Written on the Body
by Jeanette Winterson
Knopf, 190 pp., $20.00
Written on the Body is the fifth novel by the British writer Jeanette Winterson. She published her first in 1985 when she was twenty-six. It was autobiographical and in some ways a more cheerful replay of The Way of All Flesh, with a mother and daughter instead of a father and son at loggerheads in a sectarian family. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit won a prize and became a successful television play. And no wonder, because the story Winterson had to tell was piquant and extraordinary, and so was her manner of telling it.
The heroine of Oranges—called Jeanette—grows up in a lower-middle-class family in an industrial town in Lancashire. They belong to a revivalist church around which the whole household revolves. Everyone accepts that Jeanette has been chosen by the Lord to be a missionary. As a schoolgirl she is already in demand not only as a guitarist to accompany the robust hymns of the faithful, but also as a gospel teacher and preacher. So it comes as a shock to the congregation when they discover her having an affair with a recent convert called Melanie. Apart from the pastor most of the influential elders seem to be women, and they aren’t as hard on Jeanette as one might expect. Of course the devil who has got into her has to be exorcised, but after that ordeal is over the congregation is happy to have her back.
The exorcism doesn’t work, though, and Jeanette is in trouble again, with Melanie and then with Katy too. Her mother throws her out. Jeanette rents a cheap room and finds two jobs to help pay for it; one is driving an ice-cream van, the other laying out corpses and washing the hearse for a local undertaker. A competent girl, she can also be left to organize and serve the funeral lunches. When she finishes school she takes a full-time residential job in a mental hospital. Not her ideal choice, but “a room of my own, at least.” She gets another job, moves to another town, and tries going home on a visit. Her mother has gone into electronic evangelism and is far too busy to be angry anymore: she demonstrates her brand-new electronic organ to Jeanette, then bustles back to her transmitter: “This is Kindly Light calling Manchester, come in Manchester, this is Kindly Light.” The novel ends here. The real Winterson, the blurb tells us, went to Oxford to study English. Then she moved to London and became a full-time writer.
Not many writers have the luck to have such an entertaining adolescence. Or one that pitches them into the hot topic of sexual politics from such an eccentric springboard. The problems come into focus for Winterson when her mother says of a male homosexual: “Should have been a woman that one.” She realizes,
This was clearly not true. At that point I had no notion of sexual politics, but I knew that a homosexual is …