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literature

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Winterson, Jeanette (b. 1959)  

Jeanette Winterson's prize-winning novels exploring lesbian and gender issues have quickly gained a following not only among lesbian and gay readers but also among mainstream readers as well.

Winterson was born in Manchester, England, and adopted as an infant by Constance and John William Winterson, both Pentecostalists. Raised in an evangelical atmosphere, Winterson began preaching and writing sermons at age of eight. Given her talent for winning converts, she seemed destined for a career as a missionary; but, as she explains, "this didn't work out."

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Her inclination toward "Unnatural Passion" led to irreconcilable differences with the church congregation, and, as a consequence, she left home at fifteen. She subsequently attended Accrington College of Further Education and supported herself through a variety of odd jobs, including driving an ice cream van, doing janitorial work in a mental hospital, and preparing corpses in a funeral home, experiences to which she makes wry reference in various novels.

Winterson was eventually admitted to St. Catherine's College, Oxford, from which she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1981. After graduating, she moved to London, where she worked at the Roundhouse Theatre and in the publishing business.

In 1985, while living "a life of poverty," she published her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a fictionalized autobiography that vividly, painfully, and humorously portrays the absolutist mindset of Christian fundamentalism and the intense of the basically female members of the congregation.

This witty inversion of the traditional religious conversion narrative, with the titles of its seven chapters corresponding with the first seven books of the Old Testament, provides a new twist to the by-now traditional lesbian coming-out narrative.

Although written in two months for financial reward, the novel brought Winterson critical acclaim and the Whitbread Prize for best first fiction. She later wrote the screenplay for the 1990 British television film version of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best drama.

A now-disowned work, Boating for Beginners was also published in 1985. This broad satirical farce utilizes the biblical tale of Noah's Ark to lampoon both organized religion and commercial hucksterism, representing them as barely separable from one another.

Winterson has devoted herself to writing full-time since publishing The Passion (1987), a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars. Through the medium of magic realism, the author presents the narrative of Henri, a young man of ambivalent sexuality conscripted as a cook into Napoleon's army, crossed with that of the , bisexual Villanelle, the web-footed daughter of a Venetian boatman.

The Passion won the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize for best writer under thirty-five years of age and firmly established Winterson's literary reputation.

Her most ambitious novel, Sexing the Cherry (1989), further elaborates the magic realism of The Passion in the digressive tale of Jordan and his giantess mother, the Dog Woman. Set initially in Restoration London against a backdrop of wondrous discoveries from the New World, the narrative follows the travels and travails of its characters as they transcend time, place, and gender, thus questioning the reality of any central, unified truth or, indeed, reality itself.

With the publication of Sexing the Cherry, Winterson received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Written on the Body (1992), the erotically charged account of the love of the unnamed, ambiguously gendered narrator for the captivating and terminally ill Louise, has brought Winterson favorable attention from diverse audiences.

In addition to her novels, she has written a fitness guide for women and has edited anthologies of short stories. A writer of great intelligence and imagination, Jeanette Winterson has gained a following not only among lesbian and gay readers but mainstream ones as well. She promises to be an influential force in shaping the future of English-language letters.

Patricia Juliana Smith

     

 
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Jeannette Winterson reading her book, Light Housekeeping in Warsaw, Poland. Photograph by Mariusz Kubik.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Allen, Carolyn. Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Doan, Laura. "The Fruits of Lesbian Desire: Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Postmodern." The Lesbian Postmodern. Laura Doan, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 138-155.

Grice, Helena, and Tim Woods, eds. "I'm Telling You Stories": Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of Reading. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

Hinds, Hilary. "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: Reaching Audiences Other Lesbian Texts Cannot Reach." New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings. Sally Munt, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. 153-172.

O'Rourke, Rebecca. "Fingers in the Fruit Basket: A Feminist Reading of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit." Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice. Susan Sellers, Linda Hutcheon, and Paul Perron, eds. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. 57-69.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin. "Mothers and the Avant-Garde: A Case of Mistaken Identity?" Femmes Frauen Women. Francoise van Rossum-Guyon, ed. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990. 135-146.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Winterson, Jeanette  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 24, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/winterson_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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