Some years ago, I came across a hadith, attributed to Mohammed, that I so loved that I painted a poster of it: “Acquire knowledge. It enables its possessor to distinguish right from wrong. It lights the way to Heaven. It is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless. It sustains us in misery. It is an ornament among friends and an armor against enemies.”
Many a time I have found its message to be true, and I believe the women writers featured in Lyndall Gordon’s book, Outsiders, would agree.
These five women writers are Mary Shelley (1797-1851, author of Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (1818-1848, Wuthering Heights), George Eliot (1819 -1880, Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch), Olive Schreiner (1855-1920, The Story of an African Farm) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own). They all lived in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Perhaps notable is that only one of these five who wasn’t British was Olive Schreiner, who was born in South Africa.
Ms. Gordon writes, “In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion.” When, for example Mary Shelley was left friendless in London, “She read night and day. The worse her situation socially or emotionally, the more completely she aligned herself with the greatest minds. To turn to books was her way of restoring or renewing herself. Call it self-education or call it the resource of women with no access to institutions of learning. Mary Shelly, the Brontës, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner, Virginia Woolf—all were on the margins or outside society in one way or another, and all were readers (italics mine). Books were their companions across time, seeding a new kind of woman. And their freedom from contact made reading and writing more sustained than for other middle-class women caught up in social duties.” (I could perhaps add my own name to this list.)
But each paid a price for being on the margins or outside society.
Mary Shelley’s mother was an early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was political philosopher, William Godwin. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her, so she was raised by her father, who encouraged her intellectual development. At the age of 16 she eloped with the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although he was otherwise married, the two of them traipsed about Europe with the likes of Lord Byron. They were the original hippies, living out “free love” and sitting up late into the night drinking wine and discussing politics and literature. From this soup, Mary drew forth her great masterpiece, Frankenstein, at the age of 19. Frankenstein, as all know, was a scientist who put together a large-than-life man. Eventually, the havoc was appalling, perhaps a warning to our own times and its highly developed technology. Mary bore four children, three of whom died in childbirth or shortly after. She was 54 when she died.
Emily Brontë was a rather strange duck, a woman of such extreme sensitivity she could not bear the society of others and sought only the company of her own family, who, as luck would have, were also writers. Best know of her siblings was the eldest, Charlotte Brontë, famous for writing Jane Eyre, and Wide Saragossa Sea.
Wuthering Heights is the story of an all-consuming, death-defying, and ultimately self-destructive love, and, despite its overwrought drama, is considered a classic. Contrasting the capacity to love is the ability to hate, and Heathcliff, one of the novel’s main characters, hates with a vengeance. The moors are featured as place of morose embodiment.
At the age off 22 Emily wrote the following poem, which best describes her attitude:
Riches I hold in light esteem
And Love I laugh to scorn
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn—
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is— ‘Leave the heart that now I bear
And give me liberty.’
Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
Tis all that I implore—
Through life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure!
George Eliot is a synonym for Marianne Evans, a woman who took on a man’s name in a time when women writers were not readily accepted. She lived most of her life in the second half of the 19th Century. was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator, and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She wrote seven novels, including Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch, most of which are set in provincial England and known for their realism and psychological insight.
Olive Schreiner was a South African author, anti-war campaigner and intellectual. She is best remembered today for her novel The Story of an African Farm, which deals boldly with agnosticism, existential independence, individualism, the professional aspirations of women, and the elemental nature of life on the colonial frontier.
Since the late 20th century, scholars have also credited Schreiner as an advocate for the Afrikaners, and other South African groups who were excluded from political power for decades, such as indigenous Blacks, Jews and Indians. Her published works and other surviving writings promote implicit values such as moderation, friendship, and understanding amongst all peoples, and avoid the pitfalls of political radicalism, which she consciously eschewed. Called a lifelong freethinker, she also continued to adhere to the spirit of the Christian Bible but developed a secular version of the worldview of her missionary parents, with mystical elements.
Lastly, the book devotes a chapter to Virginia Woolf, who, despite severe bouts with depression that finally claimed her life, was surely one of greatest novelists of the 20th Century.
Following her 1912 marriage to Leonard Woolf, the couple founded the Hogarth Press in 1917, which published much of her work. The couple rented a home in Sussex and moved there permanently in 1940. Throughout her life, Woolf was troubled by her mental illness. She was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide at least twice. Her illness is considered to have been bipolar disorder, for which there was no effective intervention during her lifetime. At age 59, Woolf committed suicide in 1941 by putting rocks in her coat pockets and drowning herself in the River Ouse.
Best known of her works are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and A Room of One’s Own, in which she wrote the much-quoted dictum, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
Outsiders is a survey of the lives of these five brilliant women writers, who paved the way for others to follow and to whom we owe a great debt.
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