Saturday, September 27, 2014

Doing Woman Different: Jeanette Winterson

"To lose someone you love is to alter your life for ever. You don’t get over it because ‘it” is the person you loved. The pain stops, there are new people, but the gap never closes. How could it?"
The British writer Jeanette Winterson's (b. 1959) adoptive mother gave a 16 y/o JW the ultimatum to renounce her lesbianism or leave. As JW walked with packed bag toward the door having made her decision, her mother called her back. JW thinking for a brief moment her mother had changed her mind and decided to accept her, was instead slapped with the question of "why?" The teenager responded simply (because love when stripped of all peripherals IS simple) with because she made JW "happy." Mrs Winterson (as JW refers to her as) questioned further "Why be happy, when you could be normal?"

Winterson was adopted as a baby by Pentecostal parents with a mother who dreamed of Jeanette later becoming a Pentecostal Christian missionary. JW grew up with an overbearing, dominant, religious fanatic, unhealthily large and larger than life mother and a Walter Mitty father sans the rich fantasy life. They lived in Manchester England which was/is a post industrial working class pull-yourself-up-from-the-boot-straps kinda town. Winterson's family devoted a great deal of time to the church as well as her mother animatingly reading regularly for Jeanette and her father from the King James bible. There home was also littered with scripture which her mother posted everywhere including the outhouse, for sitters as well as standers!

Books, except for the bible and a few mostly associated with the bible were forbidden by Mrs Winterson. She did however have a penchant for murder mysteries. JW would be sent to the library to retrieve such books for Mrs Winterson to read. On one occasion, one such book was TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. JW thought the book quite small for a mystery, she opened the book and read...

"This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy."
JW later wrote after reading that aching truth:

I started to cry.

(…)The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family—the first one was not my fault, but all adopted children blame themselves. The second failure was definitely my fault.

I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels.

I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me.

So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.

It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.” 
Another profound moment, which later married both moments in the form of her first novel, was when Winterson fell in love for the first time, with another girl. But young love even in dangerous times is like an inferno, uncontainable and so JW and her first love were found out, exposed and nearly exorcized by JW's church/her mother. Her g/f was frightened into the cloak of acceptable heterosexuality, while Winterson-like Woolf's Shakespeare's sister Judith-left home in pursuit of her gifts, in the form of first a higher education (Oxford grad) and later (not much) a (successful) writer.

Winterson fictionalized this tender fierce first love in her first highly successful and critically acclaimed novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit:
"I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don't think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don't even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, I thought once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky. If the servants hadn't rushed in and parted us, I might have been disappointed, might have snatched off the white samite to find a bowl of soup.

As it is, I can't settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me. There are many forms of love and affection, some people can spend their whole lives together without knowing each other's names. Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power. But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name. 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.” 
Jeanette Winterson with the unconditional power of words and a belief in words and their power, helped her to believe in herself and in herself as a writer. Least we mention her daily practice of living the life of a conscious and conscientious human being, all going toward JW becoming a leading writer of the later half of the 20th century and who continues doing so in the beginning of this one.

In her twenty plus years between autobiographical follow up to her first novel Oranges (as its often referred) Winterson said this:
 I told my version – faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time. I told myself as hero like any shipwreck story. It was a shipwreck, and me thrown on the coastline of humankind, and finding it not altogether human, and rarely kind.
And I suppose that the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.

I am often asked, in a tick-box kind of way, what is 'true' and what is not 'true' in Oranges. Did I work in a funeral parlour? Did I drive an ice-cream van? Did we have a Gospel Tent? Did Mrs. Winterson build her own CB radio? Did she really stun tomcats with a catapult?

I can't answer these questions. I can say that there is a character in Oranges called Testifying Elsie who looks after the little Jeanette and acts as a soft wall against the hurt(ling) force of Mother.

I wrote her in because I couldn't bear to leave her out. I wrote her in because I really wished it had been that way. When you are a solitary child you find an imaginary friend.

There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that.”

 Jeanette Winterson did and remains doing woman different, in her fierce pursuit of happiness (recognizing its fleetingness) despite a tough, difficult and at times abusive childhood. Women are conditioned to be selfless, their own (like Mrs Winterson) happiness sacrificed for the world of men and the world men dictate for women, in all its many forms, faces and disguises. Perhaps being a loner Winterson recognized her own agency regardless of her sex, young loners tend to walk through the world with open eyes and closed mouths. Whether born gifted or gifted with the deep impressions words made upon her, Winterson walked the paths words set out for her and created paths of her own through words, never believing as a woman or as a lesbian, that the lands SHE paved the way to, werent worth our seeing. (they are!) Jeanette Winterson did woman different in first believing in a life beyond the narrow woman's life outlined for her/us, second by creating and living that life in words, in body and in spirit.



  1. Thanks for this article. I loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but couldn't get into much of her other writing. I wondered how much of it was autobiographical.