Review: Alone of All Her Sex

Some people impulse buy shoes; I impulse buy academic texts. I forget exactly why I needed Marina Warner’s take on the Virgin Mary, but Alone of All Her Sex had sat on my bookshelf for over a year when I added it to my Reading Challenge list. At the time of reading I had owned it for 2 years.

The first thing to say about this is that it was first published in 1976. My copy is a 1990 reprint which already required the addition of Afterthoughts to express how things had changed since it was published. I would imagine that more recent editions require even more Afterthoughts. That is not to say that the book is outdated – the portions which deal with the history of the cult of the Virgin Mary are still of interest – but the mindset is a very different one to the modern day. The author admits in the Afterwords that changes had occurred that she hadn’t anticipated, and other things had endured beyond her expectation.

The way in which Mary’s history is traced is the highlight of this book, as the author deftly shows how different aspects have appealed at different times, how traditions have been woven around her, despite how little mention she gets in the Bible, and the ways in which early Christians may have borrowed from the goddesses with which they were familiar in attributing power to Mary. In exposing the gaps between the Catholic church’s theological position on Mary, and the way that she is approached by her humblest adherents, the author points to something that is perhaps lacking in formal religion.

I doubt that this book has much appeal outside of those who are already interested in Church history and theology, and I found it slow going in a few places. It raised some points that I found interesting, and was complementary to the reading I’ve been doing around the Reformation, so I will definitely dip into it again.