Marina Warner

Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary

Non-Fiction Monograph

Invocations to the Virgin Mary marked out the days of my childhood in bells; her feastdays gave a rhythm to the year; an eternal ideal of mortal beauty was fixed by the lineaments of her face, which gazed from every wall and niche.

On February 2, the feast of the Purification, we wore starched white veils of tulle that stood out around us like a nimbus. With the medals of the Sodality of Our Lady on blue ribbons round our necks, we processed with lit candles up to the communion rails to be blessed. In another convent school, on the same day, each young girl laid a lily at the feet of the Virgin’s statue: “Mary, I give you the lily of my heart, be thou its guardian for ever.”
The blue ribbons – blue is the colour of the Virgin, “the sapphire,” as Dante wrote, who turns all of heaven blue – signified that the wearer was a child of Mary, and had dedicated herself to the Virgin and promised to emulate her in thought, word, and deed: her chastity, her humility, her gentleness. She was the culmination of womanhood. As my agnostic father maintained, it was a good religion for a girl.

Under the chapel there was a crypt, with a grotto of the Virgin made from chunks of cork oak from the Holy Land and hung all about with rosaries. On special occasions – the death of a pope, for instance – we were allowed to file into this darkened and scented place to kneel before the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and recite our Hail Marys. The worship bit deep into our imaginations: I was no exception when, secretly and with intense excitement, I made myself my own grotto.
Finding a rhododendron bush so old that its dusty dark green foliage framed a hollow chamber, I used to crawl in during breaks and after study hours and kneel to pray. “Holiness,” as we called it, was natural, a part of living as simple as drawing breath. “She’s so holy,” we’d say in admiration of a classmate who spent particularly long on her knees before the thirteenth Station of the Cross: “Mary takes her beloved son to her bosom.” Only moments before we had been stifling our giggles at that risque word “bosom.”

So our holiness was a shallow affair, although most of us considered with complacent resignation the vocation to the cloister, which might suddenly come upon us. Other Christians are often shocked by Catholic frivolity. Our religion was certainly untroublesome, because it consisted of simple certainties, outlined in the crisp rhetoric of the Catechism we learned by heart. And the Virgin was the chief of these certainties.


'The lasting strength of the cult of the Virgin Mary'

Marina Warner interviewed for OUP Academic 2012

First published in the 1970s, Marina Warner's cultural history of the virgin mother was decried as 'stridently' feminist by some Catholics. The book marked 'a private journey' for both the author and Kathryn Hughes.

'Kathryn Hughes: rereading Alone of All Her Sex by Marina Warner' in The Guardian Review, 23 March 2013, page 20.

'New Ways of being sacramental: The traditional symbolism of Mary now shapes secular events, argues Marina Warner',

Church Times No.7831, 19 April 2013 page 15.

Other editions

First published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976