a religious all-girls high school and woefully in the closet, despite being very obviously in love with one of my friends, I took out Fingersmith from the library. I remember the librarian’s look of recognition when she scanned the novel for me and it was only later, when I read it and realised that it included a romance between two women, that I understood what she’d thought. I was pretty mortified. Then many years later, when I’d finally come out, I went to another library, found all of your novels that they had and proudly hauled them to the counter. This librarian could not have cared less, but for me it was a big moment of public declaration.

It’s funny, actually, hearing you say that because there was a book that meant something similar for me. I was at University and I was already having a relationship with a girl but we were completely closeted. And I think I’d read or seen something about this book called Surpassing the Love of Men by Lillian Faderman [when asked, Waters says that she didn’t name one of the characters in The Paying Guests after this author but that maybe the influence was subliminal]. It’s a history of lesbians, really, an academic history. And I went to my local bookshop in in Kent, where I was at University. It’s a small cathedral town so I didn’t expect to find it but they had it – there it was on the shelf. Or no, I asked for it – that’s right – I asked for it, and I remember stumbling over the title because I was slightly self-conscious. Of course, the bookseller didn’t care. And then I bought it, took it home and it was just a revelation to me. And, like I said, I was already in a lesbian relationship but I just had no sense that lesbians had a history. It was such a validation. It was my first entry into a whole world of academic and art writing about homosexuality that I just hadn’t known was there. But once I stepped over the threshold, there it all was to discover.

Do you think that influenced your postgraduate studies?

Yeah, definitely. I remained really interested in queer history after that. My BA was just in general literature. Afterwards I stayed interested in fiction but began to think about lesbian and gay fiction, so I went back to do my PhD in that.

Your novels have been set in England in the Victorian period and then later in the 1940s. The Paying Guests takes place after World War I in London. Is there a reason you chose to explore that time and place?

I was going to say that it was the time when that sort of old class system was beginning to break down, but of course it hasn’t broken down. But class dynamics were definitely changing. Actually, I didn’t know that much about it when I started the book. It was not knowing about the period that inspired me to find out, to go research. Which is quite unusual for me, because I usually have a small or quite big sense of what an historical period could offer a story. But I really didn’t know the 20s, so I just had to start from scratch and read books from the time. I didn’t get very far, for a while, because I just went back to the novels that I knew by people like D.H. Lawrence and, as much as I admired them, I couldn’t really identify with the characters in them. They seemed either too upper-class or too extreme in some way. But that was useful because it made me realise I wanted to write about someone ordinary. And I really only went and found out about the murders because they gave me incidental detail. Then I became interested in murder, domestic murder, love triangles. Murders are dramas in which class and gender often do come to play because those things are in play all the time in life. So it’s like putting a pin into flux and seeing what things intersect there.

It’s interesting that you say that and that you’ve mentioned Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine previously as well as an important text for you. The notions of theatricality and performance both seem to come up repeatedly in your work.

Well, I think a lot of my work has been interested in performance in one way or another. Obviously gender as a performance, with cross-dressing and things like that. But also, other kinds of cross-dressing, like class cross-dressing. In a novel like Fingersmith there’s somebody passing themselves off as belonging to a class they’re not part of. That’s sort of a self-fashioning, isn’t it? So that’s always been there a bit in my work. I suppose because of being gay and being feminist, I’m interested in the artificiality of roles. And in this novel, when I was researching the period, I kept coming across references to “shamness” and “phoneyness”. It was as if people were so disillusioned by the war and the things that had happened around the war, which had been gone into on the basis of big empty words like “civilization” and “honour” and had left so many people feeling disillusioned with those concepts. That thriving for authenticity comes up in the work of people like Katharine Mansfield. So for me Frances [the protagonist in The Paying Guests] was a character who was very much focused on getting at the truth of things and not living an artificial, sham kind of life. And Lillian is a great self-fashioner – she makes her own clothes in a time when suddenly there weren’t as many distinctions that meant you had to dress a certain way if you belonged to a specific class. They were blurring and you could present yourself in many ways.

I was also very conscious in this book about spectacle, about who can look and who can’t look. Lillian is feminine so, in the traditional sense, she is seen as performing for men and for the male gaze. So what does it mean if Frances is looking at her? Not that I can answer these questions but I was very conscious that these issues were raised in the book. Like when Frances chases away the man at the balustrade who has been leching after Lillian but then worries that she’s been leching after her too. I was very conscious that I was writing about a lesbian and a straight woman. I’d never written about that relationship before. And I was thinking about femininity. In publishing, especially, I know loads of straight women and they’re always saying “Look how gorgeous you are!” to each other. And I can do that too but then I think, well, what am I doing here? Am I being a lesbian or am I being an honourary straight woman? Because it’s very uneroticised, that type of exchange.

What made you want to write about that relationship, between a lesbian and someone who we first understand as a straight woman?

I knew I had this triangle, with the husband and wife and the female lover. There were only two options available to me: one was to make both women be heterosexual and fall in love with each other, which also, as we know, happens and would have been interesting. But in my books, lesbianism is just there, usually. I don’t always want my characters to have to discover it. I’m more interested now in not problematising lesbianism. It’s not something they [the characters] have to discover and deal with, exactly. So I was more interested in having Frances be more experienced and more confident in her sexuality. And I was just genuinely interested in the dynamic between them because it wasn’t one I’d explored before.

One of the most interesting things for me, as a queer woman reading this book, is that it includes an unsuccessful sex scene between two women. In much of the literature that I’ve read by and about lesbians, this seems to be something that’s shied away from, as if sex between two women can only be framed as constantly revelatory or we’re letting the side down or something. What made you decide to write a scene like that?

I think they’re the most interesting. Of course a lot of the lesbian sex we see is either in male pornography or feels a bit pornified. So I definitely wanted to do something different than that. They do have good sex to start with but it seemed important that the sex get a bit more complex than that because that’s what it is like in life. And sex often does fail, for some sort of reason. And that doesn’t often get depicted. Did you ever see The Wings of the Dove? … I really had that in my head. And just thought: sex is this moment where we’re at our most vulnerable. And for that exact reason it’s fraught with danger and complexity. I enjoyed writing it [the scene] because it felt really real to me. I think lesbian writers have often felt a burden to be positive all the time. Lesbianism is under assault or misrepresentation in so many other ways. And I think we often feel like we have to be really positive.

I wanted to go back to your relationship with the theatre – I know that Tipping the Velvet is being adapted for the theatre now. How is it going?

I’ve seen various drafts of the script and it’s terrific. It’s great. It’s quite a theatrical story and she [Laura Wade, the playwright] has made the most of that and added her theatre skills as a playwright. And it’s going to be performed in this Victorian theatre.

So I guess I must ask, finally, what is your next project?

Well, I’ve only just begun to think about the next project, so it’s incredibly early days but I’m sort of thinking about writing something set in the 1950s in England. Having written two previous novels set in the late forties I’m sort of interested in what came next, really. So, British but probably not lesbian. I’m saying it here first: probably not lesbian.

The Paying Guests is published by Virago.