KDM9CW Picture of Olive Schreiner
Olive Schreiner © Alamy

In early 1901, the South African writer Olive Schreiner was confined under martial law to a tiny hamlet in what was then Cape Colony. The second Boer war was at its height. Schreiner, always on the side of the underdog and internationally renowned since her first published success, the groundbreaking novel and plea for equality The Story of an African Farm (1883), had become a vociferous advocate of the Afrikaner-led movement resisting British imperial rule. It was a highly public stance, risking not only her professional reputation but also her personal safety. When British troops chanced upon her they wired to their commander, Lord Kitchener, “Have got Olive Schreiner here.” His response, mindful of the reaction of the British press, was terse and to the point: “Leave the woman alone.”

It is Schreiner who shines out from Lyndall Gordon’s Outsiders, a lively and enterprising group biography that also considers Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. This is no coincidence. Gordon, South African by birth — her own acclaimed memoir, Divided Lives (2014), describes brilliantly the experience of growing up Jewish in the Cape Town of the 1950s — seems to identify most passionately with the feminist Schreiner, not least perhaps because she was named Lyndall after one of the characters in The Story of an African Farm.

Identification is second nature to Gordon, as her previous studies of TS Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Mary Wollstonecraft have shown. She alludes frequently to the latter in Outsiders, beginning her group portrait with Mary Godwin Shelley, the daughter Wollstonecraft never knew: she died 10 days after Mary was born. As well as connecting the flourishing of female creativity to what Woolf coined “outsider-insurgent” status in her influential 1938 essay “Three Guineas”, Gordon embeds her subjects firmly in their families. Brontë’s much-vaunted outward emotional stoicism and Woolf’s mental breakdowns and life-long attachments to substitute mother-figures are linked to early maternal and older (female) sibling loss. George Eliot, at the start of her career as a journalist, continued to dodge unwelcome edicts from her Victorian paterfamilias of a brother. Schreiner defied her missionary parents to create a life of independence and individualism, undergoing extreme hardship in the process.

The concept of nonconformist women as a biographical topic is not new: the late Rosemary Dinnage, for example, made an ambitious attempt at pinning down nearly 30 figures who qualify for this label in 2005’s uncompromisingly titled Alone! Alone! Lives of Outsider Women, which rescues from the perceived shadows lesser-known pioneers such as Dora Russell and Annie Besant, alongside Stevie Smith, Isak Dinesen and Marie Stopes.

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon

Gordon, working on a more limited, more intense scale, can seem too eager to affiliate her subjects and sometimes gives her overt admiration too free a rein: “We must remember how beautiful she was, with her alight black eyes, silken black tresses and olive sheen,” she writes at one point of Schreiner. Yet when not so obviously in thrall, the portrayals are vivid, the research and its conclusions adept. Who could forget Mary Shelley, at 19 the genius behind Frankenstein, with all her children bar one dying in infancy during the long, hot, scandalous summers on the continent where she lived with Percy Bysshe Shelley after eloping, widowed at 25 and shunned by society on her return to England? Or Brontë, whose horrific trials at boarding school (forever immortalised by her sister Charlotte in Jane Eyre) left her able to function properly only within sight of the Yorkshire moors, from which her poetry and sole novel Wuthering Heights emerged?

These profound experiences are woven into the fabric of their work, as are relationships with enlightened, enabling men. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s love letters, much quoted here, may come as a surprise beside the received view that their partnership was non-sexual; Eliot writes sensually of “lying melting in our beds through the middle of the day” on her first trip to Europe with the married George Henry Lewes. Most stirringly, all five had an eye to empowering future generations, summed up poignantly and generously by an ageing Schreiner, plagued by ill-health, long separated from her husband and in self-imposed exile, writing “that it was in the thought of your larger realisation and fuller life that we found consolation for the futilities of our own”.

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World, by Lyndall Gordon, Virago, RRP£20, 352 pages

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Photograph: Alamy

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