On Jeanette Winterson

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

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

Jeanette Winterson was raised as a fanatical Pentecostal in the mill town of Accrington, Lancashire. Her 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.

Living sometimes out of her car and sometimes with her high school English teacher, Winterson worked her way, alphabetically, through the fiction in the public library. She applied to Oxford twice before she was accepted to read for a degree in English at St. Catherine’s College. She supported herself by doing odd jobs in the theater and working at an insane asylum.

It was 1975 when Winterson left home. Martin Amis had just won the Somerset Maugham Award for The Rachel Papers. Within the next few years, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes would earn the same prize for a first work of fiction — First Love, Last Rites and Metroland, respectively — promising the continued reign over Britain’s literary scene of witty, misogynistic cynics. McEwan and Barnes’s antiheroes, if less hateful than Amis’s Charles Highway, were also self-consciously intelligent young men preoccupied with sex and distrustful of love, who used raunch and grotesquerie as their preferred weapons in the battle against bourgeois adulthood.

Winterson had been shown a different face of the adult world, and for her first novel she produced a very different coming-of-age story. Published in 1985, when Winterson was 25, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is the story of a teenage girl’s rejection of her adoptive parents’ evangelicalism as she develops a romantic interest in other girls. The narrator, named Jeanette, describes the religious 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. “Not for her the meek and paschal Lamb,” Jeanette observes of her mother, “she was out there, up front with the prophets, and much given to sulking under trees when the appropriate destruction didn’t materialise. Quite often it did, her will or the Lord’s I can’t say.”

Fairy tales and medieval myths also provide the emotional backdrop for Jeanette’s coming-of-age. The story of her exile from the church is interspersed with a telling of the quest for the Holy Grail, in which knights left the comfort of King Arthur’s court in search of a vision whose value they could sense but not describe.

Winterson knew too well the violence and suffering religious fundamentalism brings in its train, and she rejected it; but she did not reject the yearning she saw at religion’s core. A proper mode or medium for this yearning became the subject of her fiction. In contrast to the reigning novelistic attempts to capture the modern failure of connectedness, Winterson’s first novel chronicled an earnest quest for the sublime.

Oranges won the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel. Just a few months after it was released, Winterson published a silly comic book called Boating for Beginners — a harbinger of the prolificness and variability that would define her career for the next thirty years.

Winterson’s second and best novel, The Passion, is about a pair of lovers caught up in the Napoleonic wars. It is narrated in part by Henri, a former soldier in Napoleon’s army, who comes from a small French village governed by manual labor and boredom. Submissive and myopic, the villagers are nonetheless restless with a longing their uninspired priest cannot satisfy. “We’re a lukewarm people for all our feast days and hard work,” Henri tells us. “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 have outgrown their defenseless closeness with their surroundings, 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. For the first time in his life, he is enraptured. “There was a feeling of urgency and privilege” in Bonaparte’s presence, he says:

He woke before us and slept long after us, going through every detail of our training and rallying us personally. He stretched his hand towards 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.

“Sense out of dullness”: this is the most an ordinary person can hope for. But after a few months of watching soldiers die and starve and be driven mad for someone else’s idea, Henri understands the mistake of giving away one’s yearning to the first thing that seems to make sense. He comes to lament the ease with which the soldiers forget about other possibilities:

Here, without women, with only our imaginations and a handful of whores, we can’t remember what it is about women that can turn a man through passion into something holy. Bible words again, but I am thinking of my father who shaded his eyes on those sunburnt evenings and learned to take his time with my mother.

Filled with a new hatred for Napoleon that “longs to be proved wrong,” Henri meets Villanelle, who herself made a desperate calculation when she married a man she despised with the hope of escaping her love for a married woman; her husband then 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 a maze of endlessly appearing and disappearing waterways. 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 the love that defines his life.

As a series of events, Henri’s life is a tragedy; as a clinical case, he is insane. But Henri is more content to be alone with his senseless love than he was living out notions of honor and progress. In the asylum, he sleeps, eats, gardens, and thinks of Villanelle.

Like Henri, Jeanette of Oranges finds a sense of purpose — which she once planned to fulfill through missionary work — in devotion to a romantic ideal:

Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and
millions of copies. Somewhere it is still in the original, written on tablets of stone. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have, but not for a man, because they want to be the destroyer and never the destroyed. That is why they are unfit for romantic love. There are exceptions and I hope they are happy.

Winterson often depicts men as incapable of the surrender that true love demands; even sensitive Henri eventually drives away Villanelle with his possessiveness. It’s worth considering negative feelings toward men as a facet of Winterson’s fiction, just as it’s worth considering misogynistic passages by thoughtful male writers like Henry Miller and Philip Roth, who also treat the frustrations of living with people whose idea of intimacy can seem irrelevant to one’s own. Despite Winterson’s sympathetic portraits of many male characters, the husbands in her novels are nearly always “brilliant” 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 character puts it in Art and Lies (1994). “Strange to be both greedy and dead.”

Winterson often conveys the “failure of feeling”—which she cites in her memoir as the cause of her own biggest mistakes — by depicting marriages that are maintained only for convenience. On the whole, her work argues for the rejection of the prescribed social roles that are satirized by writers like Amis and considered philosophically by writers like Barnes. Winterson would prefer to do away with social prescriptions completely, to let each life decision stem from inner need rather than conformity.

But of course even the most nonconformist decision has social implications. And by idealizing love based purely on desire — as opposed to love based on a formal contract — Winterson is subtly endorsing a different kind of social order, one that sees heterosexual marriage as antithetical to true love.

Throughout her career, Winterson has taken pains to distance herself from the label “lesbian writer,” which she understandably worries will limit her readership. But there is no question that her experience of sexuality has something to do with the idealization of transcendence in her novels.

She is not alone in this. Eileen Myles, Dorothy Allison, Spalding Gray — other queer writers who came of age professionally in the 1980s — share Winterson’s interest in portraying sex as a spiritual connection. The metaphysical charge of their sexual descriptions stems in part from the sense that simply to articulate their desire at that time was to transgress a cruelly restrictive social order; it is the same charge present in D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. But if by the 1980s much of the heterosexual coupling depicted in popular fiction was defined by the shock value of insouciance — sex portrayed as just one more good to acquire — for many queer writers sex remained sublime. They were able to infuse erotic desire with the yearning for a freedom their narrators don’t quite understand. Dorothy Allison, in Trash (1988): “I jerked and pushed against her, wanting to fight, wanting to give in, wanting the world to stop and wait while I did it all.” Eileen Myles in Chelsea Girls (1994): “The first woman put her head between my legs and the complete sin, the absolute moment of sex came back and I was all in one piece coming apart. I was willing to sacrifice all for that moment. Even I guess my vagina, that jar.”

For these writers, as for Winterson, good sex demands the rejection of habitual behaviors and expectations, a willingness to be molded by each new encounter. But while Myles, for example, explicitly links this freedom to homosexuality, Winterson divorces sex from social considerations entirely. Although erotic and romantic love between women often figures in her novels, the concept of lesbianism is never raised; sometimes we don’t even know the genders of sexual partners. In Oranges, where the lovers are women, the narrator depicts her lust for her first lover Melanie as confusing or shameful only insofar as the helplessness of lust is confusing and shameful: “We were quiet, and I traced the outline of her marvellous bones and the triangle of muscle in her stomach. What is it about intimacy that makes it so very disturbing?” And when Jeanette’s pastor accuses her in front of the church of loving Melanie “with a love reserved for man and wife,” Jeanette answers, “To the pure all things are pure.”

Winterson’s conviction of the purity of desire separates her work from much autobiographical writing about love and sex by women. For Winterson, to love to the point of self-destruction is not the mark of a girl whose father mistreated her, as it was in her contemporary Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1984): “I love to be beaten up and hurt and taken on a joy ride. This SEX — what I call SEX — guides my life.” Charlotte Roche, Catherine Millet, Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti: in different ways, all portray willingness to surrender to the lover’s will as debasement; all are more concerned with explicit descriptions of sex acts than with the reasons this erotic impulse figures so strongly in their sense of self. For Winterson, sexual desire is never a matter of self-degradation or casual consumption; it is a yearning for escape, a saving grace in a world distrustful of graces.

Of course, the world caught up with her. In 1990, Winterson was hired to turn Oranges into a television series, and it was a hit. Winterson became famous for shocking grandmums by showing girls kissing on the telly, and was ensured the full-time devotion to literature she had dreamed of when she abandoned what The Passion calls “the trappings of God.” Then she fell out of critical favor. Winterson’s fourth novel, Written on the Body (1992), about a genderless chronic philanderer who falls in love with a married woman, was the first of her books to be lampooned by the British press, even as it sold far better than any of her previous ones. Just past 30, the subject of both adulation and scorn, Winterson had a hard time coping with the attention.

“After Written on the Body was published, I went mad,” she later told an interviewer. 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,” according to Winterson’s own account. She goaded the press with tales of her romantic adventures, including an affair with the renowned literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who was married to Julian Barnes.

These led to the period Winterson describes in her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? As part of her recovery process, Winterson 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.” The memoir’s strength, much like Orange’s, is its funny rendering of the religious and emotional fanaticism that defined her childhood home. “Every day, Mrs. Winterson prayed, ‘Lord, let me die.’ This was hard on me and my dad.” Still, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?—this is the question Winterson’s mother asked when a teenaged Winterson tried to explain her romantic involvement with a woman — is written so casually it reads like a rough draft of the credos that allowed Winterson to make something greater than bitterness out of her wounds: “There are markings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read the hurt. Rewrite them. Rewrite the hurt.” 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. “I’m not happy for words to simply convey meaning,” she once told a journalist. “[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.” The “true effort” of art, she argued in her 1996 essay “Imagination and Reality,” is essentially religious: to “open to us dimensions of the spirit and of the self that normally lie smothered under the weight of living.”

The weight of living, for an author, is the old dull stuff of reading reviews and doing publicity, trying to keep friends and family from being angry, and then starting all over again each time. For Winterson, these difficulties were compounded by familial rejection and a chaotic romantic life. She accepted her struggles with other people as intrinsic to her art, and her early masterpieces owed much to a kind of radical self-trust. But the refusal to sublimate emotional ideals into practical realities caused Winterson the person a good deal of suffering. In her memoir, she describes emerging from a suicidal breakdown with a new understanding of her former belief in the supremacy of immediate desires: “My sexual recklessness — not liberation. The fact that I did not value myself. I was always ready to jump off the roof of my own life. Didn’t that have a romance to it? Wasn’t that the creative spirit unbounded? No.”

Winterson decided that pursuing “extremes” of emotion and experience was a distraction from the real “intensity of life.” Now she lives in a cottage in Gloucestershire, gardens, reads five hours a day, entertains her godchildren, and shares a “sane steady love” (though not a home) with the psychotherapist Susie Orbach. She has also gone far to distance herself from her ’90s histrionics. “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.

This newfound stability has not been good for Winterson’s writing. She has written several smart, delightful children’s books in the last few years, but her last adult novel — The Stone Gods (2007), which chronicles a love affair between a sexy space robot and a scientist accused of terrorism — conveys Winterson’s vision of transcendent love too explicitly through plot, with little attention to language. Most disappointing is the memoir before us, which has the simplistic truthiness of therapy rather than the complex precision and lyricism of fiction, and of Winterson’s fiction in particular.

The value of that fiction has been in its subtle depiction of humans as greater than social beings, greater than bundles of preferences and characteristics. That Winterson portrays this greatness through romantic love makes her a rare postmodernist. Amid a parade of novelists who sought to convince readers of (and shock them with) the pure disposable materiality of love and desire, Winterson attempted to reinstate their mystery, and that of literature, in the old tradition from which literature once emerged: as a replacement for religion, as a consolation and refuge from the bitterness of everyday living.

And, also in the religious tradition, she sought to make her books serve as a warning. The narrator of her novel Lighthousekeeping (2005) decides that most people waste their lives chasing ideas instead of feelings: “We’re here, there, not here, not there, swirling like specks of dust, claiming for ourselves the rights of the universe. Being important, being nothing, being caught in lives of our own making that we never wanted.” At its best, Winterson’s enterprise manages to safeguard something unknown, something intangible, in a society that, as she once put it, “recognizes nothing but itself.”

At the end of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette goes up the 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 a very 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 astronoughts, 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.

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