Having listened to Marina Warner in discussion with Richard Wentworth at the launch of the third issue of The White Review, I was eager to make the interview with her the first thing I read of the new issue. Turning the thick pages of the book-like volume, I find a simple black and white photograph of Warner – full-length, standing, modest – opposite the title of the piece printed clearly and simply, filling the whole page. Already, with this deft presentation, there is a sense of calm and expectation.
The introduction to the interview provides a brief history of Warner’s life, both familial and professional. Having been brought up and educated in both Belgium and Egypt – at French convent schools – and with an Italian mother, Warner innately possesses a sort of international quality. In person she is quite typically English and ‘proper’ but there is an edge to her that suggests something not so simple as this – she has been elsewhere, she has knowledge beyond our shores and our language. One is jealous of the interviewer; one wishes to sit with Warner and absorb as much knowledge and history from her as possible.
The interview seems to be based around the theme of storytelling and the role it has played in Warner’s personal and professional lives. The first question is obvious but perfect – “What are your very first memories of storytelling?” This leads to an ongoing discussion of Warner’s early life in her French convent schools and in turn the presence of Catholicism in her childhood and her present thoughts on the religion. As showcased at the launch of the issue, Warner is capable of sliding effortlessly from one topic to the next and her literary and historical knowledge seems vast, with the entirety of it at the forefront of her mind – ready to pluck any part of it out at the appropriate moment.
Fairy tales are also a natural topic of discussion, a huge passion of Warner’s. She begins with her first introduction to the genre, if one can call it that, through various adolescent books and later Angela Carter. However, she notes that as her mother was Italian she did not know the traditional English nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and so Warner only became familiar with those in later life as an adult. Popular Disney film versions of fairy tales – particularly Snow White and Cinderella – seem to have had quite an impact on her; though not necessarily a positive one. She found them ‘peculiar’ as they were rather too manicured and unnatural. This reaction seems to have spurned her on to reading a different kind of fairy tale, the kind written by Angela Carter, Michelene Wandor and Sara Maitland.
Warner is not necessarily a card-carrying feminist but much of her work has centred on the portrayal of women in literature written by women. That is, the place that women have created for themselves in literature; but also the place and role created for them by men. Her most recent published work is a study of the Arabian Nights, and she clearly has a keen interest in the women within the stories. Many of them appear to be storytellers, or somehow linked to the art of storytelling or at least writing. Of course with a text as old as the Arabian Nights one naturally comes to the topic of the oral tradition of storytelling – stories that were not always written down but were learned and performed, and passed on through generations. Warner seems enamoured of this form of literacy – she states that the oral tradition and the learning of stories (especially by women who do not have access to a literary education) ‘draws attention to the possibility that you can be extremely literate while not actually being lettered.’ This is a wonderful concept and one that Warner clearly enjoys – that literature and stories can permeate the lives of everyone in society, regardless of their ability, education or position.
The White Review No. 3 is available to buy online at the official website: thewhitereview.org
Lizzi Thomasson, October 2011