Jeanette Winterson - The Passion

Elaboration, 1998
11 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)

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According to Jeanette Winterson, there is not much use in talking about biographies or even sexuality . I will still say a few words about her life. For more stories about it you could read Oranges are not the only fruit, or just watch the film even though, as she put it in Art Objects - Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (1995): “Art must resist autobiography if it hopes to cross boundaries of class, culture...and sexuality.“1

1. Biography

She was born in Lancashire in 1959 and raised in a working-class fundamentalist Christian home being adpoted as a child by a Pentecostal Evangelical family. They brought her up for evangelical service, to become a missionary and, she is said to have written sermons already at the age of eight years. People came to Accrington only to hear her preach. The only books she grew up with were three bibles and three other books. When her mother found the books she had kept under her mattress she burned them all.

At the age of fifteen she left home after she had told her mother about her first lesbian relationship. So that she got more or less thrown out of the family and the religious community.

After several partly rather odd jobs she eventually began to study at Oxford University where she graduated in 1981 with an M.A. in English literature. Since 1987 she has been working as a full-time writer.

There would be a lot more to say about her, about what made her become the rather missionary writer she is, or in her own words: a prophet who in comparison to the priest walks into unknown territory. The priest, on the other hand, merely spreads the words he has been taught. One walks with a walking stick and the other without it.

2. Art, Ancestry and Central Topics

She has said herself so much about writing that it appears to be rather difficult to figure out the most important points. She claims to be a prophet who searches into foreign territory, and in her latest novel Art and Lies she seems to have pushed the credo of postmodernity to its limit. According to Marion Wynne Davies, postmodernity can be described as:

“resist(ing) the very idea of boundaries, regard(ing) distinctions as undesirable and even impossible, so that an Utopian world, free from all constraints, becomes possible In literature, writers adopt a self-conscious intertextuality sometimes verging on pastiche, which denies the formal propriety of authorship and genre.“2

In an essay about Jeanette Winterson I found the following statement concerning her latest novel, which confirms the notion of her breaking the boundaries (if there are any):

“In her latest novel, Art and Lies, she abandons almost every notion of convention. There is no plot, no sense of time or place other than vague setting in some future Britain where the monarchy has been abolished and the Curch of England disestablished. There is no real characterization, and the book ends, somewhat inexplicably, with a nine-page reproduction of the trio from Richard Strauss's opera 'Der Rosenkavalier'.“3

Winterson's attitude towards books (reading as well as writing) seems to be an anachronistic one inspite of her postmodernity. She attempts to be the prophet who opens up a world of emotions, subtleties, pictures to the reader like fairy tales, like visions.

“Art is not documentary. It may incidentally serve that function in its own way but it's true effort is to open to us dimensions of the spirit and of the self that normally lie smothered under the weight of living.“4

A central term in Winterson's philosophy seems to be complex emotion, which is:

“pivoted around the forbidden. When I feel the complexities of a situation I am feeling the manysidedness of it, not the obvious smooth shape, grasped at once and easily forgotten. Complexity leads to perplexity. I do not know my place Complex emotion often follows some major event in our lives; sex, falling in love, birth, death, are the commonest and in each of these potencies are strong taboos. The striking loneliness of the individual when confronted with these large happenings that we all share, is a loneliness of displacement. The person is thrown out of the normal groove of their life and whilst they stumble, they also have to carry a new weight of feeling, feeling that threatens to overwhelm them.“5

It needs a certain moment to open up a whole new world of complex emotions, which I would call a moment of epiphany in the sense of illumination or inspiration (or even creation), or as Erzgräber puts it:

“...daß die Epiphanie niemals als ein Erlebnis verstanden werden kann, dem im tradtionellen Sinne mystische Qualität zukommt: im epiphaniehaften Moment erglänzt kein Licht aus einer andern Welt, sondern ein Licht, das aus dem menschlichen Bewußtsein selber stammt, das seinerseits von den Dingen, von Ereignissen und Träumen in einer unerwarteten Weise jäh getroffen wird.“6

Henri's falling in love with Villanelle in The Passion provides an example for such an epiphanic moment:

“She laughed and said the Russians could hide under the snowflakes. Then she said, 'They're all different.' 'What?' 'Snowflakes. Think of that.' I did think of that and I fell in love with her.“7

Passion and Epiphany appear to be mutually dependent on each other. Moments of epiphany can also be found in the novels of one of Winterson's great ancestors Virginia Woolf, for instance in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), when Clarissa believes to be carried “on waves of that divine vitality.“8

I have mentioned before that Winterson attempts to broaden the emotional view of the reader. This is the aim which she aspires to. She is not interested in overt political statements about homosexuality. Still, one finds quite a lot about that topic in her novels like in Angela Carter's books which deal very much with sex and gender, e.g. Heroes and Villains. The Magic Toyshop is admittedly one of the most influential novels for Jeanette Winterson.

The novel that I am talking about, The Passion, was first published in 1987 and it was followed by another novel with a historical setting, Sexing the Cherry (1989). When I first read these novels I was instantly reminded of novels by Angela Carter and of Magic Realism. Magic Realism, according to Marion Wynne Davies in the Guide to English Literature, is:

“A term applied in literature primarily to Latin American novelists such as Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1987), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (born 1928) and Alejo Carpentier (born 1904), whose work combines a realistic manner with strong elements of the bizarre, supernatural and fantastic. This technique has influenced novelists such as John Fowles, Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie.“

In Jeanette Winterson's The Passion the reader is also lead into a fantastic world (just like in Heroes and Villains) where he or she has to abandon reason and everyday experience for the trust in the storyteller. The setting is a historical one, but then, apart from this basis, there is not much official history. The correlation between the individual's experience and official history is fading at latest when the supernatural is introduced. Annegret Maack says in Der experimentelle englische Roman der Gegenwart “der historische wird zum Gegenwartsroman“9, and Winterson supports that view with the introduction to her novel The Passion:: “I wanted to write a separate world, not as an escape, as a mirror, a secret looking glass that would sharpen and multiply the possibilities of the actual world.“

3. The Stories

The stories might be true or not, but they could be true at least. The author plays with these possibilities. She opens up another world for the reader or rather two worlds, Henri's world of the linear movement and Villanelle's one of the circular. These two worlds are the two stories that become interwoven with eachother. The first story is about Henri, a poor farm boy who decides to join Napoleon's troops. Instead of becoming a real soldier he ends up as Napoleon's chicken chief and does not kill anybody apart from innumerable amounts of chickens during the eight years of his service.

The second story is about Villanelle, a young Venetian boatsman's daughter born with webbed feet. She works in a casino where she dresses up as a boy every now and then, and there she meets a woman who steals her heart in the very literal sense. She marries a fat man and later tries to escape from him. He searches her out and sells her as a prostitute for Napoleon's men. This is where the two stories fuse, and Villanelle and Henri meet. They manage to escape together with Patrick, a former Irish priest with one very sharp eye, sharp enough to observe what the English are doing on the other side of the channel. Patrick dies on the way while the two of them get to Venice, the city of mazes without straight ways which lead from one point to another, but where one should “do something not planned if that is where the streets leads you.“10. “The cities of the interior do not lie on any map.“11 Villanelle says after Henri had tried for five days to find his way back to her parent's house. Vilanelle obviously refers to the inner cities of Venice as well as to those of the mind. The straight line of Henri's passion for the emperor is compared to Villanelle's passion, for whom the complexity of emotion and passion is as natural as the complexity of Venice. One has to be patient and rely on oneself, one's intuition, and one will find the right place. Henri tries to follow her into these inner cities, and he finds his place in San Servolo and does not want to leave anymore, even when Villanelle has organized everything for his escape. He has accepted that one just can not escape from oneself forever. His passion for the emperor has been replaced by the one for Villanelle, which she does not return. Her heart has been broken before and, according to her, this can happen only once.

Turning this argument around, that a heart can be broken only once, his passion for Bonaparte was not a real one, but a search for fulfilment led astray.

“We are a lukewarm people and our longing for freedom is our longing for love. If we had the courage to love we would not so value these acts of war.“, Henri says quite at the end of his journey, and he goes on “When I fell in love it was as though I looked into a mirror for the first time and saw myself.“12

4. History and its Heroes

I have said a few words about Villanelle's and Henri's different ways of seeing the world. As a matter of fact, I should have started with the question I asked myself after having read the novel for the first time. Does Jeanette Winterson accept the way history is made, patriarchal history, stories mainly selected by men, made up by men? By taking up these historical events does not she value their importance? And does it not mean she accepts them?

I think she does not mean to accept them - quite the opposite, actually. She lets the reader oscillate between fact and fiction, for instance by repeating over and over again that same sentence: “I'm telling you stories. Trust me.“13, which she explores in different ways. The following statement by Winterson from Art Objects shall enlighten the notion of the epiphanic moment. The epiphanic moment produces a central image, which she then explores further through the course of the novel.

“ It is sometimes necessary to be silent for months before the central image of a book can occur The moment will arrive, always it does, it can be predicted but it cannot be demanded. I do not think of this as an inspiration. I think of it as readyness. For me, the fragments of the image I seek are stellar; they beguile me, as stars do, I seek to describe them, to interprete them, but I cannot possess them, they are too far away. At last and for no straightforward reason, but out of patience and searching, I find that what was remote in my hands This gift can concentrate itself into a single line: 'Why is the measure of love loss?' from which the other lines are gradually taken, like Adam's rib, or it can concentrate itself as the returnig thought of a book Once returned, the gift, the image, must be exploded again, like mercury, throughout every part of the book.“14

The history or the story which Winterson tells us is something like an emotional history just as the diary Henri keeps in order to document not the facts but the feelings. In a discussion about the use of a diary he says: “‘I don't care about the facts, Domino, I care about how I feel. How I feel will change, I want to remember that.’“15

Later Henri states: “I invented Bonaparte as much as he invented himself.“16 In this sense Henri is a historian himself. He writes down the things that he finds important and leaves out that what is not important to him. Henri documents his passion, but this does not make his diary a work of art. It is, according to Winterson, a prerequisite for art. Without passion you can not make art. Henri notices that when he tries to write in his diary about his encounter with Josephine, Bonaparte's wife: “I wrote about her or tried to. She eluded me the way the tarts in Boulogne had eluded me. I decided to write about Napoleon instead.“17

Sometimes the things which he mentions with a certain seriousness appear rather funny and make Bonaparte quite a different person from the hero that Henri saw in him. From a dispassionate view Bonaparte is described as:

- eating incredible amounts of chicken,
- sleeping like a dog: ready to get up every minute and to stay awake for days,
- having his men killed regardless (just in order to practice)
- making up aphorisms (which are actually complete crap).

Hero-worship is probably not something Jeanette Winterson values much. I found the description of Napoleon very ironic.

All the features mentioned above do not necessarily make Napoleon an impressive person. On the other hand, this is a book about how passion works and how it eludes rational thinking, and how Bonaparte made people die for him may be only explained in terms of passion. He seemed to make sense of people's life. He brought passion into the life of these “lukewarm people“, as Henri calls them.

Napoleon himself does not play such a big role in the novel. His name serves to unify the novel and to reiterate the relationship between history and memory. He is an outside character who does not directly influence the narration.

5. Sexuality and Gender

Winterson says in Art Objects: “I know that the language of my passion and the language of my art are not the same thing.“18

Good literature, or rather the literature of a prophet needs to deal with the complexity of emotion irrespective of the hetero,- or homosexuality of the writer, which means one should not mix up the life of the writer again with the novel. The transfer of passion into art by means of language is an important key to Winterson's work, I think. In that respect at least The Passion is also a book about her passion for language. It does not mean that her novels are not about homosexuality. But she is not a mimetic writer, she does not translate one to one.

Once lesbians in fiction served as a threat to heterosexual society. When they appeared in fiction they finally had to die, to go crazy, to disappear, and afterwards everything was just as if they had not existed.19 And while the concept of lesbians in fiction has developed much, so that homosexual life is described just like that of other parts of society, the binary concept of gender still remains.

“While the binary concepts of gender produced by this system of masculinity and femininity may vary considerably from one society to the next and may further undergo significant shifts in the course of history, the duality of gender itself nonetheless necessarily presupposes an immutable and biologically determined opposition between the categories of sex, between male and female. The binary frame of sex in ts turn depends on an unquestioned assumption of a 'natural' heterosexuality. Within this heterocentric universe lesbian sexuality can have no place.“20

I do not know if that is a bit over the top, but it serves the purpose: it supports the idea of gender-transgression. The binary frame is transgressed by Villanelle for whom it does not make much of a difference if she is dressed up as a woman or as a man. Gender is more of a game about diversity. For Villanelle there is no real opposition between male and female, not in her dressing and not in her physique, either, being born with webbed feet inspite of being a woman. The game becomes perverted by the fat cook, who wants to marry Villanelle partly because of her crossdressing. The heartless marriage that traditionally used to come as final salvation after a homosexual affair of a woman is here just an unhappy stadium that Villanelle escapes from, and it even secures her a comfortable financial status after the murder of her husband. With his death she regains her identity in terms of financial and social status as well as freedom.

Still, Winterson is careful not to introduce this lesbian relationship at the beginning of the book. She tries to catch the reader first in order not to let him or her escape from her world later.

And how does the novel end? Villanelle, the strong one, is left with money and a child, Henri is going to spend the rest of his life in the madhouse of San Servolo. Both have found back to a certain quietness...

“I don't believe in happy endings. All of my books end on an ambiguous note because nothing ever is that neatly tied up, there is always another beginning, there is always the blank page after the one that has writing on it. And that is the page I want to leave to the reader.“21


Fried, Kerry: Lesbian Fictions: Straight or Narrow? In:, 1993-1998.

Hoogland, Renee, C.: Hard to Swallow: Indigestible Narratives of Lesbian Sexuality. In: 4hoogland.html, 1995.

Jeanette Winterson. In: Winterson.html, 1997.

The Jeanette Winterson Site: General Information, Biography, Bibliography, Novels, Scripts, Short Stories, Essays, Other Writings, Advanced Information, Literary Influences. In:

Joyce, Lisa: Memory and Oblivion: The Historical Fiction of Rikki Ducornet, Jeanette Winterson and Susan Daitch. In:, 1996.

Maack, Annegret: Der experimentelle englische Roman der Gegenwart. Darmstadt, 1984.

Miller, Laura: Rogue Element. The Salon Interview. In:, 1997.

Pressler, Chris: Prizes and Fairy Tales - Jeanette Winterson versus Salman Rushdie. In:, 1996.

Smith, Patricia, Juliana: “And I Wondered If She Might Kiss Me“: Lesbian Panic as Narrative Strategy in British Women’s Fictions. In:, 1995.

Thomsen, Christian, W./ Holländer, Hans (ed.): Augenblick und Zeitpunkt. Studien zur Zeitstruktur und Zeitmetaphorik in Kunst und Wissenschaften. Darmstadt, 1984.

Winterson, Jeanette: Art Objects. Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York, 1996. Winterson, Jeanette: The Passion. London, 1987.

Winterson, Jeanette: Sexing the Cherry. London, 1989.

Winterson, Jeanette: Orangen sind nicht die einzige Frucht. Frankfurt a.M., 1993. Wynne-Davies, Marion: Guide to English Literature. Bloomsbury, 1994.


1 Winterson, Jeanette: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York, 1996. p.106.

2 Wynne Davies, Marion: Guide to English Literature. Bloomsbury, 1994.

3 Pressler, Chris: Prizes and Fairy tales-Jeanette Winterson versus Salman Rushdie. p.1.

4 Winterson, Jeanette: Art Objects. Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New Yo rk, 1996. p.135.

5 ibid. p.113.

6 Erzgräber, Willi: 'The Moment of Vision' im Modernen Englischen Roman. In: Thomsen, Christian, W./ Holländer, Hans (ed.): Augenblick und Zeitpunkt. Studien zur Zeitstruktur und Zeitmetaphorik in Kunst und Wissenschaften. Darmstadt, 1984. p. 375.

7 Winterson, Jeanette: The Passion. London, 1987. p.87f.

8 ibid. p. 371.

9 Maack, Annegret: Der experimentelle englische Roman der Gegenwart. Darmstadt, 1984. p.158.

10 Winterson, Jeanette: The Passion. London, 1987. 113.

11 ibid. p.114.

12 ibid. p.154.

13 ibid. p.5.

14 Winterson, Jeanette: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York, 1996. p.169f.

15 Winterson, Jeanette: The Passion. London, 1987. p.29.

16 ibid. p.158.

17 ibid. p.36.

18 Winterson, Jeanette: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York, 1996. p.105.

19 Smith, Patricia, Juliana: "And I Wondered If She Might Kiss Me": Lesbian Panic as Narrative Strategy in British Women's Fictions.

20 Hoogland, Renee, C.: Hard to Swallow: Indigestible Narratives of Lesbian Sexuality. In: p.6.

21 Miller, Laura: Rogue Element. The Salon Interview. p.3.

11 of 11 pages


Jeanette Winterson - The Passion
1,3 (A)
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Jeanette, Winterson, Passion
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Jeannine Schätzle (Author), 1998, Jeanette Winterson - The Passion, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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