In the final chapter of her new book, Lyndall Gordon turns to Virginia Woolf’s description of the “Society of Outsiders” in Three Guineas (1938). With war threatening, Woolf writes to her imagined male interlocutor that “The Society of Outsiders has the same ends as your society – freedom, equality, peace; but…it seeks to achieve them by the means that a different sex, a different tradition, a different education, and the different values which result from those differences have placed within our reach”. Outsiders explores the impact of those differences in the lives and works of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Woolf, and suggests that the writers’ cumulative experience effects a form of virtual, transhistorical outsiders’ society.
Through sensitively recounted biographical details and literary readings, Gordon seeks to understand how these women became writers despite the obstacles in their way, and creates a web of connections, effected in part by their reading of each other’s works, and the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was Mary Shelley’s mother, as well as author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Provocative parallels emerge, between Frankenstein’s monster and Heathcliff, for instance, and between the writers’ relationships with their sisters, which form a set of connections that test customary assumptions, allegiances and affection in the face of ambition and the desire for romantic love. There is something willed and permissive, as well as uncomfortably isolating, for the outsider.
Outsiders both claims the inevitability of exclusion for the female writer, and explores its specific manifestations in the very different lives of the women under consideration here, some of whom, however, achieved significant recognition. Woolf was offered, and turned down, an invitation to become a Companion of Honour in 1935, choosing to try to maintain a critical distance from society. Eliot’s choice was different, and potentially more complex: eschewing convention in her relationships with men, as Gordon shows, she nonetheless retained a respect for “custom” as a necessary means of binding communities together, and spent much of her writing life seeking modes of change that would leave the instinct for custom intact, along with the society in which she lived. For these two later writers, and for Schreiner, the outsider label masks a degree of significant and effectual intervention in society that means we have to recalibrate our understanding of the outsider’s status.
As recent history has shown us, the “outsider” is a contentious label. Reading Hillary Clinton’s What Happened alongside Outsiders provides an insight into another successful woman from a relatively modest background, who is – depending on your, and indeed her, outlook – either an establishment figure or an outsider because of her gender. Her presidential opponent made more pernicious use of the status of outsider, and showed just how much latent energy can be activated by that label. In Three Guineas, the members of the Society of Outsiders were “the daughters of educated men”, as indeed were all of Gordon’s subjects here, but many more women were outside that relatively privileged realm than were inside it. This book attests to the persistence of the “outsider”, but it’s a concept whose significance necessarily shifts with time.
Gail Marshall is head of the School of Literature and Languages at Reading University.
Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World
By Lyndall Gordon
Virago, 352pp, £20.00
Published 26 October 2017