After her sparkling early novels, Jeanette Winterson has fallen from literary grace. Is this fair? Or is she the victim of male critics who feel threatened by her lesbianism? Angela Lambert talks to her about God, class, sex and how she writesby Angela Lambert / February 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
Jeanette Winterson, asked in 1995 to select her favourite living writer, said: “No one working in the English language now comes close to my exuberance, my passion and fidelity to words.” These may be the most famous-certainly they are the most notorious-words she has ever uttered and they did her enormous damage. The English prefer their writers modest. But as she later said: “If people ask me a question, would they prefer I lie?… That’s the kind of hypocrisy and false modesty that I think is bad for you as a human being and is certainly bad for art.”
Gut Symmetries, Winterson’s sixth and latest novel, was published in 1997 to unfavourable reviews. Few readers, let alone critics, warm to a novel that begins: “Here follows a story of time, universe, love affair and New York. The Ship of Fools, a Jew, a diamond, a dream. A working-class boy, a baby, a river, the sub-atomic joke of unstable matter.” With this and the pretentious definition of each word that follows (“Baby: A beginning. An epiphany. A culet.”) the author is hardly welcoming readers aboard for the start of a fictional journey. As for the sub-atomic joke, I am no quantum physicist, but a friend who is, and read the book, claims that although Winterson has tried to grapple with the theory, she has failed to understand it. But the novel sold well enough, if not as well as the scintillating early ones. Her fans mostly remain loyal, for the time being. But for how much longer? Whatever happened to Jeanette Winterson?
In the mid-1980s, Winterson’s early novels catapulted her to literary acclaim and commercial success. The first was Oranges are not the only Fruit (1985), and despite the author’s insistence that it was not autobiographical, most readers took it to be a thinly-disguised account of her own early years; the heroine has her name and shares many of her experiences. It was not an instant bestseller, but word of mouth spread its fame like bushfire. Oranges won the Whitbread First Novel award. Nowadays the reading public is as likely to follow prize winners as book reviews, and the award set the seal on its success. Nor was Winterson to be a one-book wonder. Two years later, in 1987, came The Passion, a coruscating magic realist work that took the form of a Napoleonic fable set mainly in 19th century Venice, whose heroine is the bisexual, web-footed daughter of a gondolier. This book was not thought to be autobiographical.
With these two slim novels, Winterson established herself as a compulsive new voice. No previous young female author had challenged the originality and charisma of male writers like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Winterson stepped confidently into the fictional maelstrom of testosterone; a world of urban males behaving badly, young men for whom the only rule was: play it cool. Winterson, with her open avowal of lesbianism, indifference to the literary establishment and stunning inventiveness, captivated her own generation; not only in Britain but also in the rest of Europe and ultimately in the US. If her initial appeal was to her female contemporaries, who responded to her lyrical celebration of emotional and sexual passion, her readership soon widened.
She had also produced two minor books: Boating for Beginners (1985), a comic novel, and Fit for the Future (1986), a fitness manual, but these are now highly prized only by bibliophiles; a copy of Boating for Beginners in my local second-hand bookshop is priced at ?100. Winterson-herself a collector-writes with sensual delight about the numinous power of old books. In Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (Cape, 1995) she wrote:
Close the shutters and turn up the lamp. The room is full of voices. Who are they that shine in gold like apostles in a church window at midday? There is more in my hands than a book. Pick it up, and the streets empty of traffic, the place is still. The movement is an imaginative one, the secret passage between body and book, the connections known only to you. Intimate illuminations when the reader and what is read are both unaware of the hands of the clock. The clock is ticking. Let it. In your hands, a book that was in their hands, passed to you across the negligible years of time. Art is indifferent to time, and if you want proof, you have it. Pick up the book. It is still warm.
Sexing the Cherry, her fourth novel, was published in 1989 and maintained the same high standard of captivating originality, using words so that they played and shimmered like dolphins in a sunlit sea. Next came the bold and erotic Written on the Body (1992), with a narrator whose gender was supposedly ambiguous. Since it is soon obvious that the narrator has no penis there can be little doubt that “it” is a “she” if not necessarily her, although the book was assumed by the literary London to be a roman ? clef based on Winterson’s own colourful sex life.
By the early 1990s, Winterson was the great white hope of young British fiction. If she often ignored the requirements of plot and over-rode the conventions of time and space, her acrobatic imagination and exhilarating feats of verbal ingenuity left readers breathless. Winterson herself displayed an Amazonian confidence that much of her female audience aspired to. In addition to the Whitbread prize, she won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for The Passion and the EM Forster award for Sexing the Cherry. Less than a decade after first appearing in print, Winterson was not only famous but well on the way to becoming rich. What went wrong?
Most critics would agree that she has not produced a book worthy of her gifts since Written on the Body in 1992. It may be significant that this novel chronicles the end of an unhappy love affair and the rapturous beginning of a new one. It is dedicated, like everything she has written since then, “For Peggy Reynolds with love.” If not directly autobiographical, Written on the Body reflects Winterson’s own experiences. As is now common knowledge, she had a turbulent affair with her agent, Pat Kavanagh, in the mid-1980s which ended in 1989 when the relationship with Peggy Reynolds began. The two women have lived together ever since. Reynolds is a feminist academic and broadcaster, now working on a book about Sappho. Friends describe them as very happy and their partnership seems as permanent as any heterosexual marriage. But happiness is not always a springboard for creativity. Could it be that, having found a stable emotional base, the divine fire has gone out of Winterson’s work and she strains for effects that once seemed effortless? Critics claim that the recent books have lost the qualities of lightness, wit and grace that made the early novels so entrancing and have become weighed down instead with ill-digested erudition. Winterson claims to ignore unfavourable criticism. A previous editor at Bloomsbury, Liz Calder, said: “Jeanette has a very great belief in her own gifts… She doesn’t hold the opinions of others in high regard, though she’s very interested in her sales and knows very well that she has a devoted following, the majority of whom are not lesbians.”
Perhaps it is the fate of literary shooting stars to plummet spectacularly to earth, above all if they are young, combative and female. Almost exactly 30 years ago, a young French writer anticipated Winterson’s parabola. Fran?oise Sagan achieved enormous renown in 1954 at the age of 18 with her precocious first novel, Bonjour Tristesse. After publishing three more novels she was poised like a diver on the cusp of the 1960s. Yet although Sagan’s later books were numerous, her star soon waned. Who under the age of 50 has read Un Certain Sourire-the succ?s fou of 1956-or Aimez-vous Brahms (that of 1959), let alone is able to name even one of her 20 subsequent novels?
Winterson deeply mistrusts the media, almost to the point of paranoia, but her reputation for aggressive self-belief is more than just a media fabrication. In June 1994, Observer journalist Nicci Gerrard published a mildly critical profile. Shortly afterwards, having taken exception to the criticism, Winterson and Reynolds turned up late one evening on Gerrard’s doorstep. They insulted her, yelled at her; she claims that they even spat at her. Gerrard, who was giving a dinner party at the time, was distressed by the episode, not least because she respects Winterson as a writer. “It’s become one of those famous feuds and I really wish it hadn’t happened,” she says. “The ghost of it lingers on and becomes hardened into an official version. I’d love to meet her now and say, look, let’s forget it-not least because it gave people the excuse to put the boot into her and I think that’s horrible.”
Has Winterson brought opprobrium on herself by this very un-English combativeness, to say nothing of the fact that at least the last two books have failed to live up to expectations? Or have success and its financial rewards meant she has no need to please the public, leaving her with only the self-referential task of pleasing herself and Peggy (and her hard-core devotees)? Winterson has won no literary prizes since Body. (She and her fans tend to reduce her titles to one word-Oranges, Cherry, Body-though they stop short at calling the last one Gut). She has changed publishers several times and is about to do so again, leaving Frances Coady at Granta to return to Cape, and to be edited again by Philippa Brewster-a close friend as well as her first editor.
After Body came Art and Lies (1994), which was castigated for being boring or incomprehensible. Its last nine pages consist of an unedited (and unattributed) extract from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Then came a collection of essays published in 1995, Art Objects, which was not taken seriously by most critics, although Winterson herself clearly took it very seriously indeed. The jacket blurb (which she writes herself, like most authors) ends: “Thought-provoking, heartfelt, wise, personal and revealing, these essays… will invigorate and inspire the reader by offering a new way of seeing and understanding the central role art can play in life.” These are ambitious claims. I open the book at random and find this:
The emotional and psychic resonance of a particular people at a particular time is not a series of snapshots that can be stuck together to make a montage, it is a living, breathing, winding movement that flows out of the past and into the future while making its unique present. This fixity and flux is never clear until we are beyond it, into a further fixity and flux, and yet when we read our great literature, it seems that it was clear, at least to one group of people, a few out of millions, who come to be absolutely identified with their day; the artists.
In case the reader has not been concentrating, she then delivers herself of this paragraph: “Art does not imitate life. Art anticipates life.” The aphorism is a dangerous literary form unless an author is as witty as Wilde or pulses to humanity’s heartbeat like Stendhal. Winterson aphorises for another 200 pages. Is it an acute comment on the role of the artist in society by one who dedicates herself single-mindedly to her work? Or is it empty bombast?
Despite the critics, Winterson’s readers remain numerous. They care not what hoary old (male) reviewers think as long as the books continue to speak to them-clearly they do, as sales figures prove. These may be dwindling, but are still high enough to keep most “literary” authors happy. The much respected Frances Coady says: “Jeanette does not earn enormous amounts of money. She’s had the same advance for the last two or three books, which is indicative of a certain kind of sanity. She gets what I would think of as respectable advances-but they’re not in the ?500,000 league. None of her books has ever, to my knowledge, gone for that. I’m talking about what she earns from round-the-world sales. I don’t think we’ve paid unreasonable sums, considering that she’s a very important writer and occupies very unusual and difficult ground, being both literary and commercial.” Gossip in the trade puts her English and Commonwealth advances at around ?150,000, to which can be added foreign rights, serialisation, options and past royalties. At a rough estimate she probably earns between ?200,000-?250,000 a year.
In 1992 she established her own company to handle her work, Great Moments Ltd, run with Peggy Reynolds from their house in Gloucestershire. In its first year of trading the company made a profit of ?212,524. This would put Winterson among the top 50 English writers in terms of earning power. Only a tiny proportion of British writers earns more than ?50,000 a year from their books alone; most of the women in that ?lite produce “commercial” fiction, catering to the gold-embossed “airport” market.
Winterson earns enough to pay a number of dedicated women to cater for her domestic and administrative needs, freeing her to concentrate single-mindedly on “The Work” (as she refers to her writing). It infuriates her to hear these women described as a “coven”: “I’ve got an assistant in the country who comes in usually three times a week and helps run the business side of things, which is quite a handful. Then there’s Vicky, who deals with things in London, but that’s all I have apart from people who come and do the cleaning and the ironing, and Peggy, who’s in and out. The idea that I have a stage-set life served by handmaidens is absurd. For me, writing and the domestic life don’t fit together terribly well and it’s normal business practice to make sure that any operation runs smoothly. But I realise now that, as Ken Branagh told me, you can never win: the English hate-and envy-success and money.”
envy is often directed at a new successful writer, especially one who refuses to defer modestly to the presiding masters. Yet many male authors behave far worse and their behaviour is indulgently dismissed as laddishness or high spirits, like a pop star who might split his trousers on stage.
And it is also still just about true to say that most respected writers in Britain are white, male, middle class and, despite the feminist and ethnic invasions of the last 30 years, tend to come from the heart of the literary establishment. They have read or taught Eng. Lit. at one of the older universities or done time as a literary critic. (Winterson, in fact, qualifies on both counts.) “Most literary novelists,” she claims, “are middle class males. The fact that I’m not makes me dangerous to them. It frightens them that I’m so unrelentingly lesbian and most of all, that I’m happy.” Really? In these politically correct, gender-conscious times, is it really true that being female or lesbian is a handicap? The London literary world is full of female literary editors (Miriam Gross and Liz Jobey spring to mind) and female reviewers are legion. Yet Frances Coady agrees that much of the criticism is based on the fact that “she’s northern, she’s originally working class and she’s a lesbian, so on all those counts she’s a sitting duck, an alien species, for all those Oxbridge boys on newspapers.”
For all that, few of her critics doubt that Winterson remains a force to be reckoned with. She displays an unfashionable asceticism in pursuit of her craft. She belongs to no clubs, is rarely seen at fashionable bookish London hangouts such as the Groucho, rarely figures in gossip columns, seldom does the round of literary festivals, gives few readings, claims to watch no television and subscribes to no newspapers or magazines.
With time thus freed, Winterson reads for five hours a day, writes in sudden torrents of energy, collects 20th century first editions (signed and dated by the authors), cultivates her garden and admits to a lavish indulgence in champagne. In short, she enjoys a life most other writers would envy. It helps, of course, that she has no children. The pram in the hallway is still the writer’s greatest hazard.
We meet at the house in Spitalfields which Winterson has recently bought and renovated; a steep and narrow Georgian building which for the previous 150 years belonged to a family of fruit importers. (By a strange coincidence their name, still painted above the frontage, reads: J and W Fruit.) The door is opened by a young black woman who introduces herself as Vicky. (This is Vicky Lickorish, the actress, one of a quartet of loyal friends who have supported Winterson for more than a decade. Another, Philippa Brewster, says: “Jeanette is a fantastically interesting, generous person. The portrait painted by sections of the media is ludicrous if one knows her… She has a few good friends who’ve stuck it out over a long period of time. I feel very close to her.”)
Vicky leads the way up a wooden flight of stairs to the first floor. There, perfectly placed, perfectly lit, gazing out of the window in proud isolation, stands Jeanette Winterson. The pose is so blatantly Napoleonic that I expect her to swing round with a self-deprecating laugh, but self-deprecation is not in her repertoire. Eventually she turns. “Pleased to meet you,” she says, and leads the way into a small, austerely-furnished room. It is painted dark olive green and contains no furniture other than a pair of chairs and an ancient, deeply scored but highly polished wooden bench. A fire blazes in the grate and a vase of bright chrysanthemums stands in one corner of the room.
In person, Winterson is courteous and soft-spoken. She is small, with a wiry body, fierce tomboyish looks and short dark hair through which she constantly runs her fingers. Several years ago she posed naked for the jacket of a foreign edition of The Passion. At 38, she still could. She wears a bottle-green jumper and cream cotton trousers. No make-up. She isn’t in the least pretty but her face is compelling and her black eyes snap with intensity.
She appears nervous, as Frances Coady had told me to expect: “She’s petrified; she gets a fear of being given a hard time.” So, for that matter, am I. Several weeks before this meeting I had an anxiety dream about her. I have interviewed Arthur Miller and Iris Murdoch without suffering anxiety dreams, which shows how effectively Winterson has imposed her formidable personality on my journalistic psyche.
winterson was born in 1959 to unknown biological parents about whom she claims to feel no curiosity. Adopted at the age of six weeks by John and Connie Winterson, she was brought up in their small terraced house at 200 Water Street, Accrington, in Lancashire. He worked in a television factory; she was a housewife. They were what sociologists call “respectable working class.” Winterson makes much of the poverty in which she grew up.
Her adopted parents were Elim Pentecostalists: a fundamentalist sect which believes that every word in the Bible is literally true. “Their God,” she explained, “is very literal-Jimmy Swaggart’s God, a television evangelist’s God, whose theology never deviates from the Bible and has little intellectual content. It was a very unusual childhood but more and more it seems exactly right for the person I am. You have the childhood you need as an adult and I was happy-probably because I have an optimistic and positive nature.” Winterson claims to have grown up in a cultural desert: no books in her home, no paintings, no records of classical music; although Accrington has, for example, the finest museum of Tiffany glass in the country and in its working men’s clubs and libraries the best journalism and literature was ardently sought after. However, for a contemporary author she did acquire one rare asset-a thorough knowledge of the Bible. In a striking phrase, she said: “God was so tattooed on to me that I can’t but believe in him.” She had a passion for telling stories and was surrounded by people for whom the oral tradition remained strong. Men and women stood up in church every Sunday to give an account of their week. The young Winterson was always encouraged to do the same. “I grew up in a world structured by narrative.”
By 1971, at the age of 12, she was already preaching and saving souls. Her mother wanted her to be a missionary. The messianic streak has had an extraordinary effect on her as a person and as a writer. (More than one person told me: “Winterson used literally to believe she was God.”) Nicci Gerrard believes this is what makes her prose so distinctive: “That religious missionary, evangelical messianic fervour in her writing; even when it’s not going well it’s going with a terrific throb and always daring; she’s got the courage of her own convictions.” As a writer, she is imbued by an unshakeable certainty that she has seen the light and it is her duty to lead others along the same path. This can give her books a condescending, even intimidating tone which may account for much of the scorn heaped upon her. Few critics, wherever they come from, care to be patronised by a working class lesbian from Accrington.
The reverence she inspired in her fellow Pentecostalists did not last long. In 1975, aged 16, she was discovered in bed with a lesbian lover-legend has it, a fish-filleter-and publicly denounced by the Pentecostalists. Undeterred, she left home and took her A-levels at a local technical college, supporting herself by doing various odd jobs as an undertaker’s assistant, in an ice-cream parlour, and a domestic in a mental hospital. It would be hard to devise a set of experiences more perfectly calculated to turn a clever girl with a vivid imagination into a writer.
In 1978 she sat the entrance exam to St Catherine’s, Oxford. Having failed to pass at the first interview, she claims to have told the admissions tutor: “You must let me in. It’s crucial.” She was so insistent that they relented. She went up in 1979 and topped up her grant by serving behind the college bar.
She insists that it is exceptional for a writer to emerge from a background such as hers. When I instance the many other writers who have done it-Dennis Potter, for example-she evades the comparison. “To be working class means physical poverty, but it also means to be in a cultural ethos which is undernourished so that there is nothing outside the factory and the pub,” she says. This belief that coming from a proletarian background is a virtually insurmountable handicap, seems historically na?ve, not to mention self-serving. Working class authors from DH Lawrence onwards have always been able to get into print if they had sufficient talent. This is true of women too: take Shelagh Delaney, Pat Barker or Sue Townsend. Winterson herself had been published by the time she was 26. Yet in the course of our meeting she only became confrontational once-when I suggested that middle class children could also be at a disadvantage; could also come from philistine or culturally impoverished homes. Her voice rose and sharpened; her northern accent, usually almost undetectable, became more emphatic.
“I really don’t accept this. One of the things that annoys me enormously is when middle class people think of themselves as underprivileged, when they have no idea what it means to run out of money on Wednesday and not get paid till Friday and not have a bank account and not have a telephone and not have a car and not know anybody who’s got any of these things and not know if you’re going to have money to pay the rent and not have money to put into the gas meter-these are the things that really separate people out. When I went to Oxford it was glaringly not true that there really is no difference between middle class life and working class life. It’s different in every respect… I don’t know anybody-anybody-from my background who has been able or has really wanted to cross the bridge into my kind of life.”
After three years at St Catherine’s she took an unflashy degree in English. She made her way to London, and as a raffish young graduate undertook a series of odd jobs which included working at the Roundhouse theatre, three weeks as a stockbroker, bits and pieces for a publishing firm called Brilliance Books (now defunct) and also for the Pandora Press (which eventually published her first book); and prostitution. Prostitution? When I ask about this rumour, which surfaced in an interview with Ginny Dougary for The Times, Winterson does not repudiate the story, only the use of the word prostitution.
“I took exception to that and told The Times it was not a word I had used. It can only be understood by overlaying it with a heterosexual template. A prostitute is somebody who solicits for work professionally and is paid for it and I tried to explain to Ginny that this wasn’t the case. No money ever changed hands. This was before feminism hit London and women were still living double lives. They had to be covert about their sexuality, if they were lesbians.” Even in the early 1980s? “Yes. When I was at Oxford there was no university lesbian or gay club. Before that there was a lost generation of women who, although they would have identified themselves as lesbians, had no way of expressing themselves. Their only way was via a club called Gateways, in Chelsea. Things are much better and more open now. Women ten years younger than me can feel comfortable about their choices and their orientation and be accepted as such. What I did was not prostitution.” But she was paid-famously-in Le Creuset saucepans.
Winterson has been accused in the past of manipulating publicity and this story seems almost too good to be true. She must have known the headline writers would have a field day with Le Creuset and that the resulting notoriety and laughter would boost the sales of her latest book.
Winterson admits that this was her wild period. She had a lot of jobs; many lovers; not much money. Like other young writers she needed a mentor. In the late 1980s, she had an exceptionally lucky break. Thanks to Pat Kavanagh, who was agent to both writers, she met the crime novelist Ruth Rendell and her husband Don. Winterson’s next four books were written in their garden shed: she calls it a “hovel.”
“I was living in one room in Kentish Town and above me lived a concert pianist with a grand piano. I realised I needed some space and thanks to Pat I began to look after Ruth and Don’s house and their four cats when they went away. What costs money in the modern world is quiet and space.
“I’ve got my own hovel now, at the bottom of my own fields, where I alternate periods of intense idleness and frenetic activity. I know when the day’s work is finished because I lose a kind of intensity-I feel it beginning to drain off so I stop because otherwise I start gibbering. When I’ve finished I show it to Peggy. I trust her because she’s analytical, and she loves me and understands the way I think. But when I work, there’s nobody between me and the words. It’s like a lovers’ relationship-tender, intimate, vulnerable. I never know if I’ll be able to write another book. Each one is a miracle and a surprise.”
For the time being Winterson doesn’t have a book under way. She has a collection of short stories due in the summer and she is doing a script of The Passion for Miramax, and enjoying it. “I like the glittery excitement and the collaborative nature of the film world. I’m curious about Hollywood. I’ve banged out a very good contract though I probably haven’t thought of everything. If they do make a terrific film of The Passion, it will bring many more people to the book.” Which is what really matters to her.
I myself read or re-read all her books in the space of a few weeks and found myself much more indulgent towards their shortcomings after meeting her. Contrary to her defiant public stance, her vulnerability in private is touching and her dedication to writing utterly sincere. I found myself looking for merit in her later books rather than being infuriated by their often portentous tone and their fall from the artful grace of the early ones. Opinion is divided but for now her critics outnumber her supporters. Joan Bakewell is a supporter. She said of Gut Symmetries: “It is a jumpy, fierce, scintillating mess of a book but … Jeanette Winterson is a real writer.” Yet the Scottish writer Allan Massie wrote of the same book: “How sad that she should bury her talent beneath a froth of pretentious verbiage.” Adam Mars-Jones agrees. So does Mich?le Roberts, the feminist critic.
It would be premature to say that she has shot her bolt. But for the time being Winterson does seem to have lost her way-perhaps through striving too hard for new effects. She stated her credo very early: “Oranges marked the beginning of my experiment with style, structure and language and I made a silent promise that if it proved beyond me to go on doing something different, then I would stop.” It is a tall order to re-invent the novel every time.
But there is one flaw she must overcome if she aspires-as she clearly does-to being a great writer. John Updike is great because he can make inadequate, unattractive characters such as Rabbit or Rabbit’s son Nelson move us to tears. Winterson can write about the love between man and woman but her true understanding of the human heart is confined to passionate love between women-spirited, beautiful young women at that. She has not yet dealt with the love between parent and child, still less between the old or the ugly. She does not, apparently, have the capacity to attribute love to failed, damaged, difficult people. This want of sympathy, rather than her working class origins or her lesbianism, is the real barrier to her admission into the literary pantheon. If Winterson is ever to write books which will outlast her present audience and its modish whims, she must learn to interpret all sorts and conditions of that fallible, vulnerable, frustrated, yearning organ-the human heart.