It’s quite shocking to think that I first read this book back in 1990 when I was a mere 21 years old. It was always going to be interesting to return to it, as the passage of time can alter impressions so much. When I first read it, Jeanette Winterson formed one corner of a triumvirate of favourite authors, the other two being occupied by Anita Brookner and Julian Barnes. Barnes has stayed with me over the long journey of my critical apprenticeship, but the two women have both fallen away and it’s many years since I read a novel by either of them.
In 1990, I was dazzled by Winterson’s inventiveness. Sexing the Cherry is a slim novel, a mere 140-pages, but they are so full of event and imagination that it would be hard to digest more. It’s a tale of many strands and layers but at its heart it returns to London in the 1660s where the Dog Woman, a monstrous giantess, finds a young orphan boy, Jordan on the banks of the Thames and adopts him for her own. Together they embark on a life of adventure, the Dog Woman proving herself an adept ally for the soon-to-be deposed King, her natural talents for violence and loyalty put to use in slaying many a dissenting voice and in doing her best to alter the course of history. Jordan, by contrast, is a dreamer, and his destiny lies in magical voyages to impossible lands where he searches for love and the truth about time and space. In the later stages of the novel these characters find ghostly doubles in the future, in the form of Nicholas Jordan who devotes his life to the Navy and an unnamed woman whose vigilante actions to protect the environment (a theme that Winterson will return to in The Stone Gods) make her at once both heroine and madwoman. It’s typical of the topsy-turvy logic of the novel that these characters in the future are pale imitations of the Dog Woman and Jordan in the past. Winterson delights in turning everything on its head, not least the normal plot progression of a narrative. Sexing the Cherry is full of interpolates stories, mostly based on the principle of the fairy tale, but with morals and messages that are subversive. The Twelve Dancing Princesses, for instance, indulge in every kind of gender-bending activity you could dream up, and then some. There’s so much packed into its pages that this book can make your head swim, with its bawdy, rambunctious rewriting of history and its fragmentary, choppy progression through a wild range of stories and narrators, not to mention its fascination with the fantastic nature of time and space as seen through the veil of quantum physics. I think it’s a book that wants to set off sparks, rather than one that can be understood by coherent principles, and with that thought in mind, I’ll mention just a couple of points that occur to me.
The character of the Dog Woman owes a great deal to the giant, Gargantua, who was created by the French author, Francois Rabelais in the seventeenth century. Gargantua was also caught up in political battles and used his huge strength to literally destroy the opposition, but at the same time he is a comedy character, a vehicle for cartoon violence and toilet humour. Rabelais knew what he was doing when he employed a giant in his narrative. On the one hand he was a crowd pleaser for his audience of readers, and on the other, he could carry subversive messages about the state of government in France that would have been extremely dangerous for him to express clearly. If he had said what he thought, the Catholic church would have chopped his head off, and so it was a good plan, not to mention a real laugh, to have a ludicrous figure like a giant embody his message. Rabelais’s Gargantua is an example of what’s known as the ‘carnivalesque’, a style of literature in which chaos and humour present an opportunity to challenge dominant beliefs and turn all hierarchies on their heads. The carnival is the place of madcap entertainment that brings everyone together to celebrate common humanity. Hence the toilet humour, as people in Rabelais’ time thought that the lower half of the body was special and sacred, as it was the place of all fertility, the origin of the world. Bawdy jokes weren’t just rude, they reminded people that kings and peasants have excretion in common, and that the circle of life is a wonder and a marvel. We’ve rather lost that sort of belief nowadays, but Winterson’s use of a female giant is a good way to poke fun at a few shreds of taboos that cling to the female body.
Alongside the carnivalesque, Winterson’s novel appeals also to the modern genre of magic realism. This kind of narrative grew mostly out of Latin America in the work of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende. It concerns stories where fantastic and extraordinary events occur all the time, without anyone blinking an eyelid. Instead, magic suggests itself as a natural phenomenon, arising out of the real world as if it had been hidden inside it all along. Like the carnivalesque it’s always been seen as a way to challenge authority, or to rewrite history, including voices that would otherwise have been silenced. In the dictatorial regimes of Latin America, it was easy to see where the subversion was headed, but when magic realism crossed over into Europe, that sense of straining against the unreasonable restraints of an unjust political system was missing. Other sorts of confinements became the target. I was thinking about this as I was reading along and wondering what Winterson’s text rubbed up against, what constraints it was trying to loosen. And because of my recent interests, I found myself most caught up, in this reading, in the relationship between the Dog Woman and Jordan, the most realistic, natural and touching part of the narrative.
Their story is one of real love and tenderness, and also one of the inevitable misrecognition that lies between mother and child. ‘I want to be like my rip-roaring mother,’ Jordan declares, ‘who cares nothing for how she looks, only for what she does. She has never been in love, no, and never wanted to be either. She is self-sufficient and without self-doubt…. I think she loves me but I don’t know. She wouldn’t say so, perhaps she doesn’t know herself.’ Yet we, who are privy to the Dog Woman’s inner thoughts, know how she cares for him, and witness the wrench she feels when Jordan leaves for his thirteen-year long sea voyage. When finally he returns, washed up on the shores of the Thames for a second time, she is there, faithful as ever, to meet him. ‘I wanted to tell him things, to tell him I loved him and how much I’d missed him, but thirteen years of words were fighting in my throat and I couldn’t get any of them out. There was too much to say and so I said nothing.’ And in this way they remain loving, and tender, and unknown to one another.
The sense that we are more than the bodies in which we dwell, more than the span of time and space we occupy, more than anyone on the outside, looking in, could guess, is a recurrent theme in the book. The loving side of the Dog Woman is one example of the important parts of the self that remain hidden, the other is the imagination, where anything and everything is possible. Jordan’s voyage may ostensibly be to strange and wonderful lands, but he knows the real discovery he wants to make is to find himself. ‘Are we all living like this?’ Jordan wonders. ‘Two lives, the ideal outer life and the inner imaginative life where we keep our secrets? And poignantly he concludes ‘and if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God.’ The magic in this novel concerns the extraordinary capacity of the imagination to create new worlds, and the elastic sense of space and time that governs our experience of existing. Inside us, I felt Winterson was saying, we have an infinite capacity, and our external appearance betrays us with its one dimensionality, its boring obviousness. Sexing the Cherry takes us on its own journey to the outer limits of possibility, to remind us that the marvelous is only ever a brief flexing of the imagination away, and that we all have secret lives we need to explore and experience fully to be at peace.
Cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda