My Book Of A lifetime: Alone of All Her Sex, By Marina Warner

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I was in my gap year when I read Alone of All Her Sex. Until then religion for me had been arguments about whether doctrine or belief were "true", and a sense that humans couldn't help being religious, but were growing out of it.

I also had Huguenot blood, agnostic DNA, a confirmation in St Paul's, and an A-level study of the English Reformation. But Marina Warner's study of mariolatry made me think about religion as something which human societies make, and make, as it were, in their own moral, social and emotional image.

In exquisite detail, with a strong and sophisticated cultural-historical and feminist awareness, but an equal sensitivity to the power of faith and Christianity through the ages, Warner examines how the very slight presence in the Gospels of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was transformed and enlarged, century by century, into a complex cult. Each culture's theology, philosophy, art, music and literature expressed and embodied what it made of Mary, and what it made of her was dominated by what it wanted: Virgin, Queen, Bride, Mother, Intercessor, from Maria Lactans to Mater Ecclesiae. Warner makes no pretence that the marian theology which developed, with its associated prescriptions for living and religious practice, did not damage women and men as much as it glorified the image of womanhood: it provided both comfort and guilt, inspiration and repression, liberation and oppression, mysticism and pragmatism.

But she is eloquent, too, in her evocation of the beauty and profundity which mariolatry has brought forth from artists throughout the ages, and of its value as well as injury to the greatest and humblest of lives. Warner herself was convent-educated and writes of her pain, after abandoning faith, in contemplating "all the safety and beauty of the salvation I had forsaken."

Alone of All Her Sex, by implication, is about how societies experience, focus, and manage the human sense of transcendance and immanence – spirituality, to use a much degraded term - and how the religion they construct to do so then shapes the society which constructed it. Spirituality is so basic to human existence that no society until our own has tried to ignore it: it seems to have no material, biological explanation and yet it is as inherent in us as love and sexual desire. In my mind I connect Alone of All Her Sex with John Keegan's A History of Warfare and Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage, 1500-1800. Each examines how societies develop, control and exploit a basic element of human nature: religion and spirituality, aggression and violence, sex and affective relationships. Both my first novel, The Mathematics of Love, and now A Secret Alchemy are about love, war, and the life of the spirit. At the most fundamental level, I sometimes think, what else is there to write about?

Emma Darwin's new novel 'A Secret Alchemy' is published by Review