Pamela Norris read English at Bristol and has an MA in Renaissance Studies from London University. She taught English in Zagreb and Paris before working in publishing and television. She is now a freelance writer and critic specializing in women’s history and writing. Previous books include critical editions of Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen and The Story of Eve, an exploration of the genesis and evolution of the myth of Eve, and its impact on western ideas of women. Her new book is an exploration of women’s writing entitled Words of Love: Passionate Women from Heloise to Sylvia Plath. Here she chooses her 10 favourite women from the book.
“Words of Love began as a history of writers and romantic love from the troubadours to DH Lawrence. Glancing through the avalanche of books written about male poets and novelists, I quickly realized that the story had never properly been told from the woman’s point of view. While the troubadour poet was celebrating a lady on a pedestal, his mistress was busy pouring out her own tempestuous accounts of how it felt to be the muse and sometimes the discarded lover of a dashing minstrel-poet. My voyage of discovery took me from the women poets of medieval Provence to the court ladies of early Japan, with their mesmerizing accounts of clandestine love affairs and sexual intrigue. Male poets might celebrate a fantasy ‘belle dame’, but Lady Mary Wroth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote with astonishing frankness about the agonies and ecstasies of love. Women novelists explored the pitfalls for the romantic heroine, and real-life women from Heloise to Sylvia Plath wrote in moving detail about their yearning for love, sex and a working partnership with a brilliant mate. It’s a fascinating story, and gives a whole new dimension to popular myths about women, men and romantic passion. My top 10 women from the book are listed in chronological order. They are all real-life women, although many of them invented heroines who are equally memorable. It would be hard to say who is my absolute favourite – I love them all – but I’ve always had a particularly soft spot for rebellious Charlotte Brontë …”
1. Lady Gossamer (c. 935-995)
One of several wives of a powerful statesman at the Japanese court, Lady Gossamer recorded her experience of courtship and marriage in a memoir known as The Gossamer Diary. Famous for her beauty, she was also a respected poet, but her marriage was far from happy. Her importance in the marital pecking order diminished when she only produced one child, and Lady Gossamer had the added misfortune of being temperamentally ill-suited to her boisterous husband. She was earnest, obsessive and romantic, prone to sulks and melancholy sighs. He was amorous, noisy and fun-loving, and bewildered by his wife’s refusal to be happy. Lady Gossamer’s portrait of this prosperous, bustling and self-important man is superb. Equally gripping is her description of her own tempestuous feelings as she battles to win his attention. Her diary offers an extraordinary insight into the private life and passions of an aristocratic woman in 10th-century Japan.
2. The abbess Heloise (c. 1101-1162)
Heloise was a remarkable woman, whose frankness about sex still has power to surprise. A bluestocking famous for her learning, she was also celebrated throughout France as mistress of the philosopher Peter Abelard. Their love story was abruptly terminated when Abelard was castrated on her uncle’s orders, but separation did nothing to diminish Heloise’s feelings. Writing to Abelard many years later, she laid bare her sexual longing in a series of astonishing letters. Although by now a respected abbess responsible for a community of religious women, she declared that her passion for Abelard came before her duty to God. At night, she writhed with desire for her lover; by day, everything she thought and did was solely for his sake. Despite the centuries that have passed since Heloise wrote her letters, her voice has lost none of its urgency. Her pleas for her lover’s attention continue to rend the heart.
3. Christine de Pizan (1364-1430)
Christine de Pizan was one of the first women to live by her pen in medieval Europe. Widowed early, she was left with a family of young children, a niece and a mother to support. She began by writing enchanting love poems, perhaps inspired by memories of her own happy courtship and marriage. Always passionate about women’s abilities, Christine celebrated their talents and achievements in The Book of the City of Ladies, dreamed up in her study while her mother was preparing supper downstairs.
As her confidence grew, she even dared to challenge the courtly code which favoured clandestine affairs between married women and gallants anxious to win their spurs in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield. Her verse-novel, The Book of the Duke of True Lovers, is a bold exposé of a young wife’s unhappiness when she agrees to a secret affair with a pressing suitor. Christine’s sympathy with her heroine reveals her sensitivity to the temptations and torments of woman’s desire.
4. Jane Austen (1775-1817)
I first became a Jane-ite at the age of 10, when I huddled with a torch under the bedclothes greedily reading Pride and Prejudice late at night. She remains a firm favourite, the writer I turn to when tired, dispirited, or simply in need of a reliably good read. A few pages into any of her novels and I’m immediately hooked, caught up all over again in the excitement and anxiety of Mr Darcy’s pursuit of Elizabeth, Emma’s matchmaking, or Anne Elliot’s despair over Captain Wentworth.
Although she never married, Jane Austen’s letters to her niece, Fanny, reveal her deep and sympathetic knowledge of the female heart. Aunt Jane’s worldly wisdom is everywhere apparent in her novels. She has an enviable ability to make her heroines and their adventures seem as immediate and fascinating as the lives of celebrities which fill our newspapers today. Whether it’s Marianne’s extravagant passion for Willoughby or Elinor’s secret tears over Edward Ferrars, Jane Austen understands the feelings of a woman in love.
5. Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)
“I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.” This was Charlotte Bronte’s verdict on Jane Austen’s novels. When one turns from Pride and Prejudice to Jane Eyre, it is hardly surprising that the rebellious Charlotte might have found her predecessor a little tame. Jane Eyre is a study in individuality, the claim of a plain girl without family, friends or fortune to be the equal of a rich, powerful and sophisticated man. Jane dares to tell Mr Rochester, “I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!” Her fire and energy strike matching sparks from her lover. Custom, law, the presence of his living wife in an upper chamber are swept aside as Rochester strides forward to grasp his bride in an iron embrace.
In creating this dark, ruthless, impassioned hero and the feisty Jane, Charlotte Bronte revealed her own secret longing for intensity of feeling and the thrill of recognition. As obscure and daring as her heroine, she claimed women’s ability to feel passion and their right to voice desire. While Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester set new markers for women and love, it took the audacious imagination of Charlotte Bronte to invent their story and give it life.
6. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
Everyone knows the story of Miss Barrett’s rescue from her invalid’s couch and her jealous father by debonair Robert Browning, who carried her off to Italy, marriage and motherhood. It’s a marvellous romance, eloquently told by the lovers in the many letters they exchanged during Robert’s prolonged courtship, and also in the clutch of sonnets secretly written by Elizabeth before their marriage and eventually published as Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Reading her letters and sonnets in parallel is an astonishing experience. They offer an intimate portrait of a woman slowly turning away from sickness and premature death to the joy of passionate love with a beloved partner. Elizabeth’s caution and self-distrust are credible and moving, and there are moments as the story unfolds when Robert’s eagerness and impetuosity nearly wreck his suit. Finally, all obstacles are overcome and Elizabeth accepts her lover, the one person in the world who has seen her “soul’s true face” and loves her unconditionally.
7. LM Montgomery (1874-1942)
Who would have thought that this respectable author of a steady stream of popular novels for girls had once loved a handsome young man to the point (almost) of sexual abandon, and recorded her feelings in a private journal which has only recently seen the light of day? From Anne of Green Gables to Emily of New Moon, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels describe many varieties of love and desire, but her heroines always remain ladies. Indecorous things do happen, but usually off-stage, whispered about in the midst of a cake-baking session, or among girls running up frocks for a poetry recital. At first glance, her own life as busy writer and wife of a Presbyterian minister in Canada seems unexceptional. Her account of her love affair with Herman Leard contradicts this bland public face, and reveals the very real torment experienced by young women in the days when anything more than a kiss branded a girl as a whore, even in the eyes of her lover.
I’ve always enjoyed LM Montgomery’s novels, with their tales of love’s rewards and heartbreaks, but her real-life passion for Herman Leard is quite exceptional, the story of desire keenly felt, temptation agonizingly resisted, and finally the death of her beloved. Alone in her room many months later, carefully recording their painful history, she is struck anew by a grief so potent that she yearns to be in the grave with Herman, pressed to his heart in “one last eternal embrace”.
8. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Virginia Woolf may seem an odd choice as favourite in a book about romantic passion. She is often regarded as frigid, a cold wife who conducted an arm’s-length relationship with the saintly Leonard, and a bluestocking who preferred books to bed. Yet she was always deeply interested in sexual relationships. Although her intimate life with Leonard can only be conjectured, her diaries describe a close and often amorous marriage, and she writes wittily and wonderfully about love in her novel Night and Day, in which pairs of lovers engage in a Mozartian game of swapping partners until the couples are finally happily matched. In To the Lighthouse, she casts a canny eye over Victorian family values and Mrs Ramsay’s attempts at matchmaking. In Orlando, she celebrates her passionate friendship with Vita Sackville-West, a partnership which embraced romantic love, sexual experiment and a shared enthusiasm for writing.
As well as her curiosity about love and sex, Virginia was fascinated by the buried history of women writers, an interest she developed in A Room of One’s Own and many of her shorter essays. In Words of Love, I similarly wanted to highlight the testimony of women who are often marginalised in the conventional history of romantic love.
9. Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)
By her mid-20s, Edna St Vincent Millay had acquired a reputation as a beauty, a talented, a risqué poet and a shocking flirt. The “It-girl of the hour”, as one contemporary described her, began her lifelong fascination with romantic love as a teenager. Unrecognized and unfulfilled, the lonely girl conjured her dream lover with candle and incantation, like some medieval seductress rehearsing her midsummer rites of love. Later, lovers would come in droves, moths attracted to the flame of this alluring redhead. Later still, when already married to a devoted husband, she would fall in love with a much younger man, and celebrate their affair in a cycle of sonnets that unflinchingly describe their unequal passion.
Millay often upset her lovers by what they regarded as her ‘masculine’ attitude to sex: an ability to flit from lover to lover without commitment. Her poems reveal an honesty about the gulf between sexual desire and love that is as refreshing now as it was scandalous in the early 1920s. When she did fall in love, Millay committed herself with a vengeance, but her poet-self was always present, a canny watcher, pen in hand.
10. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Although she was only 30 when she died, Sylvia Plath left a remarkable collection of writing, including her blackly comic novel The Bell Jar, and the Ariel poems that made her reputation. Her name has long been associated with passion, anger and genius, but her nature has often been misunderstood. For the reader who really wants to get inside the skin of this unusual woman, her journals offer a magnificent entry point. In place of rumour and gossip, one finds the clear voice of a young woman wrestling with the sexual double standard, greedy for love and success and the powerful male who would be her equal. Plath’s record of her youthful love affairs is vivid, wry and funny, her account of her meeting and marriage with Ted Hughes deeply moving.
Sylvia Plath’s journals explore many of the questions raised in Words of Love. She writes about a woman’s most intimate feelings about sex and love, the tension between marriage and children and the energy needed for painting or writing or any other career, and the difficulty of finding the right balance in a love affair between the partners’ conflicting needs. Written with vigour, conviction and honesty, her words record a 20th-century woman’s struggle for passion, love and creative fulfilment.