Girls on top

<strong>Words of Love: passionate women from Heloise to Sylvia Plath</strong>

Pamela Norris <em>Ha

Go into any bookshop and you will find shelves groaning with chick lit - or whatever romantic fiction is calling itself this year. Novels about passionate courtship, love and (usually) marriage make up an enormous proportion of all books sold. These stories are overwhelmingly written and read by women. They express a shimmering ideal of romantic fulfilment, the basic outlines of which have not changed since humankind crawled out of the primeval slime.

A romantic novel can be a great work of art or a great pile of rubbish, but it will always be imbued with that quintessentially feminine yearning for a love that is all-consuming and eternal. Though most of us settle for less, in real life at least, there have always been women who risk everything for a passion of this kind, and women writers who put such passions into words. The modern heaps of romantic fiction are an irony when you consider that, until relatively recently, women had to fight to make themselves heard. They did not write because they could not, and it was the 18th century before they got their little white hands on pen and ink in any numbers.

Some women, however, will always manage to make themselves heard. In her wide-ranging study Words of Love, Pamela Norris seeks out these passionate female artists. She begins and ends with two legendary love affairs - Abelard and Heloise in the 12th century, and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in the 20th. The outward circumstances couldn't be more different (Plath did not end up in a convent, Hughes was not castrated by her relations), but Norris finds all kinds of emotional links between the two doomed partnerships. Heloise and Plath both strove to reconcile the demands of love and self-expression. Abelard and Hughes both blamed external forces (God or fate) for the failure of their marriages.

Norris draws on all kinds of references, from Henry James to Suzanne Vega to Dante, and shows that the desire for something deeper than "mere" romance goes back to 11th-century Japan and the first great novel by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji. One note sounds again and again: "the heroine's struggle for selfhood in life and love".

"The tension for the woman writer between love, ambition and a woman's 'proper duties' has still not been resolved," Norris writes, "despite the efforts of feminism and the lip-service paid to sexual equality." How true. My mother, who was both a writer and a dedicated if shambolic home-maker, constantly quoted Mrs Gaskell's advice to literary females, which was to soak the washing overnight.

Norris is interested less in practical hints, however, than in the ways women writers have dodged social conventions to describe sexual passion. Heloise, writing to Abelard many years after their separation, wistfully recalls a time when he had hasty sex with her in a corner of the convent refectory. She is an abbess, yet she unashamedly pines for her lost love.

Charlotte Brontë, in the 19th century, was far too refined to write about physical yearn- ing, yet it throbs through every line of the letters she wrote to her adored former teacher. Norris also points out the boldness with which Brontë wrote about Jane Eyre's passion for Mr Rochester. She was never self-conscious about describing the grandeur of her heroines' emotions.

Romance, as a concept, has been cheapened, but the fact remains that human beings were meant to go around in pairs. There is nothing frivolous or silly in the desire for love, as Norris demonstrates in her discussion of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. This book is a breathless tour around the history of women's literature, in the company of a very persuasive, entertaining and erudite guide.

Kate Saunders's most recent novel is "Bachelor Boys" (Arrow)

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The house of slaves