Watch your tongue

Marina Warner

  • Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love by Howard Bloch
    Chicago, 308 pp, £14.95, February 1992, ISBN 0 226 05973 1
  • Women of the Renaissance by Margaret King
    Chicago, 328 pp, £13.50, December 1991, ISBN 0 226 43618 7
  • The Lady as Saint: A Collection of French Hagiographical Romances of the 13th Century by Brigitte Cazelles
    Pennsylvania, 320 pp, £35.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 8122 3099 X
  • Heavenly Supper: The Story of Maria Janis by Fulvio Tomizza, translated by Anne Jacobson Shutte
    Chicago, 184 pp, £19.95, December 1991, ISBN 0 226 80789 4
  • Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance by Tina Krontiris
    Routledge, 192 pp, £25.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 415 06329 9

If SS Jerome or Ambrose or Augustine or any of the grim Fathers had been watching television in spring this year, they wouldn’t have had much trouble seeing Marlene Dietrich for what she was. Those lids, those lips, that pillowy mink, those sidelong glances, those shimmering legs and – above all – that voice, would have rendered her lightly accented modern English as plain as the Latin of the Mass to the patriarchs and their friends and forerunners in the penitential Thebaid. The world, the flesh and the devil embodied in a woman, and speaking in a woman’s voice: the siren incarnate against whom you have to plug your ears or else, like Adam, you will feel the plunge as you fall. It is odd how wholeheartedly women have given themselves to playing this part – to believing it, too. Or perhaps it’s not all that odd: the femme fatale offers more opportunities than several of the other sacrificial parts in the repertoire. But it is remarkable how the constituent elements of the contemporary fatal woman, the stories that underpin her charms, as well as the ornaments she assumes, match the fulminations of two thousand years ago against the counterfeit of women’s fascination and the seductions of their tongues.

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