This is a full-length study of Jeanette Winterson's work as a whole, containing in-depth analyses of her eight novels and cross-references to her minor fictional and non-fictional works. It establishes the formal, thematic and ideological characteristics of the novels, and situates the writer within the general panorama of contemporary British fiction. Earlier critics usually approached Winterson exclusively either as a key lesbian novelist, or as a heavily experimental and ‘arty’ writer, whose works are unnecessarily difficult and meaningless. By contrast, this book provides a comprehensive, ‘vertical’ analysis of the novels. It combines the study of formal issues – such as narrative structure, point of view, perspective and the handling of narrative and story time – with the thematic analysis of character types, recurrent topoi, intertextual and generic allusions, etc., focused from various analytical perspectives: narratology, lesbian and feminist theory (especially Cixous and Kristeva), Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypal criticism, Tarot, Hermetic and Kabalistic symbolism, myth criticism, Newtonian and Post-Newtonian Physics, etc. Novels that read superficially, or appear simple and realistic, are revealed as complex linguistic artifacts with a convoluted structure and clogged with intertextual echoes of earlier writers and works. The conclusions show the inseparability of form and meaning (for example, the fact that all the novels have a spiralling structure reflects the depiction of self as fluid and of the world as a multiverse) and place Winterson within the trend of postmodernist British writers with a visionary outlook on art, such as Maureen Duffy, Marina Warner or Peter Ackroyd.
This chapter presents an introduction to the life and works of Jeanette Winterson. Winterson was born in Manchester on 27 August 1959 and brought up in the nearby mill-town of Accrington, Lancashire, by her adoptive parents, Constance and John William Winterson, in a strict Pentecostal Evangelist faith. Her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published in 1985 and earned the Whitbread First Novel Award. In 1990, Oranges was made into a TV drama, winning two BAFTA awards (for Best TV Drama Series and for Best Actress) and the Prix d'argent for Best Script in 1991. Winterson's work has been placed in one or other of the boxes labelled ‘lesbian fiction’ or ‘postmodernist fiction’. However, the writer rejects both qualifications, particularly that of ‘lesbian writer’, and insists that she expects to be called simply ‘a writer’, as male authors usually are.
This chapter discusses Winterson's first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The back cover of the 1990 Pandora Press edition described Oranges as the ‘touching and humorous account of an unusual childhood with an extraordinary mother’. The unusual child is a little girl teasingly called Jeanette who, like Jeanette Winterson, lives in a working-class town in Lancashire with her adoptive parents, Jack and Louie. Like Winterson's own mother, the fictional Jeanette's foster mother is a militant member of the Pentecostal Evangelical Church and has taken great pains to educate her daughter in her faith. The novel relates Jeanette's process of maturation from admiring and obedient child, to rebellious adolescent and ideologically self-assured and free adult, as the progressive revelation of her lesbianism clashes with her mother's religious and moral ideas.
This chapter discusses Winterson's third novel, The Passion. The Passion may be said to combine the parallel stories of two marginal witnesses to the Napoleonic wars, at the crucial moment in Hegelian World History when it was approaching its apocalyptic synthesis. One is Henri, a French soldier who joined the Grande armée because he wanted to be a drummer and ended up as chicken-neck wringer and personal cook to Napoleon. The other is Villanelle, a Venetian boatman's daughter who worked at the casino as a croupier until she was sold by her husband as a vivandière, or army prostitute. The combination of history with fantasy aligns The Passion with ‘historiographic metafiction’, the type of novel characterised by intense self-reflexivity and a relish in storytelling which Linda Hutcheon considers to be the best expression of the contradictory nature of the postmodernist ethos.
This chapter focuses on the novel Written on the Body. The publication of Written on the Body marked a change from the structural complexity of Sexing the Cherry, with its duplications and intertwining of narrative voices and historical periods, by turning back to the simplicity of the single narrative voice of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. However, as in Winterson's first novel, this simplicity is more apparent than real; in the case of Written on the Body because the gender and physical aspect of the autodiegetic narrator are never made explicit, thus suggesting that s/he enjoys the type of bisexuality Jordan achieved in Sexing the Cherry at the end of his quest for individuation.
This chapter focuses on Winterson's seventh novel, Gut Symmetries (1997), the story of three narrator-characters, Alice, Jove and Stella, the first of whom is a Cambridge postgraduate student of New Physics who has just won ‘two years of research funding at Princeton’. Consequently, at the beginning of the novel, we find her on board the QE2, giving a lecture on Paracelsus as a way of paying her passage from Southampton to New York. During the cruise she meets and falls in love with a fellow lecturer, Jove, the middle-aged, second-generation Italian-American Professor of Superstring Theory at ‘the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton’, where she is also going to work. Jove is at that time married to Stella. This meeting is one of the many coincidences that pins the lives of the three characters to each other and to other characters in the novel, including their ancestors. The whole novel is structured by means of similar random coincidences into a complex web of ‘symmetries’ comparable to the chaotic arrangement of elements in fractals.
This chapter focuses on the novel Lighthousekeeping. In 2003, Jeanette Winterson said that all the books she had written from Oranges to The Power Book ‘make a cycle or a series’ and should be seen as ‘one long continuous piece of work’. This statement has been contradicted by D. J. Taylor, who sees Lighthousekeeping as confirmation that ‘everything she writes is essentially a variation on the same thing’ and firmly concludes that what the new novel offers is ‘more of the same’. Most reviewers, however, have described the new novel in very positive terms, as ‘a light and lovely thing’ and as ‘a brilliant, glittering piece of work, the kind that makes you gasp out loud at the sheer beauty of the language’.
This chapter presents some concluding thoughts from the author. Jeanette Winterson has achieved international recognition as one of the leading present-day British writers. No longer of exclusive interest for the lesbian readership that launched her to fame in the 1980s, her novels are read, enjoyed and hotly discussed both by the general public and academia. Thus, while film and theatre versions have been made of her most popular novels, the most experimental ones often appear in the syllabuses of university courses on contemporary British fiction, and are the subject of an increasing number of dissertations and critical essays both in Britain and elsewhere.