Words of Love: Passionate Women from Heloise to Sylvia Plath by Pamela Norris - review by Brenda Maddox

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.

In Pamela Norris's illuminating collection, she never shies (as perhaps she should have done) from criss-crossing the centuries or jumping between fact and fiction. Readily she compares a Japanese princess or a medieval maiden with Simone de Beauvoir, or Lily Bart in To the Lighthouse. But the women upon whom

Sign Up to our newsletter

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

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare