Words of Love, by Pamela Norris

So many feisty ladies
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The Independent Culture

The selection process for this ambitious trawl through the lives and works of passionate women writers over some 900 years must have been daunting. Many of the big names in women's literature feature here, and the premise for the book is a good one: take a handful of writing women and prove them to be passionate about love by analysing their lives, using their own words.

Sometimes this works well, as when Norris brings to life the enigmatic, seductive and depressed poet Edna St Vincent Millay. At other times, the fragmentary nature of many of the chapters is frustrating. Norris pays homage, rightly, to the great American writer L M Montgomery, whetting our appetites in one chapter with the opening words, "A young woman teaching school in a remote corner of Prince Edward Island fell deeply in love. Already secretly engaged to another man, she was horrified by her passion for the son of the family with whom she boarded during the school year." This is good, salacious stuff, but the reader is then left dangling until seven chapters later.

Although Norris writes with great flair and conviction, the stumbling block in this book is her decision to devote such fluctuating amounts of attention to the women included. Héloïse and Plath get their own sections. Barrett Browning and St Vincent Millay get a long chapter apiece, Mary Wollstonecraft and Edith Wharton a shorter one. The other women, including Jane Austen, the Brontës, Christina Rossetti et al, are squashed into the remaining chapters. Some of the writers that should have been included are omitted or only touched upon: Katherine Mansfield, a woman who lived, loved and wrote with enormous passion, is afforded two mentions, as is that other great chronicler of life, love and the writer's battle against depression, Antonia White. Janet Frame is never mentioned. Doris Lessing gets two scant paragraphs, and that acid-tongued jotter on all things love and sex, Dorothy Parker, is missing. Songwriter Suzanne Vega is given an entire page, Norris citing "The Queen and the Soldier" as an example of "subversive song".

The oddest treatment is reserved for Virginia Woolf. Although Norris quotes from her work and mentions her influence in nearly every chapter, Woolf, the original "passionate apprentice" who devoted 59 long years to her love for the written word, is not deemed sufficiently passionate to deserve A Chapter of One's Own. Often viewed by Bloomsbury-bashers as cerebral and dispassionate, Woolf in fact had a fierce and enduring love for her husband, friends and work. Her affair with Vita Sackville-West resulted in both a series of passionate love letters and her novels Orlando and To the Lighthouse. She lived for nearly twice as long as Plath and leftdiaries, essays and letters, but all this is given little attention here.

It is Plath who dominates the final part of this book and Norris rises ably to the challenge of breathing life into the stale controversies surrounding her work, death and marriage to Ted Hughes. Norris's portrayal of the young poet "desperate to write ... sitting day after day in front of a blank page, paralysed by the self-imposed requirements to produce brilliant, fresh, innovative work" is electric, as are her interpretations of some of the early poems: writing on "Pursuit", she posits that "Plath's sensual evocation of the pursuit ... captures a longing to be forced and taken, like the rapturous rape by the sun that she had imagined as a young girl, pressed against burning rocks beside the glittering ocean." Norris buzzes with the biographer's enthusiasm for her subject as she describes sitting, enchanted and emotional, in a booth at the British Library, listening to "Plath's beautifully modulated and self-possessed voice". It seems as if this section of the book could have been developed into a separate, brilliant biography in its own right.

Words of Love is a scholarly tour de force and in many ways a superb and ambitious compendium but, like women squeezed into a communal changing room and vying for the mirror, there's not enough room for individuals to shine. Plath, on the other hand, gets an entire cubicle to herself. Norris is so good at bringing the poet and her passions back into the arena that Plath exercises a powerfully prohibitive influence over the other women, throwing the rest of this enchanting book into shadow.

Pamela Norris talks about 'Words of Love' at the Ways With Words Literature Festival at Dartington Hall, Devon, on Tue 11 July at 3.30pm. A few of the many other highlights of the festival include Roy Hattersley on Shakespeare, Andrew Davies discussing the challenges of TV adaptations and Roger McGough revealing all about his childhood. Make sure you book tickets before you miss out: the festival ends on 17 July. For information, call 01803 867 373 or visit wayswithwords.co.uk

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