Although Jeanette Winterson has been called England’s best-known lesbian writer, her novels deal with far more profound issues than her own sexual orientation or her noted loathing of organized religion. Lighthousekeeping is about a universal problem, the difficulty of finding something or someone that can give life a meaning. The two major characters in this novel never do meet, for one of them lives in the nineteenth century and the other in the twentieth. However, they are both vitally involved in a search for enlightenment, and both come to the same conclusion: that a purposeful life depends on total commitment to another human being.
The novel begins as a first-person narrative, an informal account of the early years of the narrator, who is identified only as Silver. She does not know her father’s name; he was a fisherman who happened by on a stormy night. She knows only that after giving birth to an illegitimate child, her mother was evicted by the people of Salts, and the two had to make their home in a lopsided house set into a cliff. When Silver was ten, her mother fell to her death, and no one would take in the orphaned girl except the Cape Wrath lighthouse keeper, a man called Pew, who made Silver his apprentice.
Although he permitted Silver to bring along her dog, at first Pew seemed unfeeling, and it did not help that because he was blind, he kept their living quarters in total darkness. As Silver puts it, there were two Atlantic Oceans, one inside and one outside. However, Pew was more aware of Silver’s sense of loss than he had at first appeared to be, and he had a remedy for loneliness: storytelling. Soon Silver’s request, “Pew, tell me a story,” begins to appear regularly in intervals between chapters.
Because Silver is fascinated by the history of the lighthouse, she begins asking Pew about a man called Babel Dark, whose father, Josiah Dark, arranged for the construction of the lighthouse by a young engineer named Robert Louis Stevenson, who would someday be a famous author. Pew insists on introducing his story by comparing Babel Dark to Samson, a man doomed by his love of a woman but, more profoundly, destined to fall because he had placed himself too high.
In 1848, Pew continues, Babel Dark was a dashing young man from Bristol, who was pursuing the study of theology at Cambridge University. No one expected Babel to take holy orders; it was assumed that after he graduated, he would take over the business of his wealthy father, Josiah Dark. Josiah raised no objection when Babel began courting Molly O’Rourke, a pretty shopgirl, and when Molly became pregnant, Josiah urged his son to marry her. However, Babel became suspicious, denied having fathered her child, abandoned Molly, and hastened back to Cambridge. When he next appeared in Bristol, he had given up his former finery for gloomy garb and was announcing that he meant to go into the Church. Moreover, although through his father’s influence he could have been assigned to a pleasant parish, he insisted on being assigned to Salts. In 1851, he married a gentle, well-connected local woman. However, Pew adds, it was rumored that Babel continued to see Molly and that he might finally have killed her. To Silver’s question as to what happened to the child, Pew replies that no one knows.
From that point on, the novel moves between Silver’s first-person narrative, which includes Pew’s stories, and Babel Dark’s account of his own life, related sometimes by an omniscient author, at other times as an interior monologue. Winterson’s artistry is evident in the seamlessness of these transitions from one point of view to another and also in her deft handling of the thematic development of the novel.
One way to trace this development is to look at the headings of the nine sections into which Lighthousekeeping is divided. The first heading, “Two Atlantics,” repeats the comment Silver made after she moved into the lighthouse and before she established her relationship with Pew. However, the phrase can also be applied to Babel Dark. When he coldly turns his back on Molly, he is beginning the process that will leave him as empty as the ocean itself.
Early in the second section, “Known Point in the Darkness,” Silver defines the...
(The entire section is 1762 words.)