In a brief amount of time the British writer Jeanette Winterson established a special place for herself in the literary community. Published in fourteen languages, her work early began to meet with popular and critical succes. After receiving a degree in English from Oxford University, she set out to look for editorial jobs but met with no success. At an interview for one such job, she began telling her interviewer stories about her life. The prospective employer encouraged her to write them down, and the result was her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Winterson herself remains elusive as to the exact details of her own life, but she refers to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as “semi-autobiographical.” The novel details a childhood spent in a Pentecostal community with a domineering and strictly religious mother. Throughout her youth, the protagonist, aptly named “Jeanette,” nurtured her skills as a preacher and a potential missionary. However, Jeanette leaves the church and is kicked out of her home when both the congregation she had considered her extended family and her mother reject her upon discovering she is a lesbian. The novel won the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award and was later made into a miniseries for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit established Winterson as a witty commentator on accepted social standards. Even she expresses surprise that her novels, which question social perspectives that view heterosexuality and religion as undeniable “truths,” could be so popular. Using an unconventional novel structure characterized by a collage of reinterpreted fairy tales, parables, and other metaphorical narratives that interrupt the central story, Winterson unveils a social reality rooted in spiritual hypocrisy and, ultimately, patriarchy.
Boating for Beginners, a comical retelling of the story of Noah and the ark with a contemporary consciousness, displays Winterson’s ability to use humor to explore hypocrisy in faith. Her third novel, The Passion, won the 1987 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for fiction, receiving international acclaim for its unique fusion of the historical and the fantastic. Narrated alternately by Henri, who worships his employer, Napoleon, and the cross-dresser Villanelle, an inhabitant of Venice with webbed feet that allow her to walk on water, the novel examines the Napoleonic era through a magical eye that entwines literal and figurative images in its telling of history.
After The Passion, critics classified Winterson as a novelist of the “magic realism” genre. Her styled use of fantastic imagery makes the figurative appear to be fact in the context of her stories. Sexing the Cherry provides the best example of Winterson’s success with these methods. The story of a mother, the Dog Woman, and her son Jordan occurs during the Protestant Reformation. The images throughout distort common perceptions of gender by depicting a grotesque female character who carries out acts of cartoonish violence, and by providing a feminist interpretation of what really happens in fairy tales. The novel’s very structure then confuses common perceptions of time by making a transgressive leap into a contemporary time that seems to run parallel to the period already familiar in the main story. A winner of the E. M. Forster Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, Sexing the Cherry earned recognition as a “postmodern” novel, a label that was the source of both its sharpest criticism and its highest praise.
In the 1990’s Winterson began to earn a reputation as an eccentric. At around the same time, there seemed to be a marked shift in her stylistic approach to writing. A didactic, though lyrical, language replaced the magic realism and fantasy that characterized much of the wit and thematic substance in her previous novels. Written on the Body continues Winterson’s explorations into sexual identity but distinguishes this theme only by a conspicuous failure to mention the narrator’s gender. The narrator’s seduction of and eventual parting from a wealthy married woman stricken with leukemia mirrors the controversy enveloping Winterson at that time, as she made public her own affair with the wealthy wife of a well-known British businessman.
Winterson’s next book, Art and Lies, is considered a dense work because of its epicurean language, symbolic imagery, slim plot, and ethereal characterizations of the three narrators: Handel, Picasso, and Sappho. Through their voices Winterson explores how definitions of “art” oversimplify its true meaning in the complicated context of individual lives. The “gut” in Gut Symmetries refers to the physicist’s Holy Grail, the Grand Unification Theory, and tells of the interrelationships between two physicists, a male who has an affair with a female, and the male physicist’s wife, who also has an affair with the female physicist. Winterson uses physics theory as a metaphor for love throughout the book, narrated from the perspectives of all three participants. The PowerBook moves into cyberspace, with a narrator who is a virtual storyteller named Ali–or sometimes Alix–whose stories open windows–and Windows–into life.
Winterson also periodically published a few short stories. “Psalms” and “Only the Best for the Lord” appeared in 1985 and 1986, respectively, and “The World and Other Places” and “The Lives of Saints” in 1990 and 1993. A collection, The World and Other Places, appeared in 1998. Through all her writing, Jeanette Winterson remains known as an innovative and often controversial writer who tackles the written word without fear and styles it within an often unique and innovative story.