Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf: they all wrote dazzling books that forever changed the way we see history. In Outsiders, award-winning biographer Lyndall Gordon shows how these five novelists shared more than talent.
Thought-provoking ... Gordon is an imaginative and rigorous biographer who has already addressed the lives of Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Brontë and Woolf in full-length books, but the pleasure in this compact volume is the way in which she weaves these lives together, building links across the generations ... One of Gordon’s strengths is always to recognize the tension inherent in biography’s form: finally, how can we know anything? Evidence of anyone’s life is only ever fragmentary ... The truth of these artists’ lives can be found in their writing, and it is to their writing that Gordon listens, closely, attentively, always resisting easy biographical links ... This is no primer to the authors’ works, but it’s not meant to be. That said, it is never rebarbative to the reader with a lesser knowledge of those works—indeed it is enticing ... The real strength of Outsiders, however, is its vivid portrayal of its subjects’ energy, their ability—often at great cost—to find ways to speak. If there is an argument to be had with this book, it’s with that subtitle, and the cliché of 'changed the world'. I have a sneaking suspicion that Gordon would be among the first to admit that—alas, just look around—they didn’t. The battle is still to be won.
Gordon is best known for her brilliant studies of Woolf, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Dickinson. As a biographer, she’s been a visionary herself, mind-reading her way into these figures’ creative processes. She displays the same insight here, reading Frankenstein as Mary Shelley’s effort to confront her estrangement from her father, and suggesting that Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights may have been Emily Brontë’s embodiment of 'Nature itself, red in tooth and claw.' But this is a slighter book than her previous ones: Its attempts to bring the lives together aren’t sustained, and it can feel as if too much is lost in the brief studies of such well-known names ... Gordon’s voice is most lyrical and assured in her conclusions...I wanted more gems like these, and more on the resonance of these women’s stories today ... Gordon rightly links all five by their shared understanding of death and violence, and as a result her own book is haunted by child mortality ... Gordon narrates their deaths in understated yet powerful detail, stirring some of her most striking observations.
Gordon writes with passionate intelligence about the literature she loves. Since she first published her book on TS Eliot in 1977, she has developed her distinctive way of weaving together the writer’s life and writing ... Gordon is a natural storyteller, and the lives stir us and fascinate us no matter how well we already know them ... [Gordon] judgments are full of novelistic insight, pushing into the biographical material to substantiate her hunches, tracing patterns and repetitions in these writers’ emotional lives and in their work ... Gordon in her eager, hurrying inclusiveness wants to make each of her writers a way-station in a progressive evolution...Would we want to construct an equivalent consecutive history out of the lives of five male writers, even if some were also outsiders in a sense?...We might want to link them in terms of influence in their work, but probably not through their private lives. And in emphasising the female writers’ role as precursors or visionaries, we risk underplaying how distinctively each one is of her own age, participating in its idiom and its worldview as well as helping to form these.