Because Jeanette Winterson are I are close to the same age, I can remember the fuss around her arrival on the literary scene. Furthermore, I had a bit more interest in her than in other writers who may be similar but who came later. For example, in 1990, I watched the BBC adaptation of her debut autobiographical novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit, which is the type of “misery” text which I would normally abhor and ignore.
An audience should of course always concentrate on a writer’s work rather than on his/her personality, but Winterson was always a high-profile and intriguing public character. She was overtly lesbian several years before the celebrity of Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay; she was fiercely proud of her regional and working-class roots but equally a successful member of the metropolitan literati from a young age, with her famous friends and partners and homes both in the countryside and in London’s historic and gentrified Spitalfields.
I had not actually read a complete Jeanette Winterson book until her recent Christmas Days, which alternates 12 Christmas themed stories with 12 pieces of mixed history, personal reflection and recipes of Yuletide food and drink.
One of my two favourite stories is “The Mistletoe Bride”, in which I felt sure I detected similarities with the type of sensual fantasy story Angela Carter wrote in The Bloody Chamber. Interviews from earlier in Winterson’s career suggest she would scoff at such comparisons – she pointedly rejects the term “magic realism” which was often applied to Carter – and indeed it does look as if she was an independent player in such genres as early as her second and third novels The Passion and Sexing the Cherry .
My other favourite story is “Dark Christmas” , which seems influenced by the stories of M.R. James, several of which were dramatized on BBC in the 1970s under the heading A Ghost Story for Christmas. It is possible of course that entertainment like that was not encouraged within the highly individual family Christmases which the young Winterson experienced with her Evangelical Christian family.
Several parts of the book refer to the religious origins of Christmas, and Winterson’s knowledge of (and perhaps even affection for) the Bible shows in some vivid imagery like the animal narrator’s observation of the Nativity in “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me” and the perspective of the Annunciation from one untitled story on her website: “An unmarried woman sits at a table…The table trembles…As she crouches (under the table) she sees beautiful feet, strong like an animal, bare like a dancer…”
Until Christmas Days my most recent acquaintance with Winterson was her BBC Radio 4 series in 2014, Manchester: Alchemical City , still available on iPlayer.
My listening was prompted by a memorable visit to Manchester and I found the programmes overall a stimulating review of history and culture. The title summarises her argument that the people of Manchester have always been gifted with the ability to turn dirt and base materials into gold and riches, whether they were the medieval alchemist and scientist John Dee, the builders of the first ever canal the Bridgewater, the textile manufacturers and traders of the 19th century Cottonopolis, political visionaries like Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, the Chartists and the Suffragettes or Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker religious sect. (Mind you, the argument was stretched too thinly in her episode on popular music!)
Christmas Days led me to Winterson’s own website with its archive of her journalism. To single out only one, her piece about darkness has some alluring sensual details about different physical appetites for this time of year.