The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz’u-hsi 1835–1908, 1972
Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, 1976
Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, 1981
Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of Female Form, 1985
Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Times, 1994
From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, 1994
No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock, 1998
Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self, 2002
In a Dark Wood, 1977
The Skating Party, 1982
The Lost Father, 1988
Indigo: Or, Mapping the Waters, 1992
The Leto Bundle, 2000
The Mermaids in the Basement: Stories, 1993
Murderers I Have Known, and Other Stories, 2002
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
The Crack in the Teacup, 1979
The Impossible Day, 1981
The Impossible Night, 1981
The Impossible Bath, 1982
The Impossible Rocket, 1982
The Wobbly Tooth, 1984
Wonder Tales: Six Stories of Enchantment, 1994
Marina Sarah Warner’s literary career has been prolific, encompassing a number of topics and genres. In addition to her principal works of nonfiction and fiction, she has been a journalist and has written some children’s literature and screenplays for television. However, two main themes emerge as concerns of her major works: feminism and myth. Indeed, many of her writings demonstrate the links between these two ideas.
Many of Warner’s interests stem from her family and education. She was born in London. Her father, Esmund, was a bookseller and her mother, Emilia Terzuli, was a teacher. Marina Warner was raised as a Roman Catholic and was educated in convent schools in England, Egypt, and Belgium. She received her degree at Oxford (Lady Margaret Hall) in French and Italian. Her literary talents were evident in her work as editor of Isis, the university magazine at Oxford, and in her early career as a journalist, for which she received the Daily Telegraph Young Writer of the Year award in 1970. By the early 1970’s she had begun to write full-time. Her first book was a biography of Tz’u-hsi, the empress dowager of China in the late nineteenth century. This work showed Warner’s promise as a historical writer in its ability to convey the intrigue of the Chinese court and in her portrayal of Tz’u-hsi as a strong, forceful woman.
In 1976 the book for which Marina Warner is best known was published. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary examines the various manifestations through the centuries of the myth and cult of the Virgin Mary. Her interest in this subject is rooted in her education in Catholic convent schools, where the Virgin was upheld as an exemplar of ideal womanhood. After leaving the Catholic Church, Warner wanted to examine why this myth of female virginity was so powerful. Her book utilizes an impressive amount of evidence drawn from religious studies, anthropology, history, and art history to advance her thesis that the cult of the Virgin was degrading to women. This book shows how Warner investigates the mythological content of an idea to expose its misogynistic core. Warner’s next work of nonfiction, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, delved into the mythology surrounding another woman, Joan of Arc. Rather than approach the subject as a biography, Warner looked into the context that made Joan credible to her contemporaries and then considered how this historical figure evolved into a symbol of female heroism in subsequent centuries.
Around this time Marina Warner also began to write fiction. Her first novel, In a Dark Wood, concerns two brothers, one a Jesuit who is writing a historical biography, the other a magazine publisher. This novel thus draws on several facets of Warner’s life, her Catholic religious background and her writing career as a historian and journalist. Her second novel is The Skating Party. While the main characters come from the contemporary world of academia, the novel reworks a classical Greek story found in Homer’s Iliad that tells how, at his mother’s instigation, her son seduces the young woman who is his father’s lover. The critical consensus was that these early novels demonstrated less literary polish than her more convincing writings on historical topics.
Warner’s next major book, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of Female Form, returned to nonfiction treatment of a subject that combines feminism and symbolism. This book looks at monumental, usually allegorical, depictions of females in Western art and shows how modern female leaders often consciously or unconsciously adopt some of the visual symbolism portrayed in these depictions. Like her earlier writing, Warner’s historical study of visual and literary imagery about certain aspects of women’s persona illuminates contemporary attitudes toward women’s place in society.
Two works of fiction followed. The Lost Father is Warner’s most ambitious novel. The density of its historical, allegorical, mythological, and psychological components reveals the attributes that Warner brings to her works as a cultural historian. The story utilizes autobiographical material about Warner’s maternal family in southern Italy. It reflects the ambivalent place of women in this Italian culture, where a strong matriarchy preserves the almost heroic mythological status of the father figure. Indigo: Or, Mapping the Waters also traces a family history from a Caribbean island to modern London. It is rich in literary references, especially to William Shakespeare’s Tempest, and is richly textured with mythic tales and psychological insights.
Three works published during 1993 to 1994 focus on the function of myth. Two nonfiction studies, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers and Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Times, are complementary. The first investigates the mythic origins of fairy tales, while the second looks at the way myths function in contemporary life. Together, they demonstrate Warner’s thesis that the continuities of myth reinforce gender stereotypes. No Go the Bogeyman started out as an attempt to consider male figures in folklore and folktale as Warner had previously assessed female figures, but ended up as a study of the grotesque in folk and popular culture, a theme continued in Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds, which addresses shape-shifting. Mermaids in the Basement is a collection of short stories in which Warner refashions archetypal plots, especially from the Bible, in contemporary settings. Because their main characters are women, the stories continue Warner’s exploration of the inherent nature of women’s experience. Warner’s interest in myth also informs her novel The Leto Bundle, which shifts between past and present and between mortal and goddess, drawing on the myth of Leto, the mother of Artemis and Apollo. As Constance Markey observed in a review of The Lost Father, all of Warner’s works reveal her to be an author with “the heart of a poet and the mind of a scholar.”