Of maidens and monsters: Over the next six weeks the Independent will carry the 1994 Reith Lectures, by Marina Warner. Natasha Walter met her

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NO DOUBT all the men who have delivered the BBC's Reith Lectures, from Bertrand Russell through Arnold Toynbee, J K Galbraith and any number of sober-suited academics in between, sweated as Marina Warner has done. 'I haven't been sleeping well,' she says, with nonchalant candour. 'Since I was asked, I've had all sorts of psychosomatic illnesses.'

As only the second woman to give the lectures in all their 45 years (Margery Perham, who spoke on 'The Colonial Reckoning' in 1961 was the first), Warner is worried that she'll be seen as a token: 'I wouldn't have been asked if I hadn't been a woman,' she says with excessive modesty. The fear seems misplaced. 'Managing Monsters', a consideration of six different myths that are current today, is a characteristically impressive mixture of scholarship and storytelling, connected to a framework of more lucid personal opinion and argument than she has ever offered her audience before.

At the age of 47, she seems to have produced a summation of her life's work to date. But it has been a struggle. 'Sometimes I felt very Dada about the whole thing. I felt like wearing a tiger-skin hat and growling at everyone. Sometimes Elizabeth (Burke, her producer) would say, 'Just say what you think,' and I'd say, 'I don't want to think. I don't know what I think.' '

From Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, to Monuments and Maidens, to her last novel, Indigo, Warner has worked to dredge up the myths that make us what we are. In these lectures, those are myths of femaleness, of boys, of children, of the wild, of cannibals and of home. And she dredges with a purpose: not to weigh us down with the nightmare of history from which we can never awake, but precisely to awaken us: 'This is ultimately hopeful: that myth is in a constant state of flux, a constant state of change, and we can take part in the process.'

And this exhortatory tone is explicit in the lectures. In the one on femaleness, for instance, she runs through the depressing, monolithic block of mythology that demonises female sexuality - from the fertile monsters of Jurassic Park back to Medea and the Furies. But her last story is proffered as an alternative: she gives us a little scientific story about the praying mantis, which shows that this insect, famous for devouring her mate alive after mating, is in fact as loving and co-operative a beast as any in the natural world.

Although much admired, Warner is not as influential as one might expect. Her scholarship is thorough, her style elegantly readable, her range exciting, but as a thinker she is often disappointing, proceeding not so much by argument as by overlapping patterns of tales and descriptions. This characteristic looseness seems to have come about partly because she has never been trammelled by the academic world.

At Oxford she was a runaway social success. 'I wasn't very good at academic work. I was incredibly lazy. I liked parties.' And, in preference to staying on there and 'editing an unedited medieval poem, which my tutor wanted me to do', Warner set off to seek her fortune. By 23 she was features editor of Vogue, but then fell in love and 'jacked it all in to follow my first husband, William Shawcross, to Vietnam. That was when I started to write my Mary book. There was a mountain there that was holy to Mary and it made me think again about this icon which had haunted me ever since I was a girl at convent school.'

That seems to sum up her life's discoveries. However esoteric some of her work, it is all rooted in concrete, even commonplace, realities and loves. And work and daily life are all of a piece, everything feeding easily into everything else in a way that is held to be typical of women, but is in fact rare for either sex.

Warner's present husband, John Dewe Matthews, is an artist, and much of her recent work has been devoted to contemporary art: she recently wrote a book about the sculptor Richard Wentworth, and jumps up at one point in our conversation to show me pictures of the work of David Nash, her next subject - 'so tender and instinctive'. She has one son, who is now 16, whose experiences have fed into her work on boys. And she emphasises that her work on female allegories came from the pictures on stamps and coins and olive-oil bottles (she has even sat on the advisory board of the Royal Mint).

Running through everything, especially in these lectures, is a deep moral sense which ranges from the surprisingly subtle to the engagingly nave. One of her friends has compared her emphatically to Dorothea Brooke, in her impeccable beauty and unrelieved moral seriousness, but Warner mentions Middlemarch in a way that shows off her odd subtlety: 'I do feel divided between my practical self - it's funny watching Middlemarch, my longing that all farmers should build model villages - and my fantasies, my inner psyche, which knows that we are cruel and wanton.'

In these lectures she has perfectly dovetailed her 'model village' side and a revelling in wanton forces. Two lectures stand out for the forcefulness of that mixture: the one on home, and the one on boys. The idea that the role of young men has become problematic is a commonplace, but Warner attacks it from every angle: her second talk ranges from a computer games fair to Homer, from Blade Runner to Frankenstein, and concludes that even the young criminals 'aren't deprived of masculine role models, they aren't in rebellion, but are suffering from the compulsion of conforming. They're exposed to blanket saturation in a myth of masterful, individualist independence'. Which is something that she experienced first-hand in seeing her son grow up. 'Young boys have a very limited array of permitted activities,' she says angrily. 'In clothing, behaviour, physical movement, girl children are allowed a great range - they are allowed very pretty, balletic pointy-toe movements, or they can clop around in Doc Martens. And things have got worse. I'm not saying that there isn't a real threat from young men, but it is a burden on the boys themselves, as well as on the public.'

This argument is strengthened by Warner's ability to range through earlier myths of manhood, which relied on negotiation - tales from the Odyssey and the Arabian Nights are cited here - compared to the new myths which do nothing but set up monsters as stooges, to be blown away without compunction.

In her lecture on home and Britishness, she quotes John Major's weedy evocation of long shadows on cricket lawns, and warm beer, with impatience: 'At least see the cricket ground as not just in the Home Counties] In New Zealand, the Caribbean, and the shadows perhaps not being so long] We were an imperial nation. We have to confront that, not necessarily in celebration.'

Marina Warner has her roots in the most British of Britishness - even if her mother was Italian, her grandfather was the cricket peer Sir Pelham (Plum) Warner, her godfather is Lord Longford, and her niche is that most comfortable of north London liberal circles. But that doesn't invalidate her plea for a different kind of Britishness. 'I'm not for assimilation in terms of - we have this blueprint society and you come into it and then become it. That's an idea that's totally had its day. I say, you don't assimilate to something, you try to make the place where you want to be work for all of you. My appeal in that lecture is for an admission of connectedness, even if that connectedness is painful, subjection, or invasion or whatever.'

That's hardly a new idea, but as always Warner's tapestry of tales and tableaux, which range from the Brothers Grimm to Derek Walcott's retelling of Homer, the Tempest to Madame Tussauds, makes the whole theme seem richer, more alive and full of potential than is generally felt.

Despite her central, comfortable role in British intellectual society, Warner has gone in, wholeheartedly, for questions and contradictions. As a last shot, I ask whether she is optimistic or pessimistic, given the kind of evils she has described in these talks. 'I'm optimistic,' she says, 'but it takes a fantastic amount of work. It takes vigilance. I do feel pessimistic.'

The BBC Reith Lectures begin tonight on Radio 4 at 8.45pm. They will be printed on Thursdays in the 'Independent' over the next six weeks.

Bryan Appleyard returns next week.

(Photograph omitted)

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