As Marina Warner admits at the outset of Signs and Wonders , this hefty collection is in fact 25 years of bread-and-butter journalism - reviews, obituaries, reportage, essays and comment - which paid the way for her to get on with writing books.
Publishing them all together is, of course, another moneymaking activity. But that does not stop it from being worth while. The book represents a quarter-century of constant questioning and interpretation of literature, culture, politics and history; covering a staggering range of topics - from Shakespeare to anorexia, and from Margaret Thatcher to "the long-legged Scissor-man" in the comic children's book Struwwelpeter .
The attempt by Warner's editor to "cull and shape and worry" a set of themes out of the pile does not make it any less dizzying to chop and change between the 70 often totally disparate essays. Nonetheless, one cannot help but be impressed by the way Warner's mind works: snatching at ideas and images from all around her. This book is not easily pigeonholed.
It starts with an article about the Vietnam war that describes the 492 accredited journalists in Vietnam fighting for the best story. And it is disturbing stuff. Editors in the safety of the newsroom were no longer satisfied with corpses; they wanted people dying. And reporters and photographers were risking their lives to get there first.
What is striking is that while Warner wrote this in 1972, it feels utterly current. It points out that the central irony of this courageous news coverage is that no matter how opposed journalists are to a war, they need it to continue. "The more atrocities perpetrated, the more resounding his name and his dateline." This is a stark reminder that the trend for "shock and awe" journalism is nothing new. It is a percipient start, though more newsy than many of the other pieces.
In the second section, "Words and symbols", the essay on St Paul is an example of the author's talent for knitting the scholarly with the intimate. It raises thought-provoking points about patriarchal domination, language and belief. Warner explores how women are controlled by silence.
Just as the virtue of Prudence is sometimes pictured with a padlock on her mouth, so the New Testament declares: "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection." She argues that St Paul's much-vaunted enlightenment never stretches to seeing women as equals to men.
On another level, the article provides a revealing insight into the author herself. It approaches the Bible's teachings through the eyes of the credulous Catholic convent schoolgirl that Warner used to be. This is an interesting dichotomy. Warner remains fascinated by religion, although she is essentially mistrustful of it. As she says in her prologue: "It was through belief that I arrived, after many detours, at scepticism."
The desire to believe is picked up in the chapter "Faith and marvels".
Towards the end of a well-researched piece about miracles in Italy, one brilliantly painted scene sums it up. Warner is in a church full of "pickle brown, crooked and gnarled" old women. The woman next to her, who has no teeth, waves away the hymnbook explaining she cannot read. But though the characters are in essence comic, this is about the depth of human longing for something beyond its own existence. Warner writes: "In this stifling, packed, pent-up church, one praying woman after another gazes deep into the eyes of a plaster Madonna in their hands as if hypnotising her to weep."
Warner's sharp review of the other Madonna's (the one with the conical bra) book, Sex, hits just the right note. Warner is not prudish about it, but nor is she impressed. She sums up neatly why the pop queen may think she is being radical and sexually aware but is in fact reinforcing the sort of sexual images that have encumbered and endangered women for years.
Another of the book's preoccupations is the fairy-tale - as an instrument of fantasy and subversion. In an article about Angela Carter, Warner tells how the recasting of fairy-tales in The Bloody Chamber unlocked the door for her as a writer.
In almost all of the essays, Warner aims to look at things from fresh angles, to "find the slanted truth" as she says in the introduction. And children's stories, such as Lewis Carroll's tales of Alice, provide exactly the "angled mirrors on normality" that excite her imagination. Humpty Dumpty says scornfully to Alice in Through the Looking Glass : "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
Nothing is that straightforward in Warner's world. Words and images have myriad hidden layers and possible associations. Signs and Wonders may not provide all the answers, but it gets the reader thinking.
Anna Fazackerley writes for The THES .
Signs and Wonders
Author - Marina Warner
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Pages - 516
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7011 7332 7