Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson
Sexing the Cherry
Vintage (Bloomsbury) 1990
144 pages, softcover

Robust, With A Fruity Aftertaste

I am not going to delve into the public controversies that have characterized much of the life of Jeanette Winterson since the launch of her highly successful first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. What I’ve read about her years in the wastelands of literary popularity (most of the 1990s, apparently) make me fairly sure I agree with the perspectives that got her into trouble, and I surmise that her attitudes toward her writing (roundly criticized as sounding ‘vain’) reflect my own toward my writing—and any true artist’s toward her work. (If one doesn’t utterly commit to working as hard as one can—no matter what one is creating—if one doesn’t therefore take huge pride in what one has accomplished, and if one does not believe one is able to make a difference to the world through all that effort, what is the point?) I guess it’s just not career-enhancing to actually say that in England, any more than it is in Canada.

I am not going to compare Sexing The Cherry to the works by Winterson that preceded or followed it, as I haven’t read them yet. I am also not about to undertake an analysis of inter-textuality in Sexing The Cherry, because I missed most of the references: well, except of course for the references to the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses which is right there in the book, and a few bits and pieces from other sources toward which the author kindly points us.

Instead, twenty years after its publication, and about fifteen years after a friend recommended it to me, and about six years after I bought it on AbeBooks and about five months after reading it, I’m just going to tell you what I think about this novel.

I like Sexing The Cherry a lot. It’s lyrical, magical and mystical. It spans centuries and continents, and sails over oceans to fabulous far-flung places— even sails right out of the temporal and physical and into fairyland sometimes. It rummages through, shakes out and displays the wonders and capacities of a life of the imagination. It tells the truth. It contains the kinds of memorable passages you want to copy into your journal or email to your friends because they speak so directly to your life or theirs. It’s a splendid interweaving of traditional narrative with experimental techniques, including a segue near the end that jams off into the future like a tipped mast, unexpectedly and yet satisfactorily, not to mention the mid-book side-trip into the tales of the aforementioned princesses.

Most of Sexing The Cherry takes place in London in the mid-1600s. It was a busy time for the sort of British history that would need to be recorded, what with a civil war, the usurpation of the throne by Oliver Cromwell, the beheading of King Charles I, the Fire of London, and the Great Plague which ended just prior to the restoration of the monarchy. But this novel is really about love, and specifically the love between a boy and his adoptive mother. Dog-Woman finds the child she names Jordan on the riverbank, takes him in and raises him (with the occasional assistance of the self-described witch next door). Dog-Woman is an unlovable creature—smelly, massive (so large that she has been compared to a mountain range) and hideous, with broken teeth and deeply pocked skin—who has, until she finds the child, kept herself safe from hurt by staying away from love. But she falls in love with Jordan, head-first and damn the torpedoes, as only a mother can.

The neighbour hag warns Dog-Woman that the boy will break her heart—and he does, but only as every child must do his mother, by growing up and leaving home. He continues to love Dog-Woman for his entire life, no matter where he is, and knows that the love is reciprocated—which is the difference between maternal-filial love and the romantic kind that dooms Jordan to years of longing when he falls for the most independent and interesting of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.

There’s quite a bit of fruit in this novel. The plot’s precipitating event is the introduction of the banana to England by Thomas Johnson in about 1633: as soon as Jordan, then aged three, sets eyes on this exotic treat, he is ensnared by curiosity for the marvels of the world beyond London—which in those days meant he was destined to leave family behind for years at a time. When he was ten, he met John Tradescant—gardener to the king and raiser of cherries—who would ultimately lead Jordan off to sea and the discovery of worlds that included, among other wonders, the pineapple.

On the basis of the pleasures of reading Sexing The Cherry, plus the reviews and essays I’ve read about Winterson, I am tempted now to read Oranges, and Written On The Body (a later early work that also won the author much acclaim), then to skip over what came out during the 1990s and resume her opus with the.powerbook. Assertive and lyrical both at once: she is my kind of writer.

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1 Comment

  1. “I agree with the perspectives that got her into trouble, and I surmise that her attitudes toward her writing (roundly criticized as sounding ‘vain’)””I guess it’s just not career-enhancing to actually say that in England, any more than it is in Canada.”I completely agree with your view. I’ve read about this controversy and different people’s take on it splashed everywhere, but I never quite got what all the fuss is about. Writing of Winterson’s scope and scale deserves praise. That said, I don’t mean that her writing should be exempt from criticism but why concentrate so much on one episode when you can on her brilliant, brilliant writing? I’ve never read any other author whose work does the same magic as Winterson’s. If she’s vain (which, I believe she isn’t, just immensely confident) about her work, then she’s justified.

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