Review: Jeanette Winterson at the London Literature Festival 2010
Rebecca is a library assistant for King's College London, and has had some of her favourite Greenbelt experiences in the Literature programme ("Andrew Tate's lectures, the Books To Read Before You Die panel in 2007, a literary pub quiz in 2008) since she started coming in 2007. This year will be her fourth Greenbelt.
Here, she reports back on Winterson's retrospective look at the 25 years since the publication of her first novel "Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit":-
Author Jeanette Winterson’s 2010 Southbank Centre lecture was a passionate appeal for the importance of the arts, both to individual development and to society. “My parents always wanted me to be a missionary,” she joked, “and here I am!” – a fervent advocate for the arts in private and public life.
Reflecting on the 25 years since the publication of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson characterised time as both liberating and mystifying, such that it seems both a lifetime ago and just yesterday that her first and most celebrated novel appeared in print. The novel echoes Winterson’s experience as an adopted child in an uneducated and strictly religious household in Lancashire. Crisis comes when the main character falls in love with another girl and is kicked out of the family home after the church body’s unsuccessful attempts to exorcise her sexual urges.
The author’s adoptive mother, always coyly referred to as ‘Mrs Winterson’, comes across as a formidable tyrant: a woman of fiery Old Testament religiosity, rejecting the ethos of forgiveness in favour of wrath and suspicion. One of Mrs W’s constant refrains was “you never know what’s in a book until it’s too late” (with “book” always pronounced so as to rhyme with “spook”).
Nonetheless, Winterson came to see art (literature in particular) as her salvation. At age 16 she encountered T.S. Eliot through Murder in the Cathedral, which Mrs Winterson had mistakenly put on a list of murder mysteries for Jeanette to collect for her at the public library. Winterson recalls weeping over the play; she had discovered that poetry was “tough language for a tough life.” From that point her literary education was self-determined and thorough, if arbitrary: she went to the Accrington public library shelves and began with ‘A’, proceeding through Austen and Beckett to the Brontës, and so on. When Mrs W burned all Jeanette’s carefully hoarded books in a great backyard conflagration, she learned the lesson that anything external can be taken away, but anything internal can never be stolen. She began what has become a lifelong habit of memorising text to create a kind of inner library.
Winterson described the bitterness of her unhappy childhood as “rocket fuel” that helped her escape from her family home and inspired Oranges. Although Mrs W’s horrified objection to Oranges was “it’s not true!”, the plotline undeniably resembles Winterson’s own life story; the protagonist is even named Jeanette. Acknowledging the novel’s autobiographical elements, Winterson explained that seeing one’s own life as a fiction allows one to think of it as something changeable rather than fixed. Recognising that everything is a version of the truth rather than the final word has freed her to play around with time and circumstance. Winterson was adamant that she has never accepted the stereotype that women write about experience whereas men concentrate on the experiment with form and language. Why not do both?
Indeed, by combining experience and experiment art has become for her, not escapism, but rather a means of defeating the myth that “there is nothing we can do.” Instead, paraphrasing a quote from poet Emily Dickinson, she asserted that we “dwell in possibility”. Art is “a place to roam”, freed from the enclosures of the expected and the cliché.
Concluding with a plea for the importance of the humanities in society, Winterson argued, “in a world of separations, art connects”. It forms both a “continuous present” in which the dead and the living communicate and a “web of relationships” between people and events halfway across the globe from each other. Winterson pinpointed today’s ideological battle as being between the seductively dark narratives of global meltdown and apocalypse on the one hand, and hope on the other. Dark thoughts may have been useful to her as a catalyst for Oranges, but she says she had to let the anger go to make room for new sources of creative energy.
Although she no longer associates herself with religion, Winterson seems to have made her peace with Christianity; in fact, she still includes the Bible (along with Shakespeare’s Complete Works and the Oxford Book of English Verse) on her list of three ‘desert-island’ books. “It’s a good read!” she insisted. Her inspiring lecture made it clear that she has discarded the worst of her religious upbringing and taken from it the best sort of advice on celebrating creativity and living life to the fullest: “life must be a conscious choice every day; it can never be passive.”
Image of Jeanette Winterson by Alex Lake.