Marina Warner Biography
Nationality: British. Born: London, 1946. Education: Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, B.A. in modern languages 1963, M.A. 1964. Career: Getty Scholar, 1987-88; Tinbergen Professor, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 1991. Visiting professor, University of Ulster, 1994-95; Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, 1994. Awards: PEN award, 1988; Commonwealth Writers prize, 1989. Since 1985, Fellow Royal Society of Literature. Agent: Rogers, Coleridge, and White, 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1NJ, England.
In a Dark Wood. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Knopf, 1977.
The Skating Party. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982; NewYork, Atheneum, 1984.
The Lost Father. London, Chatto and Windus, 1988; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Indigo. London, Chatto and Windus, 1992; New York, Simon andSchuster, 1993.
The Mermaids in the Basement. London, Chatto and Windus, 1993.
The Legs of the Queen of Sheba (libretto), music by Julian Grant (produced London, 1991).
Tell Me More, 1991.
The Dragon Empress: The Life and Times of Tz-u-hsi, 1835-1908, Empress Dowager of China. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Macmillan, 1972.
Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976; New York, Vintage, 1983.
Queen Victoria's Sketchbook. London, Macmillan, and New York, Crown 1979.
The Crack in the Teacup: Britain in the 20th Century (for children).London, Deutsch, and New York, Clarion, 1979.
Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. London, Weidenfeld andNicolson, and New York, Knopf, 1981.
The Impossible Day [Night, Bath, Rocket] (for children). London, Methuen, 4 vols., 1981-82. The Wobbly Tooth (for children). London, Deutsch, 1984.
Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Atheneum, 1985.
Into the Dangerous World (pamphlet). London, Chatto and Windus, 1989.
From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. London, Chatto and Windus, 1994; New York, Farrar Straus, 1995.
Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time. London, Vintage, 1994; published as Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and More, New York, Vintage, 1995.
The Book of Signs and Symbols. New York, DK Publishing, 1996.
No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.
Editor, Wonder Tales. London, Chatto and Windus, 1994; New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
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Marina Warner is a historian and author of several studies of mythology. Historical events—real or imaginary—and mythological symbols pervade the worlds in which her novels take place, literally as well as subliminally.
In Warner's first novel, In a Dark Wood, Gabriel Namier, a Jesuit priest, is studying and writing an account of the life of another Jesuit Father who was involved in a mission to China in the seventeenth century. The two men's worlds, separated by three centuries, converge, both in outer circumstance—Gabriel, too, has lived in China, and the Catholic church of his time, like that of the seventeenth century, is internally divided—and on a more personal level. Gabriel's subject was accused by his rivals of homosexuality and in the course of the novel Gabriel himself develops an obsession, albeit not overtly homosexual, with a young man.
In The Skating Party, it is not the distant past that provides a point of reference, although one central motif of the book—a cycle of frescoes discovered in a secret room in the Vatican—does provide a symbol of the patterns of male-female relationship which are enacted by Warner's characters. The story within this story is instead a more recent event, a witch-hunting ritual to which the central characters of the novel were personal witnesses, and the distance is provided not by time but by the fact that it took place in a very different country and culture.
Warner's novel The Lost Father is similar to In a Dark Wood, in that past and present are linked in the form of a historical account, a story within a story; here the narrator is writing a novel set in southern Italy, based on her own family's history, and the external and the internal narratives are shared by several characters. Warner uses the device to make a point about the fallacious nature of history—or the historical novel—itself. The narrator's imagination is captured by one dimly-remembered and ill-documented episode of family legend. When this is thrown into doubt, the reader is reminded that the narrator's portrayal of the family and its characters, however vivid and convincing, is nothing more than fiction.
More often, however, comparison between the past and the present only serves to show that human nature is a constant that transcends time and cultural differences. The dominant subject of Warner's novels is the family, and other characters are almost always seen in the context of their relationship to the family's members. In a Dark Wood shows the barriers that exist between different members of the same family. In The Skating Party, father and son are distanced, initially by lack of mutual interests and later by sexual rivalry, and the novel shows how wide the generation gap really is. The Pittagora family, the subject of The Lost Father, is closely knit and the relationships between mother and daughter and between sisters are warm and compassionate, but this emphasizes all the more strongly the absence of the "lost father" of the title. In all three novels, these barriers and gaps are aggravated, if not created, by an intruder. However, the relationships between Warner's characters are seldom straightforward and unambiguous; by the end of In a Dark Wood, Oliver is no longer Gabriel's object of temptation but is seen in the more positive role of Gabriel's niece's lover. Viola, of The Skating Party, whose husband is obsessed with Katy, sees the girl not only as a threat but also as someone deserving compassion.
In The Lost Father, with its Southern Italian setting, Warner is aided by the fact that her often highly poetic language does not jar with twentieth-century English vernacular in the way that it does in her first two novels, and does not give the impression of a gratuitous display of erudition, as it occasionally does in In a Dark Wood. Her meticulous description of detail, too, is at its best in this novel, where it brings to life the Italy of the last century and makes it as vivid and immediate as present-day London. Moreover, the intrusive and occasionally condescending voice of the author as omniscient narrator, which throughout the first novel breaks in to reveal and explain the characters' thoughts and motives rather than revealing them through their own words and actions, in the latest novel has been replaced by the voice of a fictional narrator, through whom both the world in which she lives, as well as the world about which she writes, are seen, and whose humour and understanding of her characters contribute much to the success of the novel.
This increasing complexity of narrative structure and density of descriptive detail is seen still more clearly in Indigo, which draws together many of the motifs of Warner's earlier work in an impressively rich and complex book, in which the distancing effect of other times and other cultures once again both establishes and undermines parallels. Starting from the mythical Caribbean island of Shake-speare's Tempest, the novel is a meditation on colonialism and its consequences, and a story of displacement and the silencing of the dispossessed. Warner recreates the story of Sycorac, Caliban, and Ariel in the sixteenth century, whose place in the island is usurped by the coming of Europeans intent on profit; in the twentieth century, the Everard family, descendants of those earlier settlers who have dominated the island's culture through the intervening centuries, are themselves suffering the dislocation and exile of those whose place in the world and understanding of themselves has been fundamentally disrupted. Conflict invades the family, which, a microcosm of the processes of imperialism, can no longer displace its own internal contradictions onto the colonized world: husband and wife, parent and child, master/mistress and servant, all exist in tension and instability.
This novel perhaps most successfully unites Warner's intellectual and imaginative languages, drawing on fantasy and romance as well as on realism, in an intricately elaborate and sensuous prose. Myth and history, and the relations between them, are fundamental: the myths people live by, colonists and others, are placed alongside alternative and unacknowledged versions of truth. Warner's later non-fiction too has been closely concerned with myths and monsters; her collected short stories, The Mermaids in the Basement, reiterates these preoccupations. Many of these tales are retellings of familiar myths and histories, set in the contemporary world or in dialogue with it. "The Legs of the Queen of Sheba," for instance, moves between a woman trying to be one of the boys at a conference in Jerusalem, and the Queen of Sheba trying to hold her own in conversation with Solomon: two women struggling for their own speech in a man's world and a man's language. Several are inspired by paintings, reinforcing the powerfully visual quality of Warner's writing. Once again, too, the intense bonds of family life are crucial, as the book's sections make plain: "Mothers & Sisters," "Husbands & Lovers," and "Fathers & Daughters." These are clearly tales of women's perspectives (however variously), written mostly in the first person; here Warner is occasionally less persuasive, and her attempts to occupy more distant identities not always successful.
Nonetheless, Warner's is a voice of increasing assurance and power in contemporary British fiction. And how many authors have been mentioned in a song by the group Dire Straits? The reference was an oblique one: "Lady writer on the TV / talk about the Virgin Mary.…" But given the fact that the song came out in 1979, when Warner had recently been promoting her book Alone of All Her Sex, the line was most likely about her. "I wish I could claim something of more distinction in terms of popular culture," she laughed in a 1999 interview with Time magazine, "but I don't know that I can." Her books, on the other hand, have contributed a great deal.
revisions by Katharine Hodgkin
and Judson Knight
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