Passion and Comfort (Jeanette Winterson)

Article excerpt

MALCA LITOVITZ teaches at Seneca College and completed her MA thesis on the novels of E.M. Forster. Her writing has appeared in Prairie Fire, Descant, Toronto Life, and Books in Canada.

ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT.

London: Pandora Press, 1985. London:

Vintage, 1996.

WRITTEN ON THE BODY. London:

Vintage, 1993.

GUT SYMMETRIES. London: Granta, 1997.

BORN in Manchester in 1959, Jeanette Winterson is the adopted daughter of Pentecostal evangelists: Constance, "missionary on the home front," and John William W., factory worker. Jeanette wrote sermons at eight; at fifteen, she fell in love with a woman and left home. She drove an ice-cream van, worked in a funeral parlour, and completed her BA and MA in English at Oxford.

Upon completion of her degrees, she found herself unemployed. A prospective employer noticed her penchant for story-telling and suggested that she write. Jeanette was 24 years old; she had a typewriter and "nothing else to do." So modest. In seven weeks, she had produced her autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The first-person narrator is named Jeanette, just like our author, and the mother is an evangelist. In Art Objects: Essays on Ecstacy and Effrontery (Vintage, 1995), Winterson says that her acclaimed first novel is fiction masquerading as memoir, not the other way around. Be that as it may, the book deserves the many accolades it has received, such as the 1985 Whitbread Award for First Novel; it was adapted for television in 1990.

The creation of the novel in seven weeks is reminiscent of Genesis. Winterson was raised on the Bible, on hellfire and brimstone. She uses biblical chapter titles in her first work -- "Genesis," "Exodus," "Leviticus," while her second novel, Boating for Beginners (Methuen, 1985; Minerva, 1990), is a re-telling of the story of Noah in a modern setting. Her lyricism on love in her seven published novels reverberates with biblical cadences, particularly those of The Song of Songs: "as honey were thy breasts..."

Winterson's work also reveals her immersion in the Bloomsbury Group ethos of art and friendship. She won the 1989 E.M. Forster Award for Sexing the Cherry. She published The Passion (1987) in a Bloomsbury Press edition, and has acknowledged that her work is greatly influenced by Virginia Woolf. However, references to E.M. Forster, that other towering Bloomsbury figure, are noticeably absent. Many comparisons can be made between her work and his: thematically, they both write about repressive, controlling mothers and their children, the hypocrisies of the conventional world (particularly the confines of the institution of marriage), and the hardship of being different, of being homosexual, of searching for a way to exist in a hostile universe. Her style, too, is similar to his: satirical, humorous, bittersweet, and intimate. Even her literary criticism resembles his, with its conversational, honest, loving approach.

Winterson's themes can be linked to her lesbian preoccupations, such as her interest in overprotected children and their demanding mothers. In a book called Momism, a theory of unconscious forms of destructive mothering is presented; the unfulfilled wishes of the mother are unconsciously foisted on the daughter. In Oranges, Winterson writes with glittering humour of the relationship between a ferociously zealous mother and her young, adopted protegee. As a little girl, Jeanette does not attend school until the authorities insist; she is home-schooled by her mother and comes to love the Bible stories. But her mother wants to put blinkers on the child. In one passage, Jeanette is given the Bible and Jane Eyre to read -- nothing else. Hence, books too become the forbidden fruit, the obscure object of desire. Attempting to protect her daughter from corrupting influences, the mother tells Jeanette not to go to her favourite sweet-shop any more because the two women who own it have "unnatural passions. …