For fifty years the historian and novelist Marina Warner has been teaching us how to see the histories that lie behind myths and symbols, and especially how to interpret the meanings secreted in images projected by, and onto, women. Her first book, published in 1972, was a biography of “a wicked woman in power,” the nineteenth-century Manchu empress dowager Cixi. Nine years later she brought out a study of Joan of Arc, an icon of “female independent-mindedness and courage and adventurousness” but also a martyr, and therefore, as the young Warner was taught at her convent schools, “the ideal expression of female virtue.”

But it was a book she wrote in between, published in 1976, that really made her name. Alone of All Her Sex is an account of the myth and cult of the Virgin Mary, across centuries and across nations. It is also rooted in Warner’s early experience of a Catholic upbringing, which she looks back on from her late twenties, having lost her faith:

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.

Beginning with the question “What was it I had worshipped?” Warner tracked the development of popular beliefs, images, stories, and official Catholic doctrine about the Virgin across a dizzying array of texts and sources—not as an inquiry into faith or religion but rather treating the myth of the Virgin as “a central theme in the history of western attitudes towards women.” A secular analysis of a religious icon, Warner’s hugely influential (and, among conservative Catholics, controversial) book took its cues from anthropologists such as Bronisław Malinowski, Margaret Mead, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, as well as from contemporary feminism—she cites both Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer as influences.

Alone of All Her Sex is still, for me, Warner’s most brilliant work, but she is probably better known for her series of books on classical tales, folklore, and fairy stories, and what they can tell us about the cultures that gave rise to them. Taking a stand against the idea that the characters in fairy tales (such as the wicked stepmother, the orphaned child, or the fairy godmother) express cultural archetypes deeply rooted in the psyche, or even in a Jungian collective unconscious, Warner’s accounts focus on the teller of the tale as much as on the figures within them. She is interested in how ideology gets embedded in stories.

Wicked stepmothers tell us less about our psychic need to split the figure of the mother into a good (usually dead) one and an evil one, so that we don’t feel so guilty about our feelings of rage, than about a social system in which women rarely held property or had jurisdiction over their children, about cultures in which death in childbirth was common, and therefore too about the remarriage of widowers to women who became stepmothers to the father’s Cinderella child. Warner is fascinated by the way tales change their meanings as they get retold in different social settings, and by the networks of tellers that carry stories into new cultures. Tale-tellers are like authors of books, in that they give life to the stories they tell. But they are also a bit like bookshops and libraries—storehouses of knowledge, repositories of lore and learning.

As it turns out, Warner grew up in a bookshop. Her father, Esmond Warner, was a bookseller, first in Cairo, then in Brussels, and finally in Cambridge, England. Her new book, Esmond and Ilia, began, Warner explains, as the story of the Cairo bookshop, opened by her father as an overseas branch of the British high-street chain W.H. Smith in 1947 (when Marina was six months old) and burned down by anti-British rioters in the Cairo fire of 1952 (when Marina was nearly six). Subtitled “An Unreliable Memoir,” the book began as a novel before Warner changed her mind and wrote it as a mix of genres.

She splices together imagined scenes from her parents’ lives with her own fragmented memories of her first years and historical accounts of postwar Italy, where Esmond, then a lieutenant colonel in the Eighth Army, met and married Emilia Terzulli in 1944—after at most four encounters; postwar Britain, where Esmond and Ilia lived for the first year of their marriage; and the last years of King Farouk’s reign in Egypt, where the Warner family (now with two daughters, Marina and her younger sister, Laura) lived until the coup in 1952. It’s an extraordinarily rich set of coordinates, transformed in Warner’s hands into a storied landscape, offering vignettes of the social and cultural life of postwar Europe among the upper-middle classes, and insight into the inner lives of her parents.


It can’t be an accident that both Warner’s mother and father left her copious sets of documents—a whole garageful of papers. They must have known what she was likely to do with them. She has combed through stacks of photographs and steamer trunks full of memorabilia, and read both Ilia’s diaries (written in increasingly spidery Italian as her eyesight failed) and Esmond’s voluminous correspondence. Esmond, who was born in 1907, was the product of a typical upper-class Edwardian upbringing (sent away to school at seven), and he dutifully wrote to his parents two or three times a week for most of their lives.

Warner has had access to a stack of letters unfolding the details of his experiences in the army and the family’s life in Cairo. He also wrote regularly to many other people, including his bosses at Smith’s, his Eton housemaster, and old friends from Oxford such as Frank Pakenham, the Earl of Longford and a Labour peer who became Marina’s godfather. Esmond comes across in these letters as a man’s man. Or perhaps, rather, a boy’s boy. One of Warner’s more melancholy verdicts on her father sees him trapped in the romances of Eton and Peckwater Quad (at Christ Church, Oxford), the Bullingdon Club, horse trials, motoring through Europe, and “the adventure yarns of the empire.” “What, what?” he says, like a caricature of himself. “The melodies my father heard as a boy kept him humming happily along, long after the instruments were no longer tuned according to current temperament and the playing style was changing.”

And then there are all the things Warner inherited: her mother’s diamond rings, her exquisitely hand-stitched clothes, the books she brought with her from Italy to England, a box Brownie camera, rolls of film negatives, the rotted silk house colors won by Esmond at Eton, a looted piece of the stone entablature from the temple at Leptis Magna that now acts as a doorstop in Warner’s North London home. You’re the historian, say her parents from beyond the grave, make sense of this. Warner describes the responsibility she has been handed by her parents as akin to that of a shabti, the figurines buried with pharaohs and other powerful ancient Egyptians: “They are the labourers of the other world, who work on behalf of the deceased to meet their needs and provide for their comforts during eternity.”

As she unpacks the trunks stored in the garage she gathers shards to piece together the story of a wartime European romance and its postwar aftermath. She also becomes more and more aware of her parents’ unhappiness, and particularly of her mother’s sense of grief and isolation in the marriage. The book she has written is an account of the first years of her parents’ union set against the backdrop of a fading British ideal of colonial rule. But it is also an attempt to protect her mother from her disappointment, all these years later, and provide comfort: “I am trying to be her shabti and answer to her ever-present ghost.”

All Warner’s skills as a mythographer are brought to bear on her parents’ story as she investigates the history behind a series of familiar objects: the pair of leather brogues that were a wedding gift from Esmond to Ilia and that signified the “country-gentry camouflage” that she was going to have to learn to inhabit in her new life; a silver photograph frame that became a symbol of Esmond’s uncontrollable anger, after he threw it out of the window of their Cairo flat onto the street below in protest against what he considered to be Ilia’s profligacy; a pocket Italian-French dictionary, bought by Ilia in downtown Cairo, which opens a window onto the “dandyish macaronic” spoken by her parents in the snobbish, class-freighted world of the international elite in postwar Cairo. As though they were images of the Madonna, Warner unpacks the meanings that live inside these objects, teasing out the clues they give to the social and personal histories in which they were once embedded, and tracing the ways in which her understanding of them has changed over time.

And perhaps they are, in fact, images of the Madonna. Warner’s mother is repeatedly described—not only by Warner but by Esmond and others who met her—as a paragon of beauty and otherworldliness, a poor, southern-Italian Catholic girl who captures the heart of a stiff Englishman fifteen years her senior and transforms not only her life but his. Warner writes of her mother as though she were possessed of a kind of mystical aura, or as a figure in a legend—sometimes, when she wore her Dior perfume and dresses with full swirling skirts of taffeta and silk, a Hollywood legend. The book jacket advertises the story as a fairy tale of the marriage of a “beautiful, penniless” young Italian bride to an upper-class English colonel, and this seems to have been a story line shared by the family as a whole. But as Warner knows very well, fairy stories take different forms in different places, and when told by different tellers. All the members of Warner’s family turn out to have been tellers of tales, or weavers of fantasies, and those fantasies rarely matched.


Esmond, for example, knew he had bagged fine young stock. “What a pleasure to look at,” he wrote to his parents in March 1944, “like a 2-yr-old filly now, ‘rangy’ NOT quite filled out! She has Lrd Birkenhead’s qualifications of true breeding, apart from all else, beautiful hands, small feet and ankles, tall 5.8 and a half and a long slim neck!,” and he goes on to compare her character to that of the family dog. But he liked best the part of the fairy tale where he, son of Sir Pelham “Plum” Warner, the well-known English cricketer, got to refine her good looks with his social class. A few weeks later Esmond wrote to his parents telling them not to worry about the fact that Ilia was a Catholic:

I will tell you more of her family…I have often been to their flat in Bari—and they have nice friends of “the professional classes” type. Ilia however (you know she is only 21) belongs to the new world, and her life will be mine, NOT her circle’s.

Warner writes that the gift of the brogues “marked a rite of passage, a kind of initiation into a class, into a tribe, into a new place of belonging, just as Cinderella’s foot uniquely matched the glass slipper which would transform her fate.” All of which makes Esmond the prince.

This was the fantasy Esmond told himself, and to a certain extent it overlapped with Ilia’s fantasy of herself as a “penniless and fatherless waif” rescued by romance. Bari in the spring of 1944 was not at all an easy place to live—the harbor had been badly bombed in December 1943, and after four years of war, rations were scarce, and made scarcer by a corrupt local administration and a vicious black market that thrived in the aftermath of Mussolini’s fall. But while “fatherless” was a statement of fact, “penniless” and “waif” were embellishments. Ilia was the youngest of four daughters. Her family had tried to make a go of it in Chicago in the 1910s, but returned to Bari shortly before Ilia was born in 1922. Nine years later her father died, and the family moved out of the palazzo owned by their uncle, where they had occupied one floor, to an apartment in the center of the city, where the girls and their widowed mother made money as best they could, mostly through secretarial work.

The arrival of the Allies was a godsend. The sisters did typing and translation work for them, and provided hospitality:

Several of the family’s visitors wrote over the years to my mother recalling those days and the hospitality and miraculous beauty of the four Terzulli girls; one or two of them have also written to me, after piecing together that my mother must be the Ilia they had known. “It was a haven…a home from home,” one remembered in a letter. “We played records on the gramophone and your mother sang to the numbers; sometimes, we danced.”

Although Warner does not state this explicitly, the girls were looking for protectors—someone to rescue them. Ilia suggested herself to Esmond, not the other way around. One of Warner’s correspondents remembered that, sometime after Esmond and Ilia were married, another sister, Bice, tried (unsuccessfully) to repeat the trick:

Actually I think someone was on the lookout for a husband for young Beachi [sic]—for at least once I found myself alone with her at night on the little balcony—and I remember her saying softly, “…but let us talk of loff, Bruce.” She pronounced my name “Broooch.”

Such initiative in the circumstances is surely to be lauded, but the marriage story wasn’t told by either of the participants as the outcome of pragmatism and hardheadedness, and Warner doesn’t quite tell it that way either. The Cinderella formula is too strong. Ilia played her part as far as she understood it—and she seems to have enjoyed playing it, at least to start with—but the story Warner unfolds is alert to the ways in which her mother became trapped by her role.

Ilia learned to masquerade. She learned to wear the brogues and the country tweed and to toast crumpets over the fire, to know the difference between pre- and post-dinner drinks and how to serve them, to love the British monarchy, and to reproduce the finer gradations of class snobbery among postwar Egypt’s colonial elite. (Scarlett O’Hara, Warner tells us, “figured vividly in my mother’s mythology.”) She mastered the codes and manners and customs of her adopted class, and became especially adept at wearing its clothes. As Warner details the scent bottles and cosmetic jars, the nail polish, the careful attention to style from underwear to waistcoat and scarf, we get a strong idea of her mother’s own sense of herself as an image—she knew her beauty was her capital.

The marriage was what she had wanted, what she had bid for, but something wasn’t working, and Warner can’t quite bring herself to tell us what that was. It is true that a child can never fully know the intimate world of her parents. But there is an added layer of reticence to Warner’s account. She describes Esmond’s violent rages and his subsequent remorse, but glancingly; she learns from Ilia’s diaries that she felt she had “always been the active partner in the sexual act” and she speculates about her mother’s desire; she intimates that Ilia continued to look for a protector, or something more, in other lovers. She explains that she knows more than she can tell:

Coming across her diaries of this period, all in Italian, the writing agitated and sometimes desperate, filled me with rage on her behalf against him. The scenes aren’t to be repeated here: her ghost would shudder at the memory of those times of deep unhappiness. Yet she didn’t destroy these notebooks, several volumes of them, brimming with more hopes of love.

This is Warner acting as her mother’s shabti, and it is where her writing in this memoir departs most strongly from her work as a cultural historian. She resists bringing an analytical perspective to bear on aspects of her mother’s story, and who can wonder? Unlike her faith in the Virgin Mary, Warner’s faith in her mother both has and hasn’t been lost. It is as though she felt that Ilia were still looking for a protector, or still needed one.

Into the space left by this reticence Warner pours an encyclopedic gathering of information about the world her parents inhabited. The book itself is a kind of bookshop. In the short chapter that starts with her mother’s Italian-French dictionary, she explores her parents’ studied, self-conscious use of “sophisticated” French phrases in everyday contexts, “as if the pageant were always a little absurd.”

But she also takes us on a journey that encompasses (among many other subjects) the Italian community in wartime Egypt; Ungaretti, Montale, and Marinetti, who were all born in Alexandria; the Art et Liberté movement; Esmond’s polyglot staff at the bookshop (“a world within a world, a convex mirror in little of the larger horizons of the Middle East”); Cairo’s Beaux-Arts architecture; Jean Cocteau’s 1949 tour of Cairo and Alexandria; the dictionary definitions and derivations of one of their favorite words, rastaquouère, meaning someone living on the edge of respectability; the colonial background to Tintin; Ali Smith’s novel Autumn; the racism of the colonial elite; Proust and the fin de siècle; the London furniture stores Maple’s and Liberty’s; the Dreyfus case. Warner’s investigation of the phrases her parents liked to use has something in common with Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, but where Ginzburg probes habits of language as a way of understanding character, Warner’s subject is the cultural milieu to which her parents belonged, and the politics it has spawned.

The Cairo fire that brought that milieu to an end is a fitting conclusion to the book. The anti-British riots (involving burning and looting hundreds of shops and premises in central Cairo on “Black Saturday”—January 26, 1952) were a response to a deadly attack by the British army on an Egyptian government building the day before, and they are widely seen as the catalyst for Nasser’s nationalist coup later that year, known as the July 23 Revolution, and subsequently for the Suez crisis. Warner gives a gripping account of her increasingly embittered father’s reaction to the burning of the bookshop—it signaled the destruction of his livelihood and that of his staff, but also the end of his dreams of “civilizing” the Middle East through European culture.

Although the bookshop was a private venture, and intended to make money, its ethos was of a piece with postwar national soft-power initiatives, such as the British Council or even the Marshall Plan. All were, in part, paternalistic civilizing missions intended to extend Western spheres of influence. The Cairo fire (which also consumed the stationery store owned by Edward Said’s father) put paid to all that, and bolstered anti-imperialist and decolonizing movements across the region. It was the beginning of the end for British colonial ambitions, and Esmond never got over it. “I shall never be the same man again,” he wrote, and Warner concurs.

He grew “rough and vengeful,” she writes, and explains that the coup became a point of contention between her and her father: “During the early 1960s, I rose in equally vehement revolt against him and all he stood for. Nasser seemed to me a shining liberator and a unifier, justified in his defiance of the British and his seizure of the Canal.” But she has changed her mind:

Either age has dimmed my own ardent longing for liberation, and moved me closer to my father’s views, or the last half-century and more of rising ethnic nationalism and bigoted demagogues—by no means only in Egypt—has modified my ideas.

Warner argues that when Egyptians rose up against police brutality under Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Arab Spring revolutionaries harked back rhetorically to Black Saturday in January 1952. But ten years later Egypt is in the grip of another military regime. Warner finds herself not only ruing the cycles of violence and terror but turning a nostalgic eye back to the postwar world of her parents under King Farouk. Instead of a parallel between the 2011 revolutions and the nationalist coup of 1952, she finds an echo in the Arab Spring of the modern, Westernized, European Cairo of her early childhood:

The circadian rhythms of history have brought me face to face with resemblances between that mixed-up, morselled, polyglot society of Egypt, before Nasser’s secular dictatorship, and the hopes of a new era of openness and tolerance called for by the revolutions of 2011 in North Africa and Egypt. There are profound differences between them, since no river can be turned back in its course, let alone the Nile, but I have found myself increasingly wishing that the diasporic mosaic of the Mediterranean was still in existence, in spite of all I know about its corruption, jaw-dropping carelessness and inequalities.

I have a feeling that this benign sketch of a tolerant, postwar Mediterranean cultural mosaic owes more to Warner’s reappraisal of her father than to any historical account of Egypt under the monarchy. It is a testament to the power of her father’s worldview and his belief in the ultimate value of cultural exchange. One effect of growing up in a bookshop is that you know for sure that book burning is never a solution to political strife. Just as Warner’s research into fairy tales focused on cultural background rather than the psyche, so she tends to downplay the psyches in the story of her own infancy. She writes her childhood as cultural history rather than family romance. Despite her intention to answer the ever-present ghost of her mother in this book, she comes across as just as much her father’s daughter.