Jeanette Winterson Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In a brief amount of time the British writer Jeanette Winterson established a special place for herself in the literary community. Published in fourteen languages, her work early began to meet with popular and critical succes. After receiving a degree in English from Oxford University, she set out to look for editorial jobs but met with no success. At an interview for one such job, she began telling her interviewer stories about her life. The prospective employer encouraged her to write them down, and the result was her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

Winterson herself remains elusive as to the exact details of her own life, but she refers to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as “semi-autobiographical.” The novel details a childhood spent in a Pentecostal community with a domineering and strictly religious mother. Throughout her youth, the protagonist, aptly named “Jeanette,” nurtured her skills as a preacher and a potential missionary. However, Jeanette leaves the church and is kicked out of her home when both the congregation she had considered her extended family and her mother reject her upon discovering she is a lesbian. The novel won the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award and was later made into a miniseries for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit established Winterson as a witty commentator on accepted social standards. Even she expresses surprise that her novels, which question social perspectives that view heterosexuality and religion as undeniable “truths,” could be so popular. Using an unconventional novel structure characterized by a collage of reinterpreted fairy tales, parables, and other metaphorical narratives that interrupt the central story, Winterson unveils a social reality rooted in spiritual hypocrisy and, ultimately, patriarchy.

Boating for Beginners, a comical retelling of the story of Noah and the ark with a contemporary consciousness, displays Winterson’s ability to use humor to explore hypocrisy in faith. Her third novel, The Passion, won the 1987 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for fiction, receiving international acclaim for its unique...

(The entire section is 899 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jeanette Winterson was born in 1959 in Manchester, in the northwest of England, and adopted by a childless Pentecostal couple from Accrington, a mill town just outside Manchester. She was raised under strict religious principles and shaped for a career as a missionary. By the age of eight, she was preaching at evangelist tent meetings held by the family’s small chapel, and was making converts. Her reading material at home was limited to the Bible and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), a strange combination from which she developed a strong feeling for literary style.

At the age of fifteen, Winterson had a lesbian relationship with one of her converts that was strongly denounced by the church. At the age of sixteen, she decided to leave home and took a number of part-time jobs to pay for the academic high school where she was enrolled. When she was eighteen years old, she enrolled at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, to major in English. She worked for one year at a mental hospital to pay tuition.

After graduation in 1981, Winterson worked in various theaters and began writing what would become her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She finished the novel at the young age of twenty-three years. After it was published in 1985, she began working as an assistant editor for Pandora Press (her early publisher). She began a romantic relationship with Pat Kavanagh, her literary agent. In 1987, Winterson published her second novel, The Passion. Its successful reception by readers and critics inspired her to become a full-time writer. The next year she entered a long-term relationship with Peggy Reynolds, an academic and a radio broadcaster. The following year, Winterson published Sexing the Cherry.

In 1990, Winterson adapted Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for television in a highly acclaimed dramatization. Her work was embraced in the American market with Written on the Body in 1993, ensuring a worldwide readership. Honors and prizes followed, and she became a regular columnist, essayist, writer of children’s fiction, and broadcaster. She also bought a delicatessen in central London and a house in Gloucestershire.