Our Lady of the Counterculture

Marina Warner writes about the lives of the Virgin Mary

As a child, I searched out lives of great women. Some of my heroines appeared on the back page of the comic I read then, called Girl: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie mingled with Albert Schweitzer and Davy Crockett; their stirring words were blazoned in balloons, against backdrops of crenellated castles, jungles, battlefields. In the pages of the magazines my mother took, I followed the lives of divas, queens and stars; one of these was the pictorial weekly Oggi, modelled on Life, but also a harbinger of Hello! in its lurid curiosity about its rich, mostly doomed subjects. The women who appeared in its pages were usually embroiled in tragic, flagrant lives as abandoned lovers, infertile wives – victims, one way or another. Car crashes figured prominently; also drink and other intoxicants. Maria Callas, Queen Soraya, Françoise Sagan, Marilyn Monroe – these were my role models (you could say I was raised by negative example).

The exceptional status of women achievers, and the rack and ruin to which prominence seemed always to lead, puzzled me from an early age. I worried there might be fundamental differences in ability. I also became anxious about the discrepancy between women’s sinfulness and men’s: we were ‘occasions of sin’ rather than perpetrators; we incited others rather than committed acts ourselves. Could it be that the female sex was intrinsically passive and docile, so nicer? (This was the implied message, and in the 1950s and 1960s, far fewer young women were convicted of crimes than their male counterparts.) Could this be a strength, or somehow disabling? I began reading and watching for clues.

Resonances between historical individuals and larger than life mythological heroines gradually assumed significance beyond simple similarities. I hadn’t yet come across Barthes’s Mythologies, a book that was to prove crucial to me later, but I was beginning to sense the workings of ideology in stories, running from the sacred to the profane, from tales of the virgin martyrs, celebrated on their feast days and in the litany of the saints, to the cautionary lives of the rich and addicted. The anthropology of Malinowski and Margaret Mead was another crucial inspiration, for their vision of alternative social arrangements (and sexual freedom) provided passionate support for culture over nature, for social conditioning over biological destiny. Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which had also first appeared long before I read it, was decisive as well, though her vivid way with physical evocation was less encouraging than Malinowski and Mead’s utopian picture of possible liberty. Beauvoir’s grim plain-speaking put bodies – gynaecology and geriatrics – firmly at the centre of female secondary status.

In 1970 Germaine Greer brought out The Female Eunuch, which owes a huge debt to its French foremother, but parted from her in the defiant rallying call Greer issued to her sisters, in the incandescent eloquence she used to refuse the status quo, and her passionate and marvellous fury that women allowed the propaganda against female potential to continue. The book was a manifesto, and it rose on a spring tide of popular enthusiasm for feminism; appearing after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and the same year as Kate Millett’s blazing Sexual Politics, it marked the height of postwar hopefulness that things could change.

My editor during those excited days of hope, Christopher Falkus at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, asked me to contribute to a book of essays by women on what they thought had shaped them as women. The Virgin Mary was the single most dominant and crucial element in my female life so far, and so I wrote a short piece about the sexual politics of my convent school upbringing. Christopher liked it and wanted me to expand it into a full-length study. I protested, I begged, I told him I had struggled hard against the grip of Mary, and to condemn me to spend at least two or three years once more entangled with her as intimately and intensely as a book would require, was too terrible to contemplate. He urged me to think about it.

I was in Vietnam a few months later as a journalist, because I had only just got married, and I didn’t want to be parted from my husband, William Shawcross, who had been assigned to cover the war for the Sunday Times. In our room upstairs at the Hotel Royale, Saigon, I began looking at the New Testament, and was startled to find so few passages about the Mother of God. It seems naive of me – and indeed ignorant – to have expected her presence there to be more fully realised, but I had been immersed in her cult throughout my life so far. At school we celebrated her feast days with masses, processions and holiday treats; on ordinary weekdays, we were trained to feel with her sorrows, her joys, her glories as we recited the rosary; and myriad images of her – in miniatures in our missals, in paintings and statues inside the school and outside in the grounds, created a sense that Mary and Christian doctrine were synonymous. She pervaded the story of salvation as I had been told it.

As I was – still rather half-heartedly – embarked on writing a book about Mary, I began looking in Vietnam for traces of her cult. The cathedral in Saigon is dedicated to her, in her single, powerful aspect as the Immaculate Conception, and this effect of late 19th-century French Catholicism, revealing the popularity of Bernadette’s vision throughout the French empire, confirmed my growing feeling that the subject held matters of interest beyond sex, that the figure of the Virgin Mary could be unfolded for a wider political relevance. During the early period of contact between Christian missionaries, Buddhists and Taoists, a male Bodhisattva, Guannon, gradually changed into Guanyin (Kuan-yin), the beloved goddess who protects women and children especially. In Asia, in converted countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, the two women, like communicating vessels, exchanged and mingled their essences: Mary acquired the features of Guanyin, while Guanyin attracted to her many miracle stories told about Mary and the saints in the Middle Ages, themselves stories close to fairy tales – about Mary sheltering persecuted brides from the false accusations of evil mothers-in-law, or living in disguise as a monk and finding she’s charged with fathering a child.

The Black Virgin Mountain near Saigon, once a shrine to a local nature divinity, had become a Marian shrine, as often happens to ancient holy places, and I decided to go there. The lower slopes were also home to the headquarters of the Cao Dai, the vegetarian, pacifist, anti-communist cult founded in 1926, which figures malignly in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I was curious to see their vast enclave at Tay Ninh, where they worship an eclectic group of heroes, prophets and saints – Jesus and Muhammad, Julius Caesar, Sun Yat-Sen, Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo (the last two again exhibiting French colonial influence).

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[*] Viking, 112 pp., £12.99, October, 978 0 670 92209 9.

[†] Viking, 272 pp., £12.99, August, 978 0 670 91990 1.