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