Words of Love, by Pamela Norris

Unhappy endings for a return to romance
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The Independent Culture

Women writers used often to be discussed in terms of their sex lives, or lack of them. Poems and novels were read back into imagined biographies, supposedly providing proof of neuroses, intellectual inferiority and lack of potency. While men invented new forms, women gushed from the heart. In the 1970s, feminist scholars contested this view, arguing for women writers' sophistication, restoring them to literary history alongside their brothers and debating whether or not gender provided a source of inspiration for both men and women.

Now that the economic and cultural climates have changed, the wheel of opinion swings back round. Marketing ploys dictate that women's books are divided from men's as never before. The old taboos have returned with a vengeance. The times are ripe, it seems, to re-inscribe women writers into narratives of love. A woman's place is within a romance.

In her uneven but intriguing new book, Pamela Norris has composed a story about love, a collage of literary history, criticism, biography and novel synopses. Norris's particular post-feminist take involves tracking women's ardent search for strong, equal mates, their yearnings for love in intellectual partnerships. Heloise, who loved and lost Abelard, and Sylvia Plath, who loved and lost Ted Hughes, form her bookends. In between she conducts a rapid survey of certain writers in Britain, France and America, and one from Japan, darting from the medieval period to the late 20th century.

Her selection seems arbitrary. She covers women writers, female characters in novels, and female muses for male writers, not always distinguishing between them. Unfortunately, the scope of her book is limited. Why leave out serious discussion of lesbian writers and lovers? Why not discuss the many modernist women writers who experimented with their lives as much as with literary form and found bisexuality a necessary strategy for avoiding traditional femininity and domestic confinement? Why not include more on men?

Norris briefly introduces us to the male troubadours, and Renaissance poets such as Sidney and Wyatt, then jumps sideways to romantic heroes in women's fiction. Ted Hughes, read through Birthday Letters, and Abelard, read through the Historia Calamitatum, stand in for their sex.

The 12th-century Heloise, highly educated and gifted, ended up successfully running a convent and writing wisely about her nuns' Rule. As Norris points out, she is famous not because of her learning and power, but for her tragedy. As a formidably intellectual young woman, living with her uncle in Paris, Heloise was tutored by Abelard. When he seduced her, and she became pregnant, her uncle had Abelard castrated, and Abelard dumped Heloise in a convent. Her love letters to Abelard are polished exercises in Latin rhetoric as much as evidence of her passionate feelings.

Similarly, the poems of the trobairitz, the female troubadours, contesting the masculine double standard around sex and love, do not necessarily provide evidence of these poets' experience, tempting as it is for readers used to confessional poetry to assume that art reveals biographical truth. Medieval poetry was strictly coded, and made use of sophisticated strategies of quotation and irony. We cannot presume to imagine we can jump across the centuries and know just how medieval poets felt.

Norris recognises this, but sometimes ignores history in order to make writers such as Marie de France and Christine de Pisan relevant to readers who have never heard of them. Commenting on a trobairitz poem representing a conversation between three young women about love and marriage, she rather charmingly says that "these could be three young women gossiping in a wine bar in London, New York or Sydney".

The book becomes less interesting and provocative when, after a look at Murasaki's The Tale of Genji and the Renaissance poet Mary Wroth, it moves on to Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. It concludes with a lengthy section on Sylvia Plath, arguing that rather than see her as anguished and frustrated, we should recognise her strong desire for love, husband, children and a happy home. Full of enthusiasm and sympathy for her subject, Norris writes unevenly. In particular, her chapter-endings are often banal and cliché-sprinkled. The best thing about her survey is that it leads us back to the work of individual writers and critics.

Michèle Roberts' latest novel is 'Reader, I Married Him' (Virago)