Jeanette Winterson 1959-
English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Winterson's career through 2001.
An inventive postmodern author whose fiction explores the nature and varieties of erotic love, Winterson is widely regarded as one of Britain's most talented and provocative contemporary writers. Her award-winning novels, including Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), The Passion (1987), and Sexing the Cherry (1989), are often playful and humorous, but nevertheless serious reconsiderations of gender and sexual identity—particularly what it means to be lesbian—as well as to the relativity of existence, desire, and time. These imaginative narratives, which incorporate biblical themes and elements of myth and fairy tale, often feature cross-dressing, promiscuous, and sexually ambiguous characters. Winterson's use of the line “Trust me, I'm telling you stories” as a refrain and leitmotif in The Passion has taken on emblematic meaning for her fiction in general. Steeped in literary classics and impassioned by the ideas and work of the Modernist writers from the early twentieth century, Winterson writes fiction that attempts to pick up where the Modernists left off, creating new space for literary fiction and its readers.
Born in Manchester, England, Winterson was adopted as an infant by Pentecostal Evangelists John and Constance Brownrigg Winterson and raised as an only child in Accrington, Lancashire. From a very young age Winterson was trained by her mother as a missionary and preacher and was initiated in the ways of faith healing. Winterson's father supported the family by working in a local television factory. A zealous evangelist, Winterson's mother kept tight reigns on her daughter's education, restricting her experience of literature to the Bible and oral retellings of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre. However, Winterson's mother changed the ending of the novel in her oral version, choosing instead that the lead character Jane should marry St. John Rivers and become a missionary. During her teenage years, Winterson discovered the wider worlds of literature and history in the public library, becoming a fervent and devoted reader. It was also during this period that Winterson realized her sexual attraction towards women, pursuing an affair with one of the young women she converted to the Pentecostal faith. The discovery of this relationship by her mother and the church community led to public denouncement and exorcism by the church. Refusing to relinquish what she believed was genuine love, the sixteen-year-old Winterson left both the church and her home to pursue life on her own terms. While continuing her education at Accrington College of Further Education, Winterson supported herself with various jobs as an ice cream truck driver, a make-up artist in a funeral parlor, and a domestic in a mental hospital. In 1978 Winterson began her undergraduate studies in English at St. Catherine College, Oxford. After receiving her master's degree in English in 1982, Winterson held a series of jobs while making several unsuccessful attempts to break into advertising or publishing. During a 1985 interview with Philippa Brewster for an editorial position at Pandora Press, Winterson recounted the details of her eccentric early life. Impressed not only by her facility with language but also her ability to spin tales, Brewster encouraged Winterson to write down her stories, which became the material for the critically acclaimed and popular Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The tremendous success of Oranges, which won the 1985 Whitbread Award for a first novel, established Winterson as one of Britain's most promising young literary talents. Though her second novel, Boating for Beginners (1985), a comic revision of the Bible's Book of Genesis, was less successful, her next two novels garnered major awards: the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The Passion and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for Sexing the Cherry. Winterson also won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for her screenplay adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which aired in 1990 as a three-part BBC television miniseries. Winterson's next work of fiction, Written on the Body (1992), elicited considerable controversy for making public her real-life affair with her literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, wife of author Julian Barnes. Winterson's choice of her own book as Book of the Year in 1992, along with her self-nomination as the greatest living writer in the English language that year, offended many in the literary community. An avid book collector of mostly first editions of Modernist masterpieces, Winterson has remained a virtual literary loner. She counted the late writer Kathy Acker among her very few close literary friends. She retains a close relationship with author Ruth Rendell, whose country cottage Winterson borrowed while writing some of her early novels. Following her break with Kavanagh after the publication of Written on the Body, Winterson established her own corporation, Great Moments, which acts as her literary agent and negotiates her book contracts. Since the early 1990s, Winterson has divided her time between her homes in London and the country, which she shares with her partner.
Leaning heavily on the Modernist tradition for inspiration and direction, Winterson blends history, autobiography, myth, fable, fantasy, and fairy tale to create fiction designed to revive and reclaim language, challenge stereotypes about gender and lesbianism, and explore the intricate relationship between fact and fiction. Winterson characteristically plays with narrative forms and storytelling. She uses metafictional techniques, comedy, and magic realism to create a fictional space intended to disrupt reader expectation and to convey genuine feeling and the revelatory power of the imagination. While Winterson's novels have progressively de-emphasized plot and character, they examine the nature of love, time, art, sexuality, self-discovery, and the evocative power of language and storytelling. Her debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, examines the meaning of love and lesbian sexual identity, and stands out as Winterson's most structurally conventional and overtly autobiographical story. The narrator, Jeanette, relates the story of her cloistered childhood and adolescence as the adopted daughter of working-class Pentecostal Evangelists, who raise her to become a preacher and missionary. However, she leaves home and the church in her mid-teens when her mother, a woman driven by the narrow views of her religious fanaticism, exposes Jeanette's physical and emotional love for another young woman. An “authorial” voice interrupts the narrative on a number of occasions to directly address the reader, as when another voice presents two fairy tales that comment on the main story. Winterson made a more definitive turn away from novelistic convention in The Passion, a narrative that blends history and myth with fairy tale to present the story of Henri, an army cook during the Napoleonic Wars, and Villanelle, a web-footed Venetian androgyne who attracts the passions of both sexes. The novel recounts the intertwined destinies of Henri and Villanelle on their journeys through France, Russia, and Venice, probing the boundaries between passion and obsession and fantasy and reality, while examining the nature of sexual identity. Sexing the Cherry, a story that also mixes history and myth, includes numerous narrative disruptions and continued experimental shifts, alternating between seventeenth- and late-twentieth-century London and the timeless realm of fairy tale. The principal narrators of Sexing the Cherry are a seventeenth-century giantess called Dog-Woman and her foundling son, Jordan, who operate well outside the bounds of realism. Dog-Woman's huge stature and Jordan's ability to travel through time and space let Winterson question gender and sexual identity, the limits and subjectivity of history, and the artificiality of narrative. A largely plotless narrative, Written on the Body explores the subject of gender and sexual identity, while tackling the problem of conveying a love story without falling prey to cliché. The first-person narrator is an unnamed and ungendered Don Juan figure, who recounts various hetero- and homosexual conquests and describes an affair with a married woman named Louise, with whom the narrator has fallen obsessively in love. After Louise succumbs to cancer, the narrator struggles to preserve the memory and reality of their love. Winterson refined the significance of character in her next two novels, Art and Lies (1994) and Gut Symmetries (1997). Art and Lies is a metafictional work involving three characters—Handel, Picasso, and Sappho—as they travel by high-speed rail to London. Each character presents a dramatic monologue interspersed with authorial comments that addresses sexuality, music, philosophy, and art. This work emphasizes the ability and responsibility of art to move beyond the circumscribed and the known in order to open up more inclusive, far-reaching human possibilities. An even more abstract book of ideas, Gut Symmetries also employs three narrators—Stella and Jove, a married couple, and Alice, a physicist and colleague of Jove's. Both Stella and Jove fall in love with and have an affair with Alice. In this work, Winterson returned to an exploration of desire as part of the larger scheme of life and the universe, employing references to alchemy and contemporary quantum physics (“Gut” is an acronym for “Grand Unified Theories”). In the essay collection Art Objects (1995), Winterson paid tribute to her Modernist forebears—Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, among others—and delineated her own views on art, contemporary life, culture, writing, and her work. The themes of this collection echo those developed in her fiction, notably the transformative power of literature, its autonomy from the life of the artist, and its capacity to move human beings to ecstasy. One essay suggests that Winterson herself is the reincarnation of “Shakespeare's sister,” as envisioned by Woolf in A Room of One's Own. The PowerBook (2000), examines passion, identity, and existence, employing the indeterminate, ephemeral setting of cyberspace as a foil for familiar and increasingly esoteric themes. Presented through the perspective of a young female writer called Ali who falls in love with a married woman, this loosely connected series of metaphysical mediations, e-mail communications, literary and historical fragments, and flights of fantasy explores the boundaries and possibilities of language and love. Winterson has also served as editor for Passion Fruit (1986), an anthology of lesbian short fiction, and authored Fit for the Future (1986), a nonfiction fitness guide for women. The World and Other Places (1998) consists of short stories and prose pieces previously published in magazines ranging from Elle to the New Yorker.
Critical response to Winterson's work has been deeply divided. Few contemporary writers have polarized critics in the popular press to the extent that Winterson has. While most reviewers agree that Winterson's early work, particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, displays extraordinary talent, virtuosity, and humor, her detractors assert that her subsequent work has not lived up to her initial promise and often reflects self-absorption, gimmickry, and sentimentality. Some critics note that Winterson tends to resort to rhetorical posturing and high-minded allusions as a shortcut to profundity and intensity, rather than rigorously plumbing the imaginative depths of character, idea, and circumstance. Furthermore, negative perceptions of Winterson's overbearing hubris has heightened hostility toward Winterson's works. Prone to blatant self-promotion of her work, she has been tagged as arrogant and self-aggrandizing by many in Britain's literary establishment. Nevertheless, positive response to Winterson's work continues to focus on her agile imagination, facile use of language, and gift for evoking emotion. These critics appreciate Winterson's effort to push the boundaries of narrative and her attempt to recreate more fully the elusive sensation of inner consciousness. Winterson has been variously compared to Jonathan Swift for her biting satire, to Gabriel García Márquez for her magic realism, to Italo Calvino for her metafictional experimentation and adaptation of myth and fairy tale, and to Monty Python for her comic abilities. Scholars have focused on the purely literary qualities in Winterson's work, noting the endurance of such themes as the nature of love, time, and art, along with the persistent search for self and the perennial presence of outsiders, strangers, and other characters who have been marginalized by society. Reviewers have often commended Winterson's ability to cut across cultural barriers with such widely popular works as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; they also have cited her ability to continually challenge literary and social conventions in all of her works. Feminist critics have paid particular attention to postmodern elements of Winterson's work, arguing that her lesbian fiction re-envisions what is “normal,” and validates lesbian life and experience. Winterson's androgynous approach to characterization has prompted many scholars to credit Winterson with successfully deconstructing patriarchal stereotypes and binary sexual oppositions that relegate women and lesbians to “otherness” and cultural subjugation. Such critics praise Winterson's tireless experimentation, her commitment to revitalizing language and discovering new possibilities for fiction, and her steadfast belief in the transformative power of literary art.