Brenda Maddox

What Does Woman Want?

Words of Love: Passionate Women from Heloise to Sylvia Plath


HarperCollins 482pp £25 order from our bookshop

‘Was will das Weib?’ asked Sigmund Freud, genuinely perplexed. This collection of women’s love poetry and letters gives a clear answer to ‘What does woman want?’ For more than a millennium, ‘she’, if the singular is permissible, wanted only one thing: a passionate lover who would remain faithful.

The woeful gulf between the genders of the human race, to judge from this scholarly and affectionate analysis of women’s writing over a thousand years, was bridged only by the Married Woman’s Property Act in England in the mid nineteenth century and by fairly reliable contraception in the twentieth. Until these social revolutions, women were prisoners of the men who owned them – fathers, husbands and lovers. Even so, these captives were not passionless. In a variety of ages and cultures, they broke all the rules to indulge their desires. What they seem to have hated above all was not so much their male oppressors, but rather the other women who stole or shared their lovers’ favours. Jealousy seems to be as constant a thread as lust in the hobbled female life.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Why did the 'bold and determined' Empress Matilda never manage to become Queen regnant? Peter Marshall reviews a n… ,
    • From the Archive: Martyn Bedford on Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' ,
    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,