Books: Everything and the girl

The Story of Eve by Pamela Norris Picador pounds 20
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The title of Pamela Norris's book is something of a tease, for we are all familiar with the story of Eve. Created by God from Adam's rib to provide him with a companion, she was foolish or weak enough to be tempted by the serpent, with dreadful consequences for humanity. Everything in the garden was rosy, in other words, until a woman came along and spoiled it. What else is there to say?

A great deal, according to Norris, who spends the first half of her narrative explaining the many different versions of Eve which exist in the Bible and Jewish texts, as well as what early theologians had to say about her and her human descendants. Not much of it was good, as most readers would doubtless predict, although anyone who is unacquainted with the writings of the early Church Fathers may be surprised by the vehemence and venom of their pronouncements on women.

St John Chrysostom, for example, writing in the fourth century AD, warned the Christian congregation at Antioch that woman was "a whited sepulchre", full of uncleanness. Getting into his stride, he demanded: "What else is a woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours?"

Not a feminist, then, John "Golden Mouth", to give him his wholly unironic English appellation. As Norris points out, his series of paradoxical put- downs echoes that of a much earlier Greek author, Hesiod, when he came to record a non-Christian creation myth towards the end of the eighth century BC. For Hesiod, all our troubles began with Pandora, the "beautiful evil" - kalon kakon in Greek - who opened a jar and let out "grim cares" to afflict mankind. Later commentators explicitly linked the two inquisitive and disobedient women, as we can see from a 16th-century painting of a female nude by the French artist Jean Cousin. Suspended above her head is a painted tablet which bears the simple inscription, "EVA PRIMA PANDORA".

As well as making connections between Eve and figures from pagan and Jewish myth, Norris spends some time in this section of the book examining ancient law and its effect on women's lives. The connection with Eve is not always apparent, and while there is interesting material about the lifestyle of women in the period, Norris's style veers unevenly between chatty and didactic. The second half of the book is devoted to analyses of what she calls "fantasies of Eve", such as the way in which her wickedness was supposedly redeemed by the problematic cult of the Virgin Mary. "Sadly for women in a culture where marriage was the norm, unbroached virginity was fundamental to Mary's goodness," writes Norris, pointing out that this created a standard of female conduct which most real women were bound to fail.

The opposition between good and evil characterised by Mary and Eve is represented, according to Norris, in a multitude of texts which she goes on to discuss, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh to Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market". She also suggests that contemporary women writers like the novelist Angela Carter have made spirited attempts to reclaim Eve, arguing that "Eve's story still has something to offer women". And it is here that the doubts raised earlier in the text coalesce, exposing the timidity and undue optimism which inform Norris's enterprise.

Eve, Pandora, all those seductive women from myth who are supposed to have led mankind astray, are the products of male misogyny. They tell us a great deal about men's anxiety, particularly about sexuality, and about the unacknowledged fear of female power which coexists uneasily with theories about women's biological inferiority. At one level Norris knows this, but it makes her anxious, forcing her into unconvincing caveats such as her claim that the term "misogyny" is too blunt a tool to be useful in discussions of Graeco-Roman and early Christian attitudes to women.

"Women's rights were simply not an issue, at least not in the terms they are understood today," she asserts, as though the possibility that you do not understand you are oppressing another human being somehow changes the nature of the act. On the contrary, what is interesting about the authors and artists and lawmakers whose work Norris dissects is the pervasiveness of their misogyny, the way it cuts across temporal and cultural and religious boundaries, telling us in no uncertain terms what we are up against. Eve is merely a manifestation of it, certainly not a cause as the early Church Fathers would like us to think, while the notion that she has redeeming features for modern women is a cause which this muddled book does little to promote.