27th Aug 2012
Bookish Birthday: Jeanette Winterson
Born on 27th August 1959, Jeanette Winterson grew up in a small town in the north of England with an ultra-religious adoptive mother who would prove endlessly influential to her later work.
Finding solace in books as a confused and frustrated teenager, Winterson went on to become one of the most celebrated authors in Britain.
This was no small feat. As documented in her wonderful autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Winterson’s mother (only ever referred to as ‘Mrs Winterson’) did not allow books that weren’t the Bible in her house.
Young Jeanette was therefore forced to stash her little collection under her mattress – until this was discovered and burned in the garden. Not only was Winterson a reader, she was also a lesbian who did not believe in God.
Mrs Winterson was not impressed. Young Jeanette left home as soon as she could to study literature, and has devoted her life to it. For this, we thank her.
Winterson’s writing is rather distinctive. Gender and sexuality are often in the mix, as are elements of magical realism and historical references.
I was introduced to her at university when we read The Passion on a course about twentieth century fiction. I had always heard good things about Winterson, but this was my first meeting with her.
I read The Passion in one sitting and instantly went back to re-read certain passages and savour the feeling the book created. It is, as you may have guessed, a rather short novel.
Narration is shared between Henri, a cook in Napoleon’s army, and Villanelle, a cross-dressing girl from Venice. Their stories intertwine three quarters of the way through the book, and are from then inextricably linked.
To me, Venice was like a third main character. Its winding streets that seem to move and change completely enthralled me, and both Henri and Villanelle (who knows the city well) are enchanted by its strangeness and magic.
Truth is a big theme with Jeanette Winterson. Throughout The Passion she repeats ‘Trust me, I’m telling you stories,’ implying that any story can be true if you want it to be.
Her ground breaking first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, is a fictionalised account her upbringing, but even now, after the publication of her autobiography highlighted the similarities, she is reluctant to admit how much of Oranges is based on reality.
Winterson is never one to do things the easy or the simple way when it comes to her work. Her books are full of questions and philosophising about the nature of truth and love, as well as identity and self.
Winterson also likes to play around with form and take her readers on a strange little journey into the fictional worlds she creates. As you may have guessed, I think her writing is pretty great.
Jeanette Winterson has also never been afraid of controversy. She is extremely frank when discussing sexuality and depression in interviews, as well as her childhood and her opinions of other writers and media figures. She is not afraid to tell the truth, whether people like it or not. She is certainly brave.
Brave is perhaps an understatement. Breaking from her adoptive parents and failing to form a relationship with her biological mother, Winterson lives her life in a way that suggests she relies only on herself, despite having a wide circle of friends and being in a committed relationship.
You get the impression she likes to do things her own way and can probably be a bit stubborn. After reading Oranges and Why Be Happy, I was astounded by her courage when battling her mother and striking out on her own.
She was so determined, so unwilling to let others get her down or break her spirit. I had already admired her as a writer, but now I admired her as a person and a woman.
She was bold enough to defy her detractors and be proud of the ways in which she was different from the sheltered inhabitants of the small town in which she grew up. She was demonised and abandoned, but she didn’t give up.
Now, she is Jeanette Winterson OBE, one of the best and most respected British writers today. And she is woman; and a lesbian; and an atheist. Amazing!
So, on Monday 27th August 2012, I am revisiting her books and reminding myself and those around me just how darned cool this woman is. Happy birthday Jeanette!