A Woman a Week: Marina Warner

Marina WarnerMarina Warner has had a distinguished literary and academic career since Quartet Books published the first UK paperback edition of her classic work on the myth and cult of the Virgin Mary, Alone of all Her Sex.

She was made a CBE for services to literature in 2008; has been awarded eleven Honorary Doctorates by British universities and was asked to give the BBC Reith Lectures in 1991. Her last book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights, won the prestigious US 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Reading her recent talk at St George’s, Bloomsbury, on the legacy of meaning of Emily Davison, the suffragette’s first martyr, reprinted in a recent number of the London Review of Books, reminded me of the time I interviewed her in 1987 for my book, Women.

I must however admit that I was so struck by her verve and elegant use of words that I decided to revisit what I considered then to have been a memorable encounter with a charming and delightful lady whose enchantment has never left me to this day.

The Early Influences 

I think, in a way, that my father and mother were such a complete contrast that I reacted across the sexes. Probably I was influenced more by my father through rebellion, though wishing to react against his prescription of what my life should be like. My father was a regular upper-middle-class man; he had been to Eton and Oxford and was a colonel in the Army. He met my mother, who had come from a very, very poor Italian family, during the war. My father was a plain-looking man, my mother a very beautiful woman. She had a complete background in Catholic service. She had been brought up happily entirely by women because her father died when she was a child, and there was a sort of sweetness in her life. She was lively and vivacious, but she is somebody who can yield, and my father had, in a way, the kind of authority of his class. He had that English mentality and he was very tyrannical. So, in a way, he influenced me more, not to conform but to fight against him. But I also didn’t want to be like my mother. There were terrible rows, for instance, about her clothes. She never had any money to buy her own clothes, which seems an absolutely ludicrous detail, but I remember that I was determined I would always have my own money, that I would not be in the position of having to ask a man if I could have a coat for the winter.

My father was very ambitious for me and my sister. He didn’t have any sons and always joked that, if he had sons, he would have forgotten about us. But we became his substitute sons and he had high intellectual ambitions. He became quite a famous bookseller. He was Bowes & Bowes in Cambridge, and they had a little chain of bookshops that were the serious side of Smith’s in those days. It’s a while ago now; he was quite old when we were born, and he’s dead now. There were always books around. Any time we showed any interest in any subject, heaps of books would be brought back from the shop for us to read. So we were very fostered. My sister was good at Latin and Greek, and she got all the dictionaries and everything, immediately, which were very expensive, so there was constantly that kind of input.

My religious upbringing was quite intensely Catholic, not because my mother is a devout Catholic, which she is, but she wouldn’t have imposed that on us except that she liked us to be Catholics. My father imposed it because he thought it a very good religion for a girl, which is terribly interesting. He was a Protestant – an Anglican. He brought us up as Catholics for the morality of it, sent us to convents because he thought this would make us proper young women. The Catholic religion is disciplined in a particular way for women, disciplined to self-sacrifice and sexual purity. At the same time, he wasn’t an austere man. He was genial, loved company and good wine and grew roses beautifully. He had a lot of facets to his character, and not in a boring tight-arsed British way; but he was very, very dominant. And I probably caused him a lot of grief, because I was anxious to get away from that, I did want to pursue my own lines. And a lot of my attitudes were not formed by reflective consideration over books, but were immediate reactions. My politics at first were formed entirely by the flip side of his politics. He hated the trade unions, so I liked the trade unions. But then I developed a more considered view, though I still have strong visceral antagonism to certain aspects of conservatism because I didn’t like them at the dinner table at home. I didn’t like the Daily Telegraph talk which was part of the world I didn’t want to enter. He wanted me to marry a stockbroker. Even though he wanted me to have a good education, he never wanted me to be a writer. He said it was a very bad sort of income, it would never be reliable. He would have liked me to be somebody like a diplomat, and he would have liked me to do the Foreign Office, or something like it. I did languages. In that sense, he was a conventional man. He was very, very proud of me when I did become a writer. He would laugh in a sort of ironical way about the things I wrote. He was touchingly proud and his interest in me, even his antagonistic interest, was very strong and strengthening. There have been some psychological studies in which cross-identification of children apparently is a source of high motivation. Girls who identify with their fathers in some way, even as rebels, and boys who identify with their mothers can actually become more motivated, more able to express themselves, and this was true in my case, I think.

Advantages and Disadvantages

I had tremendously split fantasies. I did want to be a very girlish and perfect girl. I longed to be beautiful and spent a lot of time in front of the mirror dressing up in my mother’s clothes, attempting to look like a sophisticated and beautiful woman. At the same time, all my night-time reveries before I went to sleep were of being an incredibly active and effective young man. Which really took the form, not of an intellectual thing, not of being influenced or a writer (I was about ten), but of being somehow physically free, of being able to move. I imagined adventures, and when I was in these adventures, which would be in rivers and mountains, I would be a young man. My body would not somehow be this body, which was going to be the one that meant I would marry and be confined. One of the things that possibly happened historically is that, when women are confined and attend to these private ceremonies of upbringing and meals, it actually fosters the best in human nature. We think of the feminine, in a way, as a better order, and I think it is, because it is to do with the rituals of preserving, and growth and love, and cherishing and nurturing. I’m one of the feminists who doesn’t believe that this is intrinsic to the female soul. I think it is the possibility of all humanity. When we say that Mrs Thatcher is masculine, it is more that what she is required to do has belonged traditionally to the masculine order. What we haven’t sold is how you set up a society and run it, how you don’t have an anarchic system in which there are no rulers, and yet avoid falling into this masculine way which is all to do with oppressions and cruelties. Different expectations of women do limit their chances, there’s no doubt about it. I was lucky, I went to convent school, and I never would have had a scientific or engineering bent. So humanities, which were offered at the school, suited me, but they didn’t offer the girls anything on the scientific side. I wouldn’t have flourished if I had been an engineer by inclination.

Women are in an acute phase in England. The difficulty now, of course, with massive unemployment, is that the expectations of women have been reduced even further and the birthrate has risen terrifically among young, very young women. I don’t want to give the impression that having a baby isn’t a great pleasure and a great experience, but it worries me. I feel that these young women are entering into the difficult occupation of caring for a child in very reduced circumstances, and this is partly because their expectations have been cut, have been limited; they don’t see their lives as offering other possibilities. That relates to some of the mythology that is becoming ever more current. One is the myth of the Royal Family, and I may be quite wrong about this, and it obviously is harmless compared to some other political systems and political ideologies, but what we see is a continual adulation of young women who arrive to greatness through chance. I think this underlines the idea that women don’t take their destinies into their own hands, but, with a modicum of looks or grace and a charming way, something wonderful might happen to you. This is terribly determinist. It’s not saying who I am, what I am capable of, it’s floating, and it’s asked of women and not of men. It is interesting that, within the Royal Family, the men are trained to do lots of things, however poorly or adequately they function at them. But the young women who enter this family and become heroines of the entire world (there is nothing in the popular press except Fergie, Diana, Caroline Monaco, Stephanie Monaco), have initially, as far as I can make out, nothing more asked of them but that they be images, something to look at. Beauty, of course, has its place in the world, and beauty can be life-enhancing. The body is a place to start from, but it mustn’t be the place where you end.

Even to a woman like me, and I have every sort of advantage, there are little things that happen constantly. I get Johnnie to do things for me sometimes, because I won’t get a hearing on the telephone, they won’t listen to me. The police can be very nice and they can try, but they are more likely to listen to a complaint from a man.

In England, class systems patronise one another. That’s still the major source of discrimination, and it’s still visible in England and absolutely isn’t in America. Except that poverty is now very visible in America, but, above the poverty lines, it then becomes much more open. Within the class systems, there are the sub-set of sexual systems and there is a kind of, let her have a go. I’m afraid even in places where you think it wouldn’t happen, like the BBC, it happens a bit.

There is still a feeling – for instance, if women get very agitated – that this is not a genuine concern, just something to do with temperament; that they are not really agitated, it’s just the wrong time of the month. It’s very interesting that woman is often constructed by voices outside herself. There is a tendency for men to say: we know women, we don’t have to listen to what they have to say or tell is about themselves. I feel that it’s possible that, when there is more listening to what women have to say about all areas of their experience, the constructed woman will start fragmenting and we will find there isn’t such a well-defined entity as a woman in the way we inherited the idea. In the same way, the construct man is so generic we don’t really know what we mean by a man. It is capable of so many different manifestations because all the complications of humanity are there. It will cease to be possible in historical books to index women; if you buy a book on the Middle Ages, agrarian movements or something or other, in 1200-1250, the index will have women; pages 88 to 90, because they are seen as such a particular as ants or primroses that could be indexed in such a way, whereas, of course, they are not, they permeate every aspect, every structure.


I think Mrs Thatcher is an individual who is detested, I don’t think she is a type. I don’t think the people are just reacting against a woman in power. I think we have a woman in power who we would love or like. She is bossy without, very often, giving a good reason for it. She represents a kind of thumbs-down consul and we are all the gladiators. We are the poor people who are wheeled out to do the work, and she is the ruler who sits in the imperial purple box and does the thumbs-down to this frantic piteous humanity. That’s how I feel about her. I hate the way she is all so collected in her appearance. But I try not to hate her because I think hate is a confusing emotion; you tend to stop seeing clearly. At times I try and understand what she does. I met her once; I interviewed her for Vogue when she was made leader of the Conservative Party, a long time ago. It’s not my party, but I was overjoyed that the Conservatives unprecedentedly, incredibly and surprisingly had elected a woman – and she was horrible. She was so supercilious and defensive, and almost rude and angry. Then her PR people told her she must behave better with journalists and she became better. She just had a very unfortunate way of managing to behave as if everybody else is somehow inferior and short on all the funds of energy and ideas she has.


One of the great improvements of the last twenty years, I’d say, is that woman’s sexual needs have been recognised in a way that in my childhood, thirty-five years ago, they were not. I was brought up in a creed, Catholicism, which denies sexual need. It believes in the sexual danger of women, but doesn’t interiorise it; sexual danger exists because of how she is beheld by the desiring man. It’s not so much female desire the nuns told me to watch out for, they told me to watch out for male desire. Female desire was something they wanted to pretend didn’t exist, or they had successfully imagined it didn’t. And that has changed, that has imperceptibly changed. Female desire is admitted and to some extent accepted without the sort of rancour it used to cause. The idea of female lasciviousness was absolutely abhorred, both in Protestantism and Catholicism, and indeed in the Greek plays. Female lust was really bad; male lust was something we could live with, that was human. I think the word lust is not used in quite the way it used to be. I don’t believe people ascribe quite the same negative quality to it.

It certainly used to be true that women felt they should legitimise their sexual urges by calling it love or hankering to some extent. People now rather deplore that there is a lot of sexual license among the very young: one-night stands – I haven’t done it for years. But I was very screwed up about sex because I was brought up to believe it was a terrible sin. With every Catholic, it goes very deep, and the spectre goes on haunting you that it is a sin and those feelings are sinful, come from a sort of diabolical part of you. That is something I have struggled with, and personally I have, I suppose, felt love when I probably haven’t loved at all.

I am terribly against sex being used as an index of personality or sexual prowess or sexual achievement. Of course, it makes fascinating reading, but there has been rather a tendency in biographies to create characters through sexual inclination. One knows from friends that this isn’t really the case. Very often their sexual life can’t be divided from their characteristics. I don’t have enough experience, but I have often imagined that you can have somebody who makes love in a very similar way to somebody else, yet they can be extremely different people.

Men, because of their power being identified with their physical potency, experience the poignancy of so many women they may never have. Now that I am about to be forty, I do look at young men in the street and suddenly understand what men feel when they say, so many women, so little time. I suddenly thought I saw these young men whom I would never know, whereas, when I was seventeen, I imagined I would have lots of experiences. Now I know I will never have all these experiences and I did feel that poignancy. So man men, so little time. Time has gone.

I’m sure that many women didn’t have orgasms in the past and had satisfactory sex lives. A lot of pre-marital sex that didn’t go the whole way, which used to happen more than it does now, probably didn’t achieve orgasm for the woman, but it was very satisfactory, all that teenage petting.

I have an anthropologist friend, and we had a long discussion about female circumcision because she worked in Africa close to people who did practise it, and I was impressed by her argument that we have given orgasm a very very high value in terms of happiness, whereas the African tribe she was talking about value something else very highly. These women haven’t put orgasm in a privileged place in their ideals for themselves and their lives. She thought it was a Western discrimination to feel only we know what is important, and that tribes should be allowed to practise circumcision if that’s what they felt like. I find this so deeply abhorrent, and such a denial of human rights, of sexual pleasure, that it upsets me terribly.


Abortion is a very bad remedy for unwanted children and it’s absolutely essential for society to concentrate its attention on adequate contraception. This means that men should be educated on it, too. What has happened disastrously since the pill is that boys’ education in contraception has been forgotten. They were terribly careful when I was young. They knew the risk and took it seriously.


It used to worry me tremendously as a child and as a young woman. It really upset me and I was really anxious that misogynists who argued that women were inferior were right because of the historical record. It doesn’t worry me anymore because I think that, in the spheres women have entered, they have done as well. Writing is the main one; painting and sculpture, since the last century, are now very much practised by women. We wouldn’t have had Michelangelo if that particular type of endeavour had not been privileged by the people who controlled money. I don’t see genius as an unassailable demon that comes from the sky that you are born with, and you draw perfect circles and spout Greek in your cradle. I don’t believe that. I believe there are exceptionally gifted people, of course, but I feel they could have disappeared if it hadn’t been for their patrons. This is why I am a terrific believer in public patronage of the arts. I do believe in the fostering and sponsorship. The different things women have been good at probably reflect the pattern and experience of their lives: embroidery rather than monumental sculpture for many centuries, but embroidery of fantastic excellence and beauty. There is an interesting comment on French art, which said that our society has graded the arts according to how distant they are from the senses and that women’s art traditionally has always been very close to the senses: food, embroidery. Architecture, music, although music is close to the senses in one sense, have been given a higher status, and this reflects both the Christian and slightly platonic idea that the further we are from being grounded in our bodies, the more spiritual and refined and immortal we become.

The musicality of woman can’t be questioned because of the performers, because of the singers, and also dance, which is related. I don’t know how many women have tried to write symphonies. I don’t think it is something women have wanted to do. But the context, the cradle of the symphony, is a great court and somebody who wishes to set the seal on their power and prestige with this piece of music. That was the beginning of the symphony. The people who did write symphonies without commissions. It’s the equivalent of the official portrait in a way, and it requires an immense investment. You count on all these musicians that might come, copyists that copy the music, rehearsal time, many things that that are in a high economic bracket. Jane Austin, writing on her blotter and hiding it under her blotter when her family came in: this is minimum economic creativity and that’s where you’ll find women’s creativity. Women did not control money, even in quite enlightened societies, even in the Renaissance courts of Italy where they had a very high view of women and women’s culture and women’s poetry and so forth. There was no command of resources, of actual physical resources. As a young woman, say the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a visconte in Milan, even in that position (i.e. a millionairess), when you married, you couldn’t go to your husband as you had to your father and say, here I am, I want to write for one hundred musicians, and I want them to come here fifteen times at least and I want six copyists working. They didn’t have command of money. That’s why now I feel it probably will happen.


I don’t believe you should need to be married, I don’t believe women should aim at marriage, and I don’t believe marriage is in any way a solution to anything. But my upbringing was so focused on that, that I never could escape that need. It was a deep emotional need for me, to be married, to have somebody that wanted to marry me and to have the security of that symbolic pledge. So, as I have married twice, I am attracted to people who want to marry me, which is pathetic for a feminist, absolutely pathetic. It was personal qualities in Jonnie’s case. I was attracted by him, he is very good with children, he is terribly nice to my son. So that was very important to me. I had a number of liaisons before I was married to Jonnie, in which the men were competitive with the child. They wanted more attention, or they didn’t want to put him first, and I’m afraid I believe that the child must come first. Not that the child must be prince in the castle, but the child is a dependent and I am not. So there is no reason why a man should cut in with his needs over a child, because he can fend for himself, a child cannot. A distressed child in the middle of the night is more important than a man with a hard-on. A lot of men won’t take that. A lot of men want you to shut the door. They say it is good for the child. It happens with many men, it happens within marriage.

I think love is a very unexamined subject. We know very little about love, not sexual love only, but just love. One of the curious effects of this Freudian revolution, which in many ways is a wonderful revolution, has been we have slightly forgotten what we mean by love, what we want from love, as we examine the Oedipal structures, sexual desires, neurotic attachments. The Greeks had a more sophisticated inquiry into the different types of love.


One of the things that is very important to think about is that people are different at different ages, and that what we think about women being different from men, we are tending to think of a woman between five years old and forty, women sexed through actual incipient fertility and ebbing fertility. We should look more perhaps at the changing pattern of woman’s whole life and what the differences are between old women and old men. I think that there is a difference and that this is physiologically grounded. I am very against biological determinism, because I do think that biology doesn’t exist in a void, it must always exist within a social structure. But I think that where men and women come from, in terms of hormones, probably does contribute to the difference between them. After all, what we mean by a man is very often connected to ideas of physical strength and physical aggression, and there are hormonal secretions that men have that are to do with aggression which don’t exist in the same quantities in the female body. The other thing is the way desire manifests itself in a man and is released in a man, because it is so much shorter; there is some greater difference than just the biological difference. It is to do with gratification of a certain kind that must come faster. But it is terribly dangerous and actually rather unpleasant and  somehow fascist to build ideas about sexual difference on such things. You get into terrible trouble then, I think.

One of the reasons men don’t have to look after their looks in the same way women have to in our society is because that’s not the currency in which they deal sexually. We know how amazed we are when we see some enormously fat man with a gorgeous young woman, but it is a very common surprise.

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