Sexing the Cherry is Jeanette Winterson’s third novel, following Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) and The Passion (1988). A fantasy on the theme of discovery and renewal, it centers on a foundling, Jordan, who searchs with his mentor, John Tradescant, for new and exotic fruits and plants to bring back to the England of King Charles I. Jordan also embarks on more exotic voyages of the imagination.
Jordan’s name comes from the fact that his foster mother, the Dog-Woman, fished him out of the Thames, as the Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses from the Nile. The Dog- Woman wants to name him for a river, and it would be unthinkable to name a baby “Thames,” or “Nile,” so he becomes Jordan. The Dog-Woman has forgotten whatever name she was given, and is content to be known by the term which identifies her as a trainer of fighting dogs. She is the character who gives Sexing the Cherry its firmest grounding in reality, while Jordan embarks on his real and imaginary travels, searching for the new and for himself During most of the action of Sexing the Cherry (the term refers to a botanical procedure involved in hybridization) these two characters alternate narratives.
The “real” of the early part of the novel is the disordered world of London during the Puritan Revolution, which began in 1641 and ended with the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. The gigantic Dog-Woman is a Royalist, loyal to the King, and despises the Puritans, whom she sees as taking all the joy from life. She makes her living preparing dogs for the fights which provide London’s poor with amusement and the occasion for gambling.
She is a lusty, vigorous person, extremely strong, but her experience has been somewhat limited. Much of the comedy in Sexing the Cherry results from her ignorance of human anatomy and sex, and from her naive comments on the world around her. She is certain that Jordan has sailed off the edge of the world in his voyages to far places. She is capable of drastic action; after the Restoration in 1661, she joyfully witnesses the execution of the regicides who condemned King Charles I and does her own part by beheading her grim Puritan acquaintances, Preacher Scroggs and Neighbor Firebrace.
The Dog-Woman also provides a secure place to which Jordan may return in order to rest between voyages, as well as someone to whom he can talk about his discoveries. While he was still a boy, Jordan’s ability to build model boats had attracted the attention of John Tradescant, gardener to the King. At Tradescant’s invitation, Jordan and the Dog-Woman had moved into the Royal Gardens while the scientist trained Jordan in botany and other fields as preparation for accompanying Trades- cant on his voyages. When Jordan was little more than an infant, the Dog-Woman had taken him to witness the first appearance of a banana in England, an occasion on which the Londoners were shocked and amused by the sexual appearance of the fruit; later Jordan and Tradescant bring back another fruit with sexual overtones, the pineapple. Along with the banana, it becomes a central symbol in the novel. After the Restoration, with Tradescant dead, Jordan continues his voyages of discovery.
Jordan’s emotional life, however, is rooted in the voyages he makes in his imagination. He goes to far and unreco’gnizable places, meeting fantastic people and seeing unbelieveable things. His narratives are filled with speculations about the nature of time, space, love, and reality. In one of his flights, he disguises himself as a girl and is shocked when a woman shows him what women think of men. In another, he lists speculations about objects and time and concludes with what are labeled lies about what people can know. He visits fantastic places, including one city whose inhabitants are subject to the plague of love; when they fall in love, they die of it. Jordan’s playing of a disused guitar threatens to bring on a new outbreak. To save the city, the rulers, an old monk and an old whore, have decreed that love is forbidden. Later, Jordan learns that the plague had returned and everyone in the city except the monk and the whore were killed.
One of his trips ends with Jordan spending the night with a beautiful woman named Zillah, who has been exiled to a tower. The experience leads him to search for a dancer, one of Zillah’s eleven sisters. His vision takes him to the castle of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, eleven of whom tell him the story of their marriages. The stories compose a sermon on the dangers of marriage for women. As the oldest tells Jordan, the sisters lived happily, magically flying from their castle at night to visit a place where everyone danced and returning in the morning before they could be discovered, until a clever young prince found out their secret. “He had eleven brothers and we were all given in marriage, one to each brother, and as its says lived happily ever after. We did, but not with our husbands.”
Each of the princesses has had a disappointing marriage. A few of them loved other women. Others loved husbands who did not return that love. One loved a husband who loved a boy; another husband married only to disguise his multiple affairs with other women. In the end each of the princesses disposed of her husband; some simply left, others killed their spouses. When...
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