Marina Warner's position outside mainstream academia may have served her well, says Elaine Williams
What is a woman from Vogue doing taking on the Church?' That's what the critics were saying. You can imagine there was a lot of dismissive stuff about me." Marina Warner is talking about the book that helped to make her name: Alone of All Her Sex: the Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, an ambitious deconstruction of a sacred icon from a woman in her twenties working outside the universities.
Cutting across disciplines, Warner rummaged deep into historical and art historical sources; she analysed paintings, sculpture, religious and literary texts in her exploration of Mariolatry, showing how this model of femininity had served to entrap western women.
The book, published in 1976, became a landmark in the cultural history of the representation of women and induced excitement and praise as well as derision. On the one hand Warner was lauded for her elegant style, her scrupulous ability to mobilise material to provide new insights into the images of virgin and whore as used through the ages. On the other she was attacked as a lightweight who blithely skated across the surface of areas that older scholars might enter with greater caution.
In her "Afterthoughts", which accompanied a reprint of the book in 1990, Warner goes some way towards acknowledging the criticisms. She writes: "The hubris of youth astonishes me: now I feel that a single strand of something like the cult of the Virgin takes years to unravel, and the work can only be incomplete, whereas then, like Jack in the fairy-tale, I looked at the giant beanstalk and thought nothing of leaping up it."
Around the time of publication she was features editor on Vogue magazine. The Daily Telegraph had made her young writer of the year in 1971 after a one-year stint working for its magazine. As an undergraduate at Oxford she had edited the student magazine Isis and at the age of 14 had won the W. H. Smith children's poetry prize. However, there was no evidence of an institutional academic track record and this left her exposed to envious scholars who claimed authority over the territory she had ventured into with such verve.
Such assaults, however, never dampened her enthusiasm. More landmarks followed. Joan of Arc: the image of female heroism, which maps the appropriation of the Joan myth by different cultures and dynasties; Monuments and Maidens: the allegory of the female form, an examination of female figures who have acted as allegories of truth, virtue, justice and liberty; the Reith lectures in the form of Managing Monsters: six myths of our time, showing how traditional and ancient myths, a syntax of stories, becomes the repertory through which we recognise the contemporary world.
Latterly we have From the Beast to the Blonde: on fairy tales and their tellers: legends about Sibyls, the Queen of Sheba, Saint Anne, the sirens, Bluebeard, Cinderella, Mother Goose; searching for signs, in a fulsome and ribald fashion, of their rootedness in the social, legal and economic history of marriage and the family. Meanwhile she has also published four novels, one of which, The Lost Father, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Warner's abiding obsession has been with myth, its contribution to cultural and social practice and the fluidity of meaning of visual imagery and text. She has concentrated on the various meanings that "woman" has carried symbolically and the way this interacts with the reality of women's lives.
A fluent reader aged six, she developed a passion for Greek and Roman myths, graduating to tales of the Norse gods, as well as Irish fables. She also adored the "basement world of female secrets" which she entered by spending time in the domestic round with her Italian mother and young Italian maids. Here, speaking "kitchen Italian", she was submerged in a world of "Catholic superstition, boyfriends and the preparation of food", here too she was introduced to the cult of the saints: "I would be taken into the bedrooms and shown statues of the saints: 'Now here is Sainta Rosa and this is what she can do for you'. I must say it has had a tremendous influence on me."
Her predicament lies in the fact that in her research she employs an uneasy mix of psychoanalysis and historical investigation. She says: "I think that [mine] is a rather difficult way of treating myth in the sense that it requires a lot of investigation and a lot of Jungian ideas. The Jungian analysis is a much easier thing to do really, to trace the sequence of images or stories unanchored to context or social realities, but I have tried to relate them to function, which of course is relating them to some kind of experience of reality." It is a methodology which forces her to speak with a voice of authority at a time when scepticism and incredulity are rife. She describes herself as an old-fashioned liberal humanist, one who resists the carnivalistic tendencies and wry despair of postmodernism.
By exposing the layers of meaning myth brings to culture and society Warner provides us with tools for improving the reality of that society. In the first of her Reith lectures she rooted the present-day attack on single mothers in an old story: "women in general are out of control, and feminism in particular is to blame. It has become a bogey, a whipping boy, routinely produced to explain all social ills." Fear that the natural bond of motherhood excludes men and eludes their control, she argues, has coursed through ancient myths.
"The she-monster is hardly a new phenomenon. Greek myth alone offers a host - Ceres, Harpies, sirens, Moirae. Associated with fate and death in various ways, they move swiftly, sometimes on wings; birds of prey are their closest kin - the Greeks didn't know about dinosaurs." But Steven Spielberg does. Female organisms in the film Jurassic Park prove uncontrollably fertile, "resistant to the constraints of the men of power". The velociraptors, the truly evil presence in the movie, are "Voracious, cunning girls. . . Is the terror they inspire anything to do with their femaleness?" asks Warner. It is a loaded question.
In the Reith lectures she also exposed the weakness of postmodernism: "Ironies, subversion, inversion, pastiche, masquerade, appropriation - all the postmodern strategies of the last two decades are buckling under the weight of culpability the myth has entrenched." Postmodernism's form of despair, which takes a rather "bumptious delight in the richness of possibilities", amounts to an escape from one's ethical duty towards society, she stated more recently: "I just don't want yet to give up on the possibility that things can improve."
A leading member of Charter 88 and the National Council for One Parent Families, Marina Warner takes her belief in citizenship seriously. Indeed she wonders whether her "centrist" position and "longing for connection" maintains her as a feminist in the eyes of modern feminists. "I think that certain things might improve but it's not from some delusion that women are virtuous, but that if their interests were served that might be better for men and children and for everyone."
Curiously she displays a marked lack of confidence and is massively self-denigrating. Her work has undoubtedly earned her a place as a key feminist writer, but there have been critical reviews. Historian and critic Noel Malcolm, after publication of From the Beast to the Blonde, wrote: "Once upon a time, there was a very clever girl called Marina, who read lots and lots of books. Every book seemed to connect up with every other book, and they all told her something about images of womanhood in cultural history." Her attempt to produce a "world-relevant set of rules about how stories work" has been described as "alarmingly generalist" by one academic, who tersely referred to the BBC's choice of her as only the second woman to deliver the Reith lectures since 1961 as "venturesome".
But she is assessed as a person of enormous intellectual stature by professors in her field, one describing her as an intellectual in the "continental sense", steeped in French structuralism, wide-ranging in scope. Marilyn Butler, rector of Exeter College, Oxford, acknowledges her "deep interest in ideas" and her ability to unearth "genuine topics." Gillian Beer, professor of English literature and president of Clare Hall College, Cambridge, describes Marina Warner as a "rare bird indeed, the freelance writer of considerable powers, not caught up in the academic web", a woman who often gets to contentious issues before others do, but who is scrupulous in her provision of references and generous in her acknowledgement of other people's work. She has become a woman of letters, the sort constantly invited to be in residence. Yet she proposes that she did not choose an academic route after leaving Oxford, because she did not think she would be accepted. It seems to be an abiding regret that she only gained a second as a student of French and Italian: "I was very young when I went there, only 17. I didn't work. It was my first taste of freedom and I was very muddled. I had a number of disastrous personal problems, negotiating love. I think I was a bit overlooked. I did meet someone who was a young don who used to hang out with us and he said to me: 'Gosh, of all the people of our generation at Oxford you were the last one I thought would have become a serious writer. You were just a pretty thing in a mini skirt.' I've been expiating that mini skirt for many years."
She still seems to regret, however, that she is not taken seriously by the Oxford community. At a dinner at All Souls, Oxford University, her visiting professorship at Rotterdam in 1991 was dismissed with "utter contempt" "by one of those gigantic ex-diplomats who live there".
Yet Lisa Jardine, professor of English at London University's Queen Mary and Westfield College, describes her as a figure of "real stature". Jardine says: "Wherever she lectures rooms are packed to the gills. Young women queue up afterwards to ask her questions. Her books sell and sell and go on selling. The way her work moves between general cultural studies and cultural studies particular to women is an inspiration."
Standing alone, in her freelance capacity, Marina Warner has been able to follow her nose, and one can occasionally glimpse that ultimately she would not have had it any other way. The problem with academic life, she says, is not that people are too specialised but that they get boxed into "responding to discourses with each other so that you actually get people being sucked down tunnels - whole conferences with lots of students discussing Judith Butler's Gender Trouble."
"It's not that the book is not worth discussing," she continues, "it's just that courses involving the fine-tuning of postmodernist texts is the worst kind of scholasticism of the 12th century. I think students should read from primary sources, they should put pleasure first, working on that moment when interest crystallises and they are gripped. Then they can read the secondary texts. But if they begin with Judith Butler's Gender Trouble they'll end up on a course in accountancy."
Although Warner wants to create a greater sense of fracture, her love of weaving rich, fantastical stories and imagery will no doubt gain the upper hand. That, in the end, is probably her raison d'etre as a writer. She says: "If I have any role to play it is to bring back some kind of enjoyable presence; a lot of forgotten images and stories which not only produce entertainment and aesthetic delight, a rich cultural patterning, but can actually have some kind of - I don't want to sound too pious - helpful function in social terms."