Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Marina Warner and the cult of Mary

As her controversial study of Mary is reissued, Marina Warner talks to Peter Stanford about the book’s hostile reception and the enduring cult of the Virgin

Marina Warner
Marina Warner's seminal work on the Virgin Mary is being reissued Photo: David Rose
Marina Warner spent years unable to set foot in a Catholic church. “I went to a convent school,” she explains, “but renounced it as a young woman. For a long time it remained too painful. I felt flattened if I tried to go inside a church, sinful, excluded and so wretched, but now all that turmoil has passed. And,” she adds almost conspiratorially, “I find myself quite liking the serenity of it again.”

We are sitting in the back row of Notre Dame de France, the church serving London’s francophone community, tucked behind Leicester Square. The lunchtime mass has just ended and a scattering of heads are spread out before us in the pews, bowed in silent prayer, oblivious to our whispers.
The church boasts a fine collection of art including a chapel with line drawings of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Assumption by Jean Cocteau. I meet Warner, 66-year-old novelist, academic, Reith Lecturer and mythographer, on the eve of the reissue of two of her classic books, Joan of Arc: the Image of Female Heroism and Alone of All Her Sex: the Myth & the Cult of the Virgin Mary.

When it was first published in 1976, Alone of All Her Sex caused an almighty storm, awarded haloes and horns in equal measure. For traditionally minded Catholics, her deconstruction of the story that their Church had long attached to Jesus’s mother, as a perpetual virgin, submissive, meek and finally rewarded by being assumed body and soul into heaven, was a demolition. They regarded it as an act of betrayal by one of their own. “It got so bad that my Protestant father ended up writing to The Tablet [the Catholic weekly] to stick up for me,” Warner recalls, sitting tall and upright, her long dark hair pinned up on the back of her head.
Until then, books on Mary had tended to be written by priests – “mostly Jesuits and very fine mystical studies, but not historical or analytical”. Alone of All Her Sex was different. Warner took a feminist approach, much in vogue at the time, as she describes in her new preface. And she certainly stirred up debate.

Rest at The Telegraph

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