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.

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