Jeanette Winterson - author feature
I first came across Jeanette Winterson when I was touring Scotland in 1990. I rather stumbled across her halfway through a book-reading session in the Edinburgh branch of Waterstones. At the time I was oblivious to who she was, whether she was actually famous or not, and what her book was about.
This book turned out to be Sexing the Cherry. I later found out that this was the author behind Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, so yes, she was quite famous. But to this day, I have struggled to get to grips with what I have subsequently learnt is a historiographical novel. I gather that sexing is ‘a scientific technique used to identify and classify female or male organisms on the basis of their reproductive organs and functions’, and I know the significance of cherries and their loss, but I’m not sure I was totally aware at the time that Winterson was using all this as a literary device to challenge conventional male and female roles in society. I was still only mid-way through my Critical Theory undergraduate module, and we hadn’t reached a feminist approach by that point.
Sexing the Cherry, my introduction to the literary world of Jeanette Winterson
In the bookshop, I stood at the back with my lifelong friend, Paul, and we listened to the author's very strong northern accent and enjoyed the extract from her novel, which sounded really rather amusing the way she read it. Her accent, which I’ve since discovered emanates from Accrington, added real power to the performance.
Not knowing who she was at the time, we didn’t join the queue at the end, but disappeared into the Edinburgh night and went off to find our youth hostel via several drinking establishments. A few days later, in Newcastle, I splashed out and bought the book. Impressionable as ever at such a tender young age, I asked myself 'how often do you get the chance to read a book by someone you have almost met?' Strangely enough, on the train, the story didn’t seem half as funny as it had sounded when the author had been reading it out loud. But I persevered, and over the years I have become a devoted reader of her books.
The author, taken in 1989, from The National Portrait Gallery collection
My review of The Gap of Time is my main focus at the moment, but it would be remiss of me not to mention her recent autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? This is a simply stunning autobiography. I thought I knew quite a lot about Winterson beforehand, having followed her career over the years, but so much more came out in this book, and it was wonderfully conveyed.
The title itself is astonishing. I instantly shared Winterson’s apparent incredulity at the feeling expressed in the title, taken from a question posed by Winterson’s adoptive mother, referred to by the author as ‘Mrs Winterson’. To me there is only one way to respond to this question. But another very close friend and therapist seems to think it is quite a reasonable question to ask, and I value her judgement. More recently, I read an article by Angela Duckworth, psychologist, whose father once said to her “Why would you want to be happy? I want to be accomplished”. So, perhaps I really do need to think again.
A telling question and a wonderfully told autobiography.
It seems reasonable to want to be both happy and normal, at least some of the time, but I am prepared to accept this might be asking just a little too much. Still, this isn’t about me. Nor the autobiography. I refer you now to The Gap of Time, an extraordinary but respectful retelling of one of my favourite plays, The Winter’s Tale. My review is a celebration of both Jeanette Winterson and William Shakespeare, both brilliant story tellers and both dramatic in their respective ways.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
Book review (Connected Cultures):
Angela Duckworth - "Is grit the true secret of success?" article