Marina Warner, whose novel ‘The Lost Father’ has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, talks to Naim Attallah by Naim Attallah

Naim Attallah

Marina Warner, whose novel ‘The Lost Father’ has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, talks to Naim Attallah


I think I was influenced by my father through wishing to react against his prescription of what my life should be like. He was a very regular upper middle class man, he had been to Eton and to Oxford and was a Colonel in the army. During the war he met my mother, who came from a very poor Italian family. Her background was Catholic and she had been brought up very happily entirely by women because her father had died when she was a child. [This was the starting off point of The Lost Father: the story that he’d fought a duel, and that’s why he died.] There was a sort of sweetness in her life then, she was beautiful and vivacious.

She is also someone who can yield, and my father in a way had the authority of his class. He had that English mentality and I suppose as a soldier it had been increased, making him rather tyrannical. He influenced me more than my mother, not in the sense of conforming to him, more in the sense of fighting against him. I didn’t want to be like my mother either, however. It seems an absolutely ludicrous detail now, but there were terrible rows about her clothes, for instance. She never had any money to buy her own clothes and I remember terribly well that I was determined I would always have my own money, that I would not be in the position of having to ask a man if I could have a coat for the winter. My religious upbringing was quite intensely Catholic, because my father thought that it was a very good religion for a girl … He was a Protestant, an Anglican, but he brought us up as Catholics for the morality of it and sent us to convents because he thought that this would make us proper young women, as the Catholic Church disciplines women in a particular way – self-sacrifice and sexual purity. My father, however, was not an austere man; he was very genial, loved company and good wine, and grew roses beautifully. He was a man of some culture and terrific strength of character and not in a boring tight-arsed British way, though he was very, very dominant. I probably caused him a lot of grief because I was terribly anxious to get away from that to pursue my own lines.

Many of my attitudes were formed not by reflective considerations over books, but were absolute immediate reactions. Although my politics at first were formed entirely by the flip side of my father’s politics – he hated the trades unions so I liked the trades unions – I came to develop a more considered view, although it is true that I still have very strong visceral antagonism to certain aspects of conservatism because I didn’t like them at the dinner table at home. I didn’t like the Daily Telegraph talk which was part of a world I didn’t want to enter. My father wanted me to marry a stockbroker; he never wanted me to be a writer even though he wanted me to have a good education. He said that writing would provide a very bad sort of income, it would never be reliable, and in that sense he was a conventional man … He was, however, touchingly proud of me when I became a writer, and his interest in me, even his antagonistic interest, was very strengthening.

When I was young I had tremendously split fantasies. I wanted to be a very girlish and perfect girl. I longed to be beautiful and spent a lot of time in front of the mirror dressing up in my mother’s clothes attempting to look like a sophisticated woman. At the same time all my sort of night-time reveries before I went to bed were of being an incredibly active and effective young man, which took the form not of something intellectual, not of being influential or a writer at that stage – I’m talking of when I was about ten – but of being physically free, of being able to move in a body which was somehow not this body which was one that meant I would marry and be confined.

Perhaps what has happened historically is that when women arc confined and attend to those private ceremonies of meals and upbringing, it actually fosters the best in human nature. We think of feminine as being a better order, and I believe that it is, because it is to do with rituals of preserving and growth and love and cherishing and nurturing. I’m one of the feminists who does not believe that this is intrinsic to the female soul; I think it is the possibility of all humanity.

When we say, for example, that Mrs Thatcher is masculine, it is more that what she is being required to do has belonged traditionally to the masculine order. What we haven’t solved is how you set up a society and run it, how you don’t have an anarchic system in which there are no rulers and yet avoid falling into this masculine way which is all to do with oppressions and cruelties. I don’t believe Mrs Thatcher is a type; I believe she is an individual who is detested. I don’t think people are reacting simply against a woman in power – we could have a woman in power whom we would love or like. But Mrs Thatcher represents a kind of thumbs-down consul; we are all the gladiators. We arc the poor people who are wheeled out to do all the work and she is the ruler who sits in the Imperial purple box and gives the thumbs-down to this frantic piteous humanity.

That’s how I feel about her. I hate the way she is always so collected in her appearance, how she is so bossy without very often giving a good reason for it. But I try not to hate her, because I think hate is a very confusing emotion which stops you seeing clearly. I met her once when I interviewed her for Vogue after she was made leader of the Conservative Party. It’s not my party but I was overjoyed that the Conservatives unprecedentedly, incredibly and surprisingly had elected a woman. And she was horrible. She was so supercilious and defensive, almost rude and angry. Then her PR people told her she must behave better with journalists, which she did, but she still has a very unfortunate way of managing to behave as if everybody else is somehow inferior and short on her own funds of energy and ideas.

I think in England class systems patronise one another. That’s still the major source of discrimination. Within the class systems there is a sub-set of sexual systems which operate even in places where you’d think they wouldn’t – like the BBC. I think there is still a feeling – for instance if women get very agitated – that this is not a genuine concern, but just something to do with their temperament; that they arc not really agitated, it’s just the wrong time of the month. It’s very interesting that a woman is often constructed by voices outside herself. There is a tendency for men to say: we all know women, we don’t have to listen to what they actually have to say or tell us about themselves. I feel that when there is more listening to what women have to say about all areas of their experience, the construct woman will start fragmenting and we will find there isn’t such a well-defined single entity as a woman in the way we have inherited the idea, in much the same way as we don’t really know what we mean by a man – he is so capable of so many different manifestations because all the complications of humanity are there. It will then cease to be possible in historical books to index women in the way that books on the Middle Ages or agrarian movements have: ‘WOMEN pp 88-90’ – because they are seen as something as particular as ants or primroses that can be indexed in such a way, whereas of course they are not; they permeate every aspect, every structure.

I think that women arc now in an acute phase in England. The difficulty with mass unemployment is that actually the expectations of women have been reduced even further and one of the consequences is that the birth rate has risen terrifically amongst young women. I don’t want to give the impression that having a baby isn’t a great pleasure and experience, but it does worry me. I feel that these young women are entering into the difficult occupation of caring for a child in very reduced circumstances and this is partly because their expectations very early on have been cut, have been limited, and they don’t see their lives as offering them other possibilities.

This is related to some of the mythology which has become ever more current. One is the myth surrounding the Royal family. I may be quite wrong about this – and it is obviously harmless compared to other political systems and ideologies – but what we see is a continual adulation of young women who arrive at greatness through chance. This underlines the idea that women don’t need to take their destinies into their own hands, because with a modicum of looks or a modicum of grace and charming ways, something wonderful, might happen. And this is terribly determinist: it’s not saying, who am I? what am I capable of? And it applies only to women, not to men. It is interesting that within the Royal family the men are trained to do many things, however poorly or adequately they function at them. But the young women who now enter this family and become heroines of the entire world – and there is nothing in the popular press except Fergie, Diana, Caroline Monaco, Stephanie Monaco – as far as I can make out, initially nothing more is asked of them but that they be images, that they be something to look at. Beauty of course has its place in the world and beauty can be something that is life-enhancing. The body is a place to start from, but it mustn’t be the place where you end.

One of the things that is very important to think about is that people are different at different ages, but when we think of women being different from men we are tending to think of women between twelve years old and forty, women sexed through actual fertility and ebbing fertility. We should perhaps look more at the changing pattern of a woman’s whole life and what the differences are between old women and old men. I believe that there is a difference and that this is physiologically grounded.

I am very against biological determinism because I do not think that biology exists in a void; it must always exist within a social structure. I agree of course that the distribution of hormones does contribute to the difference between men and women. After all, what we mean by a man is very often connected to ideas of physical strength and aggression and there are hormonal secretions in men which are to do with aggression and which don’t exist in the same quantities in the female body. The other thing is the way desire manifests itself in a man and is released in a man. It is so much shorter, and there must be a greater difference than just the biological difference. It is to do with gratification of a certain kind which must come faster. But I think it is terribly dangerous and actually rather unpleasant and almost Fascist to build ideas about sexual difference on such things – you get into terrible trouble then, I think.

I would say that one of the great improvements of the last twenty years is that women’s sexual needs have been recognised in a way that in my childhood they were not. I was brought up in a creed, in Catholicism, which denies sexual need. It believes in the sexual danger of women but doesn’t actually interiorise it; sexual danger exists because of how a woman is beheld by the desiring man … It was not so much female desire that the nuns told me to watch out for, but male desire. Female desire was something they wanted to pretend did not exist, or had successfully imagined did not exist. And that has changed, that has imperceptibly changed.

Female desire is now admitted and to some extent accepted with out the sort of rancour that it used to cause. Previously the idea of female lasciviousness was absolutely abhorred both in Protestantism, and in Catholicism. Female lust was really bad; male lust was something we could live with – it was human. Now I think that the word lust is not used in quite the same way that it used to be and that people do nor ascribe to it quite the same negative quality.

I used to be very screwed up about sex because I was brought up to believe it was a terrible sin. With every Catholic it goes very deep and the spectre goes on haunting you that it is a sin and the –feelings associated with it arc a diabolical part of you. It certainly used to be the case that women felt they should legitimise their sexual urges by calling them love. That is something I have struggled with, and I have, I suppose, felt love when I probably haven’t loved at all. I think people now rather deplore the sexual license among the very young, the one night stands, people getting sexual release without caring very much for one another. I’m certainly not very keen on one night stands – I haven’t done that sort of thing for years.

I believe that love itself is a very unexamined subject. We know very little about love, not sexual love only, but just love. One of the curious effects of our Freudian revolution, which in many ways is a wonderful revolution, has been that we have slightly forgotten what we mean by love, what we want from love; we arc too busy examining Oedipal structures, sexual desires, neurotic attachments. The Greeks had a more sophisticated inquiry into different types of love.

I am terribly against sex or sexual prowess or sexual achievement being used as an index of personality. Of course it makes fascinating reading, but there has been rather a tendency in biographies to create characters through sexual inclination. One knows from friends that what is written really isn’t the case. Very often their sexual lives cannot be divined from their characteristics. I don’t have enough experience, but I have often imagined that you can have somebody who makes love in a very similar way to somebody else, yet they can be extremely different people.

I think that men, because of their power being identified with their physical potency, experience the poignancy that there arc so many women they may never have. Now that I am forty, I myself look at young men in the street and suddenly understand what men feel when they say, so many women, so little time. When I was seventeen I imagined I would have lots of experiences; now I know I shan’t and I do feel that poignancy. So many men, so little time!

I am terribly inconsistent – a living example of someone who can think one thing and practise something completely different. For example, I don’t believe that you should need to be married, or that women should aim at marriage, or that it is in any way a solution to anything. But my upbringing was so focused on marriage that I could never escape it; it was a deep emotional need for me to be married, to have somebody want to marry me, to have the security of that symbolic pledge …

I have been married twice, and I suppose I am attracted to people who want to marry me, which is pathetic for a feminist, absolutely pathetic. In Johnny’s case I was attracted by his personal qualities. He is very good with children, terribly nice to my son, and that was very important to me. I had had a number of liaisons before I was married to Johnny in which the men were competitive with the child; they wanted more attention, or they didn’t want me to put him first. But I’m afraid I believe that the child must come first. Not that the child must be the prince in the castle, but the child is dependent and adults are not. There is no reason why a man should cut in with his needs over a child; he can fend for himself, a child cannot.

Something which used to worry me tremendously as a child and as a young woman was the possibility that misogynists who argued that women were inferior were right because of the historical record regarding creativity. It no longer worries me because I think that in the spheres women have entered they have done well. Writing is the obvious example, but both painting and sculpture are now very much practised by women and have been since the last century. In any case, we would not have had Michelangelo if that particular type of endeavour had not been privileged by the people who controlled money.

I don’t see genius as a daemon that comes from the sky, or that you are born with it and are able to draw perfect circles and spout Greek in your cradle. Of course there are exceptionally gifted people but I also feel that they could have disappeared it had not been for their patrons. Women did not control money, even in quite enlightened societies, even in the Renaissance courts of Italy where they had a very high view of women, their culture, their poetry and so on. But they had no command of resources, actual physical resources. This is why I am a terrific believer in public patronage of the arts, in fostering and sponsorship. Jane Austen’s hiding her writing under the blotter when her family came in – this was minimum economics creativity, but that’s where you found it in the past.

There are some wholly remarkable writers working now, who are drawing on their experience as women, without falling into the trap of a so-called woman’s realm: Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich for instance, who are visionaries really, turning the story of their origins – Californian Chinese and Black American and Chippewa Red Indian – into a kind of fiction that I’d call poetic, except that ‘poetic’ sounds feeble and pastoral, and they’re not at all. That’s the kind of writing I’d like to arrive at, which understands something from the inside. Virginia Woolf said, ‘I prefer (if I wish to tell the truth) to write fiction …’ When writing history, I’ve always felt hampered by the moral decisions required, that so-and-so was wicked, so-and-so was heroic, that such-and-such is a mistake – in fiction everyone has their say, really, and you can tap all kinds of feelings – however inappropriate – regardless of the ethics of it all. And in the end, if all goes well, the ethics emerge more strongly than from an essay which hands out praise and blame.

I wanted to find out what my mother’s life in Southern Italy was like – she was born the year Mussolini came to power. Her family had emigrated to America and then come back, just before she was born. Then after the War, they all re-emigrated, and became Californians. The Lost Father is the result of trying to imagine what it was like to be a young woman under those conditions – very different from mine. More tender, and far narrower too. Fiction lets you leave the issue in the balance.

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