Novelist, critic and cultural historian Marina Warner was born in London on 9 November 1946 to an English father and an Italian mother.
She was educated in Cairo, Brussels and England, and read French and Italian at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She was Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex from 2004 to 2014. She is currently Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London.
She is the author of a number of works of fiction and non-fiction, including critical studies, novels and children's books. She contributes essays, articles and reviews to newspapers, journals and artists' catalogues. Much of her writing is concerned with an analysis of the mythology, folklore and archetypes surrounding the feminine throughout history, as expressed in art, literary texts and fables. Her non-fiction includes Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976), Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form (1985), which won the Fawcett Book Prize, and From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1994). In the preface, the author describes her book, No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (1998) as 'a cultural exploration of fear, its vehicles, and its ambiguous charge of pleasure and pain'.In 1987 she was invited to California to research fairy tales at the Getty Institute of Arts and Humanities (now Getty Research Institute), and in 1994 she became only the second woman to deliver the BBC's Reith Lectures, published as Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time (1994), a critical analysis of the workings of myth in contemporary society, with emphasis on politics and entertainment.Her fiction includes In a Dark Wood (1977), The Skating Party (1982) and The Lost Father (1988), an ironised romance about the dream of America in Southern Italy during the Fascist era, seen through the eyes of a young Englishwoman. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book). Her 1992 novel Indigo reworks The Tempest to explore themes of colonialism, and she is the author of a collection of short stories, Mermaids in the Basement (1993). Her children's books include The Impossible Day (1981) and The Wobbly Tooth (1984). She wrote the libretti for The Legs of the Queen of Sheba (1991), a children's opera, produced by English National Opera, and for the opera In the House of Crossed Desires (1996) by the composer John Woolrich. Marina Warner has served as a council member for Charter 88 (1990-8); as committee member of the London Library (1995-9); a member of the Committee of PEN (2001-); a member of the management committee for the National Council for One-Parent Families (1990-9); and a member of the Literature Panel at the Arts Council of England (1992-8). She is also a trustee of Artangel and of OpenDemocracy. She holds honorary degrees from the Universities of Exeter, York and St Andrews, as well as honorary doctorates from Sheffield Hallam University and the University of North London. Her academic appointments include Visiting Fellow Commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge; Mellon Professor at Pittsburgh University (1997); and Visiting Fellow of All Souls' College, Oxford. Marina Warner delivered the 2001 Clarendon Lectures entitled 'Fantastic Metamorphoses and other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self'. She was awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France) in 2000. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1985 and an honorary fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Marina Warner lives in London. Her novel, The Leto Bundle (2001), explores the trials and struggles of a refugee, drawing on mythology, fairytale, medieval chronicles and contemporary events to examine issues of identity and exclusion, motherhood and survival. A new collection of short stories, Murderers I Have Known and Other Stories, and an examination of metamorphosis, Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds were both published in 2002. Signs & Wonders: Essays on Literature & Culture (2003), is a collection of writing spanning 25 years.
Her latest books are Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media into the Twenty-first Century (2006), which explores the idea of spirit and soul since the Enlightenment; and Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (2011). The latter has won a number of awards including the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2013. In 2014 her Once Upon a Time - A Short History of Fairy Tale was published by Oxford University Press.
Marina Warner was awarded a CBE in 2008.
Marina Warner is an internationally renowned cultural historian whose ambitious works of popular scholarship, from Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) to Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (2011), have been highly acclaimed and influential.
Their intellectual sweep across world cultures, religion and art in all its forms has transformed our understanding of myths, fairy tales, folklore and symbolism, revealing their often hidden meanings and social purposes – particularly as reflected in the lives of women down the ages. Her books make a stream of observations, from Renaissance painters and modern artists, The Bible, contemporary writers, to films, sculptures, tale-tellers and many other commentators, disclosing surprising connections and preoccupations. They are always lengthy, lavishly illustrated, and a pleasure to read or just dip into. More modestly but in a similar cross-cultural manner, Warner’s fiction moves easily between mythic encounters and modern settings, whether in London or around the world.Warner’s writings began with The Dragon Empress (1972), a biography of Tz’U-hsi, the Empress Dowager of China who was a contemporary and admirer of Queen Victoria. She found her true metier with Alone of All Her Sex, a study of the mythology, icons and stories surrounding ‘the Christian mother goddess’. It begins with her own experiences at a Catholic convent school: ‘invocations to the Virgin Mary marked out the days of my childhood in bells; her feast-days gave a rhythm to the year … [and] her face gazed out from every wall and niche’. Mary is considered as the archetype of ideal womanhood – for the male Catholic hierarchy – as virgin, queen, mother and intercessor, determining women’s permitted roles in society. In 1976 Warner was optimistic that ‘the Marian cult’ was fading away but later expressed the view that ‘Mary offers a field of language and a proving ground, where the essential struggle for sexual and personal identity continues to take place’ (revised edition, 1989).The latter statement strikes a feminist note, and Warner’s analysis of women’s struggle for sexual and personal identity found its ideal subject in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (1994). This wonderfully rich account argues that fairy tales – Charles Perrault’s 17th century collections to the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson – derive from age-old traditions of women’s storytelling and prophecy, as with the Sibyls, the Fates, to Old Wives’ Tales. Further, that the stories themselves are a complex interweaving of social roles, taboos, myths and jokes around women’s lived experience and family dramas. ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, for instance, reflect upon female domestic labour and the insecure positions of older women. Sexual metaphors also loom large, in images of devouring by beasts, bloody toes forced into ill-fitting shoes, and glass slippers. Warner pays tribute to her friend Angela Carter, the doyenne of contemporary fairy tale fiction, as ‘a fantasist with a salty turn of mind, a dissident with a utopian vision of possibiities’.‘When women tell fairy stories, they also undertake this central narrative concern of the genre – they contest fear; they turn their eye on the phantasm of the male Other and recognize it’. This leads on to No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (1998), which ‘began with the problem of men’ and moves towards ‘a cultural exploration of fear, its vehicles, and its ambiguous charge of pleasure and pain’. Her survey of monsters in stories, art, and especially movies includes French ogre Le Grand Lustucru, Hannibal Lecter (‘devouring of meat figures erotic appetite’), the ‘psychical perversities’ of Hitchcock’s killers, and Goya’s pictures of Kronos/Saturn devouring his children. We encounter Mr Punch, Roald Dahl’s giants, Raymond Briggs’ comical Fungus the Bogeyman, and King Kong who ‘changes scale phantasmagorically in the course of the film, all the better to penetrate the innermost corners of the mind’. Her explanations consult the best authorities: Freud, Helene Cixous and Angela Carter.Warner’s own fictions are far from psychological shockers or blood-stained narratives, but they do show her interests in tales, myths and families. The 1988 novel The Lost Father, for instance, incorporates the fairy tale of a girl whose brothers are turned into ravens, giving it as the fantasy of Rosa, growing up in Southern Italy. It’s a then-and-now story of Anna the archivist reconstructing the lives of her ancestors during the Mussolini era. Indigo (1992) is a complex reworking of The Tempest on a Caribbean island, moving to New York and London. The Leto Bundle (2001) features a time-travelling goddess and talking she-wolf, Ancient Egypt, Victorian era archaeology and staff at a present day London museum. Leto and her daughter become Asylum Seekers, while researcher Hortense is involved with charismatic protest leader Kim.Phantasmagoria (2006), subtitled ‘Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media into the Twenty-First Century’, is about ideas of the soul, the supernatural and spiritualism, especially ‘the language of spirit which remains dynamic in our culture’. Once again, she begins with Catholicism, its beliefs and ‘magic rites’: Warner relates her fascination with finding a shrine in Bologna, the mummifed body of a 15th-century nun. The study proceeds to death masks (‘a psychological precursor of photography’) and Madame Tussaud’s waxworks: she ‘continued to receive heads straight from the guillotine’. Dolls, fairies, mirages, magic lantern shows, painted panoramas and Victorian photography of children; all these phenomena have contributed to our sense of the uncanny, she argues. Particularly fascinating is her account of 19-20th-century spiritualism, which ‘gave women equality and opportunity, even special value’, its experiments, seances, and Psychic Photographers whose chief clients, inevitably, were the bereaved.The legendary tales of ‘The Arabian Nights’, called ‘a polyvocal anthology of world myths, fables and fairytales’ provides the subject of her latest book, Stranger Magic. The archetypal story is Shahrazad spinning tales to save her life, the grand sweep of Warner’s interpretation interspersed by many other tales, alongside responses to them by Western authors, from Voltaire and Goethe to Sir Richard Burton (who added sex), Flaubert and Wilde, Latin American authors also responded to them, such as Marquez and Borges: and Hollywood movies have adapted the tales in their own ways. Marina Warner can be thought of as something of a genie herself; she takes readers along with her on a magic carpet of explanation, shows some surprising and even alarming sights, always bringing us back enlightened from the spectacular journey. Dr Jules Smith, 2012
'I write to discover things: to learn how to think and to know what I feel. I puzzle out problems, some of them personal and some of them of larger scope, but still personal. The imagination interests me, its patterns and imagery, its silences and its shouts; I like to explore what gets into it and lodges there (hence my research into myths and fairy tales). Reading until the world disappears and is replaced by the making of the mind's eye gives me the greatest pleasure; when I write, I stumble after this experience. I also believe writing makes something happen, in spite of evidence to the contrary, so it's important to take part through words and pictures made of words and ideas made of both.'