cover image Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World

Lyndall Gordon. Johns Hopkins Univ., $29.95 (552p) ISBN 978-1-4214-2944-1

Literary biographer Gordon (Lives Like Loaded Guns) brilliantly ties together the biographies of five women writers who bravely embraced outsider status and “summoned the will to explore oddity in ways that speak to us about our unseen selves.” Gordon assigns each woman a primary role: Emily Brontë (visionary), George Eliot (outlaw), Mary Shelley (prodigy), Olive Schreiner (orator), and Virginia Woolf (explorer). Painstakingly examining her subjects’ diaries, letters, speeches, and novels, as well as their lives and times, Gordon draws close connections between them. All of them were passionate readers—Shelley, Eliot, and Woolf being particularly drawn to classical learning, which “epitomized the education closed to women”—and all five lost their mothers very early in life. Gordon also draws intriguing connections between individual figures, noting that Shelley and Eliot both scandalized sexual mores with their affairs with married men, and that Woolf and Schreiner both defied the political establishment by campaigning as pacifists during times of war. By addressing an almost inconceivably wide range of themes through the book’s conceit—health, mores, politics, pregnancy, economics, sex, sexism, secrets, and silence—Gordon seduces readers interested in all that these fascinating women had to offer. (Mar.)