6 August 2012

On Jeanette Winterson

  • Jeanette Winterson. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Grove Press, 2012.

“The original role of the artist as visionary is the correct one,” Jeanette Winterson writes in her essay “Imagination and Reality” (1997). When art was funded by the church, Winterson reminds us, “the artist and his audience were in tacit agreement; each went in search of the sublime.” Today most patrons of the arts are secular liberals who see art as either a reminder of beauty in an imperfect world or a social inquiry into the world’s imperfections. Perhaps this is why Winterson—the author of nineteen novels and a household name in Britain—has been widely celebrated as a writer of magical realism and shrewd fairytales, but has not been critically appreciated for what she feels is the supreme goal of fiction: to be “as successful as religion used to be at persuading us of the doubtfulness of the seeming-solid world.” 

This clarity of artistic purpose is not surprising coming from a woman raised as a fanatical Pentecostal. Winterson’s only childhood companion—one does not endear oneself to secular 10-year-olds by embroidering THE SUMMER IS NEARLY ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED on one’s gym bag—was her adoptive mother, a “flamboyant depressive” who punished Winterson by locking her in the coalhole for hours and telling her that “the devil led us to the wrong crib.” Winterson inured herself against loneliness with the conviction that she was destined for religious greatness: she began writing sermons and preaching to her congregation when she was still a child. But after Winterson’s mother discovered her romantic love for another girl, her church subjected her to an exorcism that involved being locked in a room with no food or heat for three days, while church elders alternately prayed for her and beat her. At 16, Winterson left home and turned to literature.

Winterson recounts her childhood mythically in her debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and psychologically in her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (This is the question her mother asked when Winterson tried to explain her decision to be romantically involved with a woman.)

The narrator of Oranges, named Jeanette, describes the evangelical spectacle that was her introduction to the world in an intimate tone that mimics, to funny effect, the accidentally fabular speech of working-class people raised on the Bible. Winterson writes of Jeanette’s mother, “Not for her the meek and paschal Lamb, she was out there, up front with the prophets, and much given to sulking under trees when the appropriate destruction didn’t materialize. Quite often it did, her will or the Lord’s I can’t say.” Fairytales and classic myths provide the emotional subtext for Jeanette’s coming of age. The story of her exile from the church, for instance, is interspersed with a retelling of the quest for the Holy Grail, when the knights abandoned the comfortable, civilized world of King Arthur’s court in search of a vision whose value they could sense but not describe. Winterson imagines the knights recalling Camelot with both longing and disillusionment as they wandered the woods alone: “The Round Table and the high-walled castle were almost symbols now. Once they were meat and drink.”

Why Be Happy, though also very funny, is written so casually it often seems to be a draft of the credos that allowed Winterson to make something greater than bitterness out of her wounds. Perhaps the most egregious example: “There are markings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read the hurt. Rewrite them. Rewrite the hurt.” Winterson’s frankness is most profitable when she details the period of “oozing lunacy” to which she succumbed after a serious breakup. She devoted one hour a day to therapeutic talks with “the creature,” as she calls the part of herself “so damaged that she was prepared to see me dead to find peace.” Winterson’s straightforward account of psychological healing is a worthwhile document of recovery, but it is not art.

But then Winterson does not believe documentary writing is art. As she put it in a 2002 interview, “I’m not happy for words to simply convey meaning. [They] can if it’s journalism and it’s perfectly all right if you’re doing a certain kind of record or memoir, but it’s not all right in fiction.” Winterson’s insistence on what she calls fiction’s “Otherness” sets her apart from the plainspoken tales of urban loneliness and familial discontent that have dominated the last decade of popular fiction. The work of writers from Mona Simpson and Nell Freudenberger to Jeffrey Eugenides and Jhumpa Lahiri lends credence to Winterson’s argument that most contemporary fiction includes “realities beyond the commonplace” only insofar as it evokes foreign cultures. “We are still back with art as the mirror of life, only it is a more exotic or less democratic life than our own,” Winterson writes in “Imagination and Reality.” The “true effort” of art, she believes, is to “open to us dimensions of the spirit and of the self that normally lie smothered under the weight of living.”


Of course Winterson is not the first writer to believe fiction should do more than mirror daily life. But if the work of stylistically similar writers (Borges, Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera) can be said to carry a vision, it is that of an invented world—self-contained, distinct from our own. Winterson, for whom T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a central, rewarding preoccupation, hopes to awaken her readers to the otherworldliness of common emotion. The strange anarchy of the heart is proof enough, as Eliot wrote, of “a lifetime burning in every moment/ And not the lifetime of one man only/ But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.” To know that our feelings are permanent and we are not is to be relieved of self-centered concern about our experience, even as our experience connects us to a past and future we cannot ever know. “People change, and smile. But agony abides.” Happiness, too.

Winterson conveys the impersonality and endlessness of emotion in part by switching between the past and present tense, changing narrators, and using frequent line breaks to force the reader to pause his engagement with the story’s action and become aware of himself responding internally to the story. She writes elaborate stories in clear language, interrupted occasionally by exposition, either in the form of fables or essayistic passages that, taken out of context, could sound like mere sermonizing. Like good poetry, Winterson’s work does not easily lend itself to plot summaries and brief quotations, since clear expressions of strong emotion can sound ludicrous unless one is caught up in the emotive experience.

Consider this pronouncement from The Passion (1987), Winterson’s second and best novel: 

I am still in love with her. Not a day breaks but that I think of her, and when the dogwood turns red in winter I stretch out my hands and imagine her hair.

I am in love with her; not a fantasy or a myth or a creature of my own making. 

Her. A person who is not me. I invented Bonaparte as much as he invented himself. 

The passage would seem to be a simple description of a familiar sentiment. But by couching this realization in a wildly unfamiliar storyline, Winterson makes the reader feel, with the clarity of a fresh wound, the old truth that selfish desperation underlies most feelings of love.  

The narrator of The Passion is a former soldier in Napoleon’s army, now confined to an insane asylum. Henri comes from a small French village governed by boredom and manual labor. “We’re a lukewarm people for all our feast days and hard work. Not much touches us, but we long to be touched. We lie awake at night willing the darkness to part and show us a vision. Our children frighten us in their intimacy, but we make sure they grow up like us. Lukewarm like us.” By the time the children’s defenseless closeness with their surroundings has been eroded, they are old enough to enlist. Napoleon’s army is flooded with recruits.

By a stroke of luck, Henri is given the honor of serving as one of Bonaparte’s personal cooks. He is enraptured for the first time in his life. In Bonaparte’s presence, 

There was a feeling of urgency and privilege. He woke before us and slept long after us, going through every detail of our training and rallying us personally. He stretched his hand toward the Channel and made England sound as though she already belonged to us. To each of us. That was his gift. He became the focus of our lives. The thought of fighting excited us. No one wants to be killed but the hardship, the long hours, the cold, the orders were things we would have endured anyway on the farms or in the towns. We were not free men. He made sense out of dullness.

But after a few months of watching soldiers and their whores dying and starving and being driven mad for someone else’s idea, Henri understands the great mistake of having given his yearning away to the first thing that seemed to make sense, instead of bearing its uncomfortable complexity. Filled with a hatred for Napoleon that “longs to be proved wrong,” Henri meets Villanelle (named for the poetic form whose cyclical nature defies resolution). Villanelle made a similar calculation when she married a man she despised in the hope of escaping her love for a married woman; her husband sold her into service as a prostitute for Napoleon’s generals. Henri falls in love with Villanelle, and together, they escape to Venice, which Winterson presents as an endless maze of waterways constantly appearing and disappearing. When one of these canals leads them to Villanelle’s husband, Henri murders him and is confined to an insane asylum. Villanelle visits him, but does not return his love. 

Considered as a series of events, Henri’s life is a tragedy. But he is more content to be alone with his senseless love than he was living through notions of honor and progress. In the asylum, he sleeps, eats, gardens, and thinks of Villanelle. “I review my past and my future in light of this feeling,” he says, recalling the definition of love presented in the Four Quartets: “Love is most nearly itself/ When here and now cease to matter.”


Winterson’s opposition to strict realism is less an artistic critique than a cultural one. She uses the term “realism” to describe an entrenched way of viewing the world, which it is the writer’s duty to challenge. The supposed realist, Winterson argues, is “caught in a world of symbols and symbolism where he is unable to see the thing in itself, as it really is, he sees it only in relation to his own story of the world.” The greatest sin of the realist, Winterson’s work suggests, is to apply this symbolism to love, to make of love a monument to outward success. Just as Henri confused his need for a sense of purpose with a genuine desire to serve Napoleon, most of the marriages in Winterson’s novels are maintained only for the sake of social convenience.

Winterson most famously presented her vision of love as freedom from external symbolism in Written on the Body (1992), the story of the narrator’s love for a married woman who has cancer. The basic plot is commonplace: a longtime philanderer, the narrator finds true love and goes to extremes (such as beating up her beloved’s cold-hearted husband) in order to keep it. This was the first of Winterson’s books to be lampooned by the British press. It’s understandable that those familiar with the high fantasy of her previous novels would have found Written on the Body merely a stylish way to be heartfelt—Winterson describes the narrator’s love through a scientific consideration of the parts of the body and a repudiation of romantic clichés: “It’s the clichés that cause the trouble. A precise emotion seeks a precise expression.” Although Written on the Body offers a precise portrait of the heart in love, its faithfulness to a common human experience has an aesthetic cost: it negates the demanding imaginativeness of Winterson’s earlier ambitions.

The accessibility that many British critics found sophomoric had popular appeal. Written on the Body was the first of Winterson’s books to earn her international fame. Translated into dozens of languages, the love story made Winterson what novelists consider a fortune. Even as she was reaping the rewards most artists never dare hope for, she was receiving the message from critics at home that she did not deserve such rewards. It’s easy to imagine how the schizophrenia of the literary marketplace could make a young writer (Written on the Body, Winterson’s fourth novel, was published when she was 31) both fiercely insecure and fiercely arrogant.

“After Written on the Body was published, I went mad,” she told the Independent in 2002. To the press, Winterson’s madness was megalomania. She declared herself her favorite living author and Written on the Body the best book of the year. She upstaged other authors at readings. She showed up on the doorstep of a critic who gave her a bad review, leather-clad and “literally roaring,” in Winterson’s own account. “About 1992 I should have had an operation to sew up my mouth, and kept it closed till about 1997,” Winterson told the Guardian a few years ago. 

After reading popular criticism of her work, which has increasingly focused solely and inanely on her personal life, one becomes more sympathetic to Winterson’s grandiosity. A recent example: Ostensibly reviewing her memoir for the London Review of Books, Adam Mars-Jones calls Winterson “hectoring,” “delusional,” “egomaniac,” and “self-sabotaging.” If one wanted to take aesthetic issue with Winterson’s writing, there is plenty to work with. In an oeuvre of nineteen books over twenty-seven years, there are bound to be some unfortunate examples. The Stone Gods (starring a sexy space robot) and The Powerbook (theme: “You can be the hero of your own life”) both convey Winterson’s vision of transcendent love too explicitly through plot, with too little attention to language. 

But Mars-Jones is not much interested in Winterson’s writing. The first third of his review is devoted to a self-serving anecdote from his acquaintance with Winterson thirty years ago, which he claims illustrates Winterson’s “boundary issues.” He tries to argue that Winterson takes an unfairly “negative” view of being adopted when she attributes some of her relational difficulties to the fact that her birth mother gave her away when she was six weeks old. His passive-aggressive condescension is almost farcical: “[T]here are any number of benefits . . . that flow from a feeling of non-entitlement. Organisations both commercial and voluntary have reason to be grateful for workers who never slack off, and let’s not be in too much of a hurry to write off the value of friends for whom nothing is too much trouble.” 

Revealingly, the review ends with a claim that Winterson is lying when she writes in Why Be Happy that she doesn’t “feel negative about men any more.” Referring to the period of her life when she attempted suicide, Winterson writes, “That was something else that shifted decisively when I was going mad. The men I knew were kind to me, and I found I could rely on them. But my change of heart was more than specific; it was a larger compassion for all the suffering and inadequacies of human beings, male or female.” 

This passage is undeniably unsatisfying, but for the same reason Winterson’s memoir is unsatisfying: the language has the simplistic truthiness of therapy, rather than the complex precision of poetry. But there is no reason to doubt that Winterson is telling the truth. So why doesn’t Mars-Jones believe Winterson? Because she sounds too self-confident. “Martyrs at the stake have spoken with more diffidence,” he writes. Apparently one can only have a change of heart if shy and uncertain.


There is little reason to engage in a guessing game about the contents of Jeanette Winterson’s heart. There is, however, good reason to consider negative feeling toward men as a facet of her fiction—just as there’s good reason to consider misogynistic passages by thoughtful male writers (Henry Miller, Philip Roth), who also treat with harsh honesty the frustrations of living with people whose idea of intimacy can seem irrelevant to one’s own. The husbands in Winterson’s novels are nearly always “brilliant,” but also automatons who care only for their careers and social standing. They represent what Winterson sees as the fundamental cause of pain in human relationships: “indulgence without feeling,” as one of her characters puts it in Art and Lies (1994). “Strange to be both greedy and dead.”

Cold-hearted gluttony is dramatized explicitly in The Passion through the soldiers’ treatment of prostitutes. Henri is horrified by his first trip to the brothel, where he watches Napoleon’s head cook squatting before one of the women with his hand in his pants. 

His woman knelt in front of him, her arms folded. Suddenly he slapped her across the face and the snap killed the talk for a moment.

‘Help me, you bitch, put your hand in, can’t you, or are you afraid of eels?’

I saw her lip curl and the red mark on her cheek glowed despite her rough skin. She didn’t answer, just poked her hand into his trousers and brought it out like a ferret by the neck.

‘In your mouth.’

The scene is a succinct illustration of how cruel human need can become when cut off from its source, an inevitability in “a world that knows neither restraint nor passion,” as Winterson describes modern social life in Art and Lies.

The “failure of feeling”—which Winterson cites in her memoir as the cause of her own biggest mistakes—is treated with more subtlety in Lighthousekeeping (2005), which tells the story of the clergyman Babel’s first and last love affair. The first time they have sex, Molly shows him how to pleasure her. “He was excited, happy, and when she fell asleep, he propped himself on one elbow, uncovering her, stroking her, memorizing what he had learned.” But once he’s alone, Babel decides Molly’s comfort with her body is proof that she has other lovers. The more intimate they become, the more convinced he is of her infidelities. Unable to bear his tormenting doubts, he marries a woman he does not care for. His wife serves him with an “air of achievement and sacrifice.” He treats her cruelly. He writes in his journal: “I stood firm. I stood firm. I stood firm.” To stand firm, Winterson suggests, is to be “caught in lives of our own making that we never wanted.”

Babel’s story is reminiscent of The Winter’s Tale, which Winterson cites in her essay collection Art Objects (1997) as an explanation of how “the failure of imagination” tricks us out of what we most long for. Shakespeare demonstrates the negative power of Leontes’ mistaken conviction that Hermione has been unfaithful by making Leontes believe his wife has been turned to stone. Describing imagination as a birthright, Winterson writes: “Leontes’ failure to acknowledge any reality other than his own is a repudiation of that birthright, a neglect of humanness that outworks itself into the fixed immobility of his queen.” Like Babel, Leontes suffers for neglecting his innate capacity to see the world as an infinity of images, each of which may be imagined into infinite meanings.


If Winterson’s essays argue that the modern artist is charged with safeguarding imagination in a “society that recognises nothing but itself,” her fiction expands the reader’s sense of the possible. Winterson connects the physical world and the sublime most explicitly in Sexing the Cherry (1989), in which a young man named Jordan sails around a 17th-century world that is both fantastic (words exist as physical objects; a city’s inhabitants learn how to defy gravity) and historically accurate (Jordan’s discoveries mirror those of the real-life botanist and explorer John Tradescant). In the course of his travels, Jordan falls in love with a dancing teacher named Fortunata, who “teaches her pupils to become points of light,” transforming their bodies “as metal in a fiery furnace, tempering, stretching, forcing the sinews into impossible shapes and calling her art nature.” 

Like most of Winterson’s ideal loves, Jordan cannot live in Fortunata’s physical presence, but he remains in the sustaining, clarifying sway of his love for her long after they have parted. He is particularly marked by Fortunata’s retelling of the Artemis myth, in which the murder of a rapist—the extremity of “indulgence without feeling”—serves as a metaphor for inner freedom, in which “the mind moves from its prison to a vast plain without any movement at all.” A great hunter and natural loner, Artemis decides to live on an island instead of settling down with a family. The mighty Orion pays her a visit. She talks to him for a long time about “the land she loved and its daily changes.” He responds by raping her and falling asleep. “She thought about that time for years. It took just a few moments, and her only sensation was the hair on his stomach matted with sand.” While Orion sleeps, Artemis kills him with a scorpion. Then she walks up a hill overlooking the ocean.

As far as she could see there was grey water white-edged and the birds of prey circling above it. Lonely cries, and she was lonely, not for friends but for a time that had not been violated. The sea was hypnotic. Not the wind or the cold could move her from where she sat like one who waited. She was not waiting, she was remembering. She was trying to find out what it was that brought her here. What it was about herself. The third is not given. All she knew was that she had arrived at the frontiers of common sense and crossed over. She was safe now. No safety without risk, and what you risk reveals what you value.

The moment recalls the end of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which finds Jeanette sitting on a hill overlooking her town after she has left her church and parental home. “Right to the top I climbed, where I could watch the circling snow fill up the town till it blotted it out. All the black blotted out. I could have made an impressive sermon. . . . ‘My sins like a cloud hung over me, he blotted them out when he set me free….’ that sort of thing. But where was God now, with Heaven full of astronaughts and the Lord overthrown? I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal.” 

I’ve read this passage many times, but the switch to present tense never fails to stop me. Jeanette did not miss God in that moment, watching the town that was no longer hers blotted out by snow. She misses God, now and always. The yearning is much bigger than Jeanette, and will abide no matter what she does or fails to do. Momentarily freed from the false safety of common sense, she is able to feel instead what Eliot called “a grace of sense,” when the eternal and the temporal collide and one finds one’s self “On the edge of a grimpen, where there is no secure foothold, / And menaced by monsters, fancy lights, / Risking enchantment.”

Image: Aldous Massie. Rebirth (Pt. 1) (2012). 307mm x 455mm. From aldousmassie.com.

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