The power and compassion of Outsiders

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Cindy Moritz talked to Lyndall Gordon about feminism, creative story-telling and the value of domestic affections

When visiting Lyndall Gordon in Cape Town recently, I arrived expecting nostalgia; the territory of expats who holiday in Cape Town. Instead I was thoroughly schooled on the topic of feminism, by an expert, and discovered how her latest book, Outsiders — Five women writers who changed the world, gives welcome context to the heart of the movement.

Cape Town book lovers will know Lyndall Gordon as the author of Shared Lives, and then Divided Lives: Dreams of a mother and daughter, both memoirs about growing up in Sea Point, her friends, her complex mother Rhoda, her struggles and dreams. She left Cape Town with husband Siamon Gordon, first to New York where she studied at Columbia (and encountered the emerging Feminist movement) and then moved to Oxford, England, where she took a job at what was then a women’s college in 1973 as Research Fellow.

She has since become renowned for her literary biographies, and is currently a Senior Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
It’s the literary biography that has distinguished Lyndall and references to Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, Olive Schreiner, Emily Bronte and George Eliot, roll off her tongue when she wants to illustrate a point.

Dispersed biography
In Outsiders, she has experimented with what she calls “dispersed biography”, telling the story of five women writers with a common thread — they were all some kind of outsider — over generations, and sees herself in a way as the shadowy figure behind their stories.
Lyndall chose to look at these writers collectively, and in so doing spotlights a community of outsiders with a common cause. She writes, “These outsiders do not make terms with our violent world; they do not advance themselves by imitation of the empowered. Instead they speak out against the humbug of authority and its ‘baubles’ These voices say no to arms and patriotism. ‘For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’”

Character through reading
These five women writers made the terms ‘outsider’, ‘outlaw’ and ‘outcast’ their own. While they may have been isolated from people, they were not isolated from books. Lyndall refers to the 18th century writer and Britain’s first feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who insisted on the development of character through reading as vital to women’s rights and the benefit of enlightened fathers who encouraged their daughters to be readers. For Lyndall, the values of compromise and nurture — what Wollstonecraft called the “domestic affections” — is what distinguishes between women who want to Imitate men and those that want to do their own thing and use what was valuable of women’s tradition. It was Wollstonecraft who said, “I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but power over themselves.” Lyndall illustrates the point with the example of Olive Schreiner, who, she says, “was particularly keen on that. I’ve emphasised her book Woman and Labour, which she began writing under martial law, because she was looking generations ahead, both looking back to what women’s traditions had been, and wanting to pose those against the worst things that the dominant group does, which is war, bullying and sexual exploitation”. She writes of the Outsiders Society, “[For these women] to see thus widely went beyond politics; it meant an empathic mind, and it took moral courage for silenced women to carry this into public utterance.”

Foreshadow of #Metoo
For all those who thought the #Metoo movement sprung up as recently at 2017 then, here’s a surprise. These women writers foreshadowed the bravery, sacrifice and ability to avoid what Wollstonecraft called “treading the beaten track”, to break the conspiracy of silence around the experience of women. Just as the #Metoo movement is doing today, such was the territory of Outsiders Virginia Woolf, Olive Schreiner, George Eliot, Emily Bronte and Mary Shelley, who refused to be quiet in the face of inequities.

Creative storytelling
Lyndall not only has the talent and wisdom to research and record the lives and times of these exceptional women, but does so in a way that is engaging through its creativity. “I want to do a form of biography that distils what is crucial to the creative life,” she said, extrapolating from the lives of each woman the way in which they used their suffering, their being outsiders, creatively.

She is energised by the dynamic of groups of women, some may call them outsiders, who band together to create and contribute to a common vision. She speaks warmly of her friend Nicola Beauman in London, owner of the unique bookshop Persephone which publishes and sells out-of-print female writers. “Nicola and I are close in our thinking,” Lyndall says, “we value that strain in women that is nurturing and compassionate, something in which women as life-givers excel.” She also belongs to a Women’s Salon in London, where the focus is “reading and responding to the present through women’s experimental writing.” It becomes clear that engaging and connecting with other women on a meaningful level is what fuel’s Lyndall’s fire.
A lesson in Feminism indeed, I mulled, as we said our goodbyes. But just then, with the waves crashing on the rocks outside her window, a small bit of nostalgia crept in. Walking back from the Sea Point Pavilion that morning she had noticed, “the sun was just coming up, the seaweed and shells… the salt smell of things… you’ll never get over that. These are the sounds of childhood”.
Since her mother passed away, this is what keeps her returning to Cape Town. Perhaps also the lifelong friends and fellow women writers with whom she keeps a strong bond.

Either way, Cape Town is always ready to welcome Lyndall Gordon with open arms.

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