Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon - review by Francesca Wade

Francesca Wade

Fight to Write

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World


Virago 338pp £28 order from our bookshop

In Three Guineas, her pacifist tract written as the Second World War loomed, Virginia Woolf called on women to form a Society of Outsiders. No longer, she urged, should ‘the daughters of educated men’ simply ‘bolster up the system’ by remaining passive in the face of masculine militarism; now was the time for women to equip themselves with education, to learn to think for themselves, and to shape a society in which their concerns were reflected. The acclaimed biographer Lyndall Gordon’s latest book conjures up a transhistorical Society of Outsiders, juxtaposing ‘five extraordinary outsider voices rising in the course of the nineteenth century: a prodigy, a visionary, an outlaw, an orator and an explorer’. Her five subjects – respectively Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf – form a chain of influential women writers who ‘could use their apartness to see the world afresh … tell us not who we are, but who we might be’.

What might an ‘outsider’ be? In A Room of One’s Own, writing about the lack of a historical tradition of women writers, Woolf imagines a talented sister of Shakespeare called Judith who died destined to be forgotten, her desire to write thwarted by social expectations. Judith Shakespeare finds

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter