Jeanette Winterson has drawn upon Biblical plots and symbolism — especially when articulating lesbian romance and sexual passion — since her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985). Marian Eide writes that Winterson resists the “merging of self and other typically ascribed to lesbian couple[s]” — ie. the ‘urge to merge’ — but I disagree.
The protagonists in Winterson’s novels usually have a complicated relationship with their own desire and, because they’ve felt such repression and rejection, they’re often filled with a longing to be absorbed by the other… so much so that they’re often left abandoned. It’s a matter of religious worship and idolization: the feelings of unworthiness prevent the protagonists from finding their happy endings.
Oranges Are Not the Only fruit
Because Winterson’s protagonists have repeatedly suffered rejection and persecution, especially from their own mothers during childhood, they often lack boundaries with their lovers. Their lovers are usually as illusive as their mother’s love and readers are rarely given the romantic ending we crave. It’s the protagonists’ readiness to worship the lovers — the unconditional devotion of such idols — that curses them. The reader is privy to this worship, more so than the recipient, because the rites of worship are such a part of the protagonist’s internal world.
“But where was God now, with heaven full of astronauts, and the Lord overthrown? I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, I thought once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky. If the servants hadn’t rushed in and parted us, I might have been disappointed, might have snatched off the white samite to find a bowl of soup.”
The protagonist in Winterson’s novels is often more comfortable putting their lover on a pedestal and worshipping them like a primary, personal congregant, than experiencing the mutual devotion that exists in healthy relationships. They’re uncomfortable with receiving the same affection. Touch becomes a focal point in the story, just as touch is both revered and policed in matters of religious worship.
“I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and knows that love is as strong as death, and be on my side forever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me.”
Written on the Body
Winterson has a complicated relationship with the idea of confession: on one hand she admits to the personal overtones in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but, on the other, she challenges whether the author’s lives should be read into in Written on the Body (1994). Written on the Body is arguably the most romantic in its expression of worship out of all of her books, but in a raw, fleshy, bloody way. Winterson argues that love is about mutual service in the book.
“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. What then kills love? Only this: Neglect. Not to see you when you stand before me. Not to think of you in the little things. Not to make the road wide for you, the table spread for you. To choose you out of habit not desire, to pass the flower seller without a thought. To leave the dishes unwashed, the bed unmade, to ignore you in the mornings, make use of you at night. To crave another while pecking your cheek. To say your name without hearing it, to assume it is mine to call.”
Written on the Body led to a wave of raging lesbian critics angry Winterson left the sex of the main character ambiguous. I’m not angry at her for doing so. I think it naturalizes lesbian desire by taking the focus off it being a lesbian relationship. She doesn’t make it heterosexual either; it is relatable to members of any sexual orientation.
“Time that withers you will wither me. We will fall like ripe fruit and roll down the grass together. Dear friend, let me lie beside you watching the clouds until the earth covers us and we are gone.”
I’m not suggesting all lesbian writers should do the same from now on. I’m not suggesting that we should dislocate the specificity of lesbian love, but the main character’s ambiguity is a meaningful technique in the book. Men read it and told Winterson she “got them” in ways they assumed a woman couldn’t, but there was nothing particularly “manly” about the character. There’s no explicit mention of the main character being male or female, so the fact lesbian critics assumed they were male, like man is default, is questionable.
“Explore me,’ you said and I collected my ropes, flasks and maps, expecting to be back home soon. I dropped into the mass of you and I cannot find the way out. Sometimes I think I’m free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognise myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon’s wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know.”
Removing the sex of the main character is a matter of self-sacrificing worship. Their identity, the sketch readers get of them, is less important than their devotion to their lover. The character’s worship is religious: the lover takes the stage. The lover is placed upon the pedestal. The lover has the power to destroy the main character; they are at her mercy. Whether the main character is male or female isn’t supposed to be the focus. They’re irrelevant.
“She smells of the sea. She smells of rockpools when I was a child. She keeps a starfish in there. I crouch down to taste the salt, to run my fingers around the rim. She opens and shuts like a sea anemone. She’s refilled each day with fresh tides of longing.”
The “death of the author” — the idea that the story should be read outside of our affiliation with the author’s personal life — is a freeing concept to some, but the readership’s worship, ambivalence or vitriol toward an author is inescapable. Winterson can make the sex of the main character ambiguous, but we know she’s same-sex attracted and we know she’s a woman. Winterson is open about the way Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is part autobiography and, like John Mullan suggests, I think many writers of fiction — myself included — hope for an epiphany of “psychoanalytic explanation” through storytelling.
“When I say ‘I will be true to you’ I am drawing a quiet space beyond the reach of other desires.”
However, I don’t think we want psychoanalysis from the reader. Many of us don’t find joy in discussing the personal aspects of our writing. The journey of writing a story is different for everyone but, for some, it’s a spiritual pilgrimage. Whether or not Jeanette Winterson takes on the process of writing like that is besides the point: her characters are clearly on that journey, nonetheless. Their shrine and sacred place is their lover/God and their self-sabotaging behaviour and devout worship make for some great conflict.
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