On Jeanette Winterson

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“The original role of the artist as visionary is the correct one,” Jeanette Winterson writes in her essay “Imagination and Reality” (1997). When art was funded by the church, Winterson reminds us, “the artist and his audience were in tacit agreement; each went in search of the sublime.” Today most patrons of the arts are secular liberals who see art as either a reminder of beauty in an imperfect world or a social inquiry into the world’s imperfections. Perhaps this is why Winterson—the author of nineteen novels and a household name in Britain—has been widely celebrated as a writer of magical realism and shrewd fairytales, but has not been critically appreciated for what she feels is the supreme goal of fiction: to be “as successful as religion used to be at persuading us of the doubtfulness of the seeming-solid world.”

This clarity of artistic purpose is not surprising coming from a woman raised as a fanatical Pentecostal. Winterson’s only childhood companion—one does not endear oneself to secular 10-year-olds by embroidering THE SUMMER IS NEARLY ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED on one’s gym bag—was her adoptive mother, a “flamboyant depressive” who punished Winterson by locking her in the coalhole for hours and telling her that “the devil led us to the wrong crib.” Winterson inured herself against loneliness with the conviction that she was destined for religious greatness: she began writing sermons and preaching to her congregation when she was still a child. But after Winterson’s mother discovered her romantic love for another girl, her church subjected her to an exorcism that involved being locked in a room with no food or heat for three days, while church elders alternately prayed for her and beat her. At 16, Winterson left home and turned to literature.