Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Olive Schreiner. These five female authors defied social expectations and, according to Lyndall Gordon in her new book Outsiders, they “changed the world”. Lyndall Gordon joined Professor Claire Harman at Durham Book Festival to discuss her work. Lucia Scigliano-Suarez reviews.
Relying on her own upbringing in South Africa and her experience as a female writer, Gordon showed how these women were united across centuries through their experience and literary treatment of war, the fact that they were all motherless and thus lacked a female role model, and the way they were each attached to strong, enlightened men. Their overt, socially-challenging sexual attitudes, as reflected in their oeuvre, ultimately led to their social exclusion and loss of reputation, a crucial notion in Gordon’s book which is reflected in its title. It was all of these circumstances and more that influenced the creation of their characteristically forward-thinking and defiant voices, which helped to shape female roles and expectations and, consequently, society in general.
Gordon started her talk with some personal remarks in which she shared some of her earlier encounters with the idea of being a female outsider. This has been something that has pervaded her life from an early age; she remembers her mother, an avid reader, never having any sort of literary conversation with her husband, a ‘sporty’ man, and being told, as a young university student, that she would make an excellent assistant to a male scholar. The practice of being able to hold interesting, yet self-effacing, conversation with men was something that she was taught in her young years. That was the accepted education for women until very recently, and that was also part of the upbringing of the five novelists of her book.
She points out that one of the most interesting aspects of George Eliot’s story is that, in contrast with Mary Shelley who remained an outcast for all her life for eloping with Percy Bysshe as a young girl, Eliot was able to re-enter society after being an ‘outlaw’, as she called herself. Her books were enormously successful. Adam Bede (1869) was admired by intellectuals such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Carlyle, and Charles Dickens, who claimed ‘it was an epoch in my life to read this book’.
Virginia Woolf’s interest in inward character and development, and her concern about violence in Three Guineas (1938), an anti-war treatise, has its source in a relevant, yet obscure, moment in her past when she would hold long conversations with her aunt, a woman who, like in the case of George Eliot, had a decisive influence on her and her writings.
Olive Schreiner, the most obscure author out of the five, was very close with Woolf. Her writings were crucial to the suffragette movement of the turn-of-the-century. Vera Brittain regarded Schreiner’s Woman and Labour (1911) as the ‘bible of our generation’, and her book Dreams (1890) even features in the film Suffragette (2015). It comprises allegories about the future through which she communicates with her readers, explaining how from her present suffering the liberty of future generations may stem.
Mary Shelley found in Percy Bysshe Shelley an intelligent man and prolific writer who encouraged her genius. He had been her mentor while writing Frankenstein (1818); Mary had intended to write this as a short-story but Percy encouraged her to develop it into a novel. Percy writes of Mary in his dedication for The Revolt of Islam (1818):
thou and I,
Sweet Friend! can look from our tranquillity
Like lamps into the world’s tempestuous night,—
Two tranquil stars, while clouds are passing by
Which wrap them from the foundering seaman’s sight,
That burn from year to year with unextinguished light.
Her work was so extraordinary that, at the time of publishing, it was deemed as having been written by Percy.
Likewise, when visionary Emily Bronte published Wuthering Heights (1847), it was perceived as having been composed by a man as such was the greatness of that novel. She was published almost against her will and as recognition of her talent by her two sisters of congenial genius.
At various moments during her conversation with Professor Harman, Gordon read from her book, especially to show the ways in which female literary genius is associated with being a social outcast and being denied a voice, as the fact that George Eliot published under a pseudonym demonstrates. Her interest, as she put it, is in that ‘strain of human nature that is antithetical to our violent world’, emphasising how these were five women who believed, above all else, in humanism and in the possibility of bringing out what is of good in human beings. Gordon presented these women as representatives of a hopeful strand in literary achievement, one which focuses on the possibility of social change and renewal in spite of the negative events which take place daily and the destructive influence that society can have on individuals. This is how these authors are still relevant today and why they should be universally read.
Lyndall Gordon’s book, Outsiders, is published by Virago Press. If you love Emily Bronte, you might enjoy this podcast celebrating her female legacy recorded on International Women’s Day in 2016.