On first arriving in St Andrews a little more than a month ago I, like most students of English literature, quickly located my nearest bookshop (for me an establishment second in importance only to my nearest pub). Mine, as it happens, was Topping & Co. On entering I was immediately drawn to posters advertising a plethora of events in the coming term. Indeed, since September their literary festival has seen big names such as Richards Dawkins, Simon Armitage and our own Professor Don Paterson; with Ian Rankin and Great British Bake-Off-winner Frances Quinn still to come. A stellar line-up, but the only name on the bill that instantly caught my attention was that of Jeanette Winterson, most famously the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and now The Gap of Time, her latest novel.
Winterson is something of an unusual figure on the British literary scene. She will probably always be best known for her autobiographical work; for being the adopted, lesbian daughter of the staunchly evangelical ‘Mrs Winterson,’ whose presence is never far from any interview, novel or article of Winterson’s. The brilliantly punchy, ferociously humorous and distinctly northern voice of her prose (Winterson grew up in Accrington, Lancashire in the 1960s) is wonderfully recognizable in all of her work. However, as a public figure her forthright approach has often been construed as anything from the plucky self-promotion to be expected of a working-class girl who insisted that Oxford accept her (even after she failed at her interview) to megalomania and extreme, outrageous arrogance. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, following the release of Oranges, The Passion and Sexing The Cherry, she famously named herself as her favourite living author, proclaimed herself the natural successor to Virginia Woolf, bragged about sleeping with the wife of Julian Barnes and door-stepped a journalist for giving her a bad review. Needless to say, the media were not impressed, and Winterson spent much of the ‘90s cocooning herself in her Gloucestershire home.
With all of this in mind I was eager to see whether Winterson had mellowed in the past couple of decades (but secretly hopeful that she had not). The setting for the event, Hope Park and Martyrs Church, initially seemed a strange choice of venue, but the reasoning behind its selection later became apparent. Having attended quite a few literary events in the past I was expecting a traditional format, beginning with a short speech in worshipful praise of the author in question and listing their many achievements followed by an interview interspersed with readings from the book being flogged. One might have guessed that Winterson was not one for sharing a stage; she arrived unannounced and without fanfare at the candle-lit altar to slightly surprised applause and launched into what might have been a one-woman show or a rousing sermon. In a parallel life Winterson might, as her mother had hoped, have made a wonderfully convincing missionary or pastor; the slightly stark Presbyterian venue here began to make sense. The author opened with a humorous scene-setting describing a performance of The Winter’s Tale in Shakespeare’s Globe, though intermingled with modern references to social media: “Many of you are here because you heard on Twitter that there would be a dancing bear” (of course a reference to one of the most famous stage directions in history: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’). Incidentally Winterson, as is clear in many of her past interviews, is somewhat distrusting of technology, even displaying some of her adopted mother’s apocalyptic fear that in the electronic world, power is so easily taken out of our hands. When during her childhood, the vilified Mrs Winterson burned all of her precious books, the young Jeanette ceased to rely on external things, knowing that these could be taken away at any time, and instead started to memorise whole texts and recite them to herself.
Though she did not appear to have memorised her own novel, she did provide a rousing and theatrical reading of the first chapter, in which the whole audience were invited to join her in a rendition of ‘Abide with me’ (yet again, the church setting proved apt). Winterson is certainly an accomplished and charismatic performer, but she is also something of a saleswoman. The Gap of Time had been released only a few days before, meaning that most of the audience had not yet read or even purchased it; Winterson was sure to remind us at every opportunity that copies would be for sale after the event.
The Gap of Time came about as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series celebrating 400 years since the death of the bard next year. A raft of well-known authors, Margaret Atwood, Howard Jacobson and Jo Nesbo among them, have been drafted in to write their own re-imagining of the Shakespeare play of their choice. Winterson’s is the first to be released in this series, but one hardly gets the sense that she could ever be nervous or uneasy at this prospect. Releases later in this series shall surely be compared to The Gap of Time and to each other, but this first offering may only have Shakespeare’s original to live up to. Winterson’s novel, then, is a reworking of The Winter’s Tale; one of Shakespeare’s later ‘problem plays,’ it is neither the most obvious nor the most well-known work, but this, perhaps, is fortunate. The Gap of Time rather thoughtfully requires no previous knowledge of the play from its reader; the first section in the book is entitled ‘The Original’ and includes a condensed and eloquent description of the play. Before writing the book Winterson reports having read the play every day for fifteen days until she felt that she had absorbed it fully; she then wrote the entirety of The Gap of Time without ever glancing at it until the cover version, as she mischievously calls it, was finished. This Shakespearian cover version, then, brings The Winter’s Tale (thought to have been first written around 1610 or 1611) into the 21st century. King Leontes, ruler of Sicilia and mistrusting husband whose accusations of adultery incite the action of the play, becomes a banker named Leo. His wife Hermione becomes French singer MiMi, while his boyhood friend Polixenes, with whom he suspects pregnant MiMi of being unfaithful, becomes video game designer Xeno. The backdrop is post-crash London and New Bohemia (a thinly veiled version of New Orleans), but despite this huge shift in time and place the novel faithfully plots the events of the play.
In justifying her choice of the bard’s penultimate play Winterson has commented: “All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around. I have worked The Winter’s Tale in many disguises over many years.” Indeed it is easy to see how The Winter’s Tale, at its heart the story of an abandoned child, should appeal to an author who was herself a foundling and for whom this identification is still evidently immensely relevant and important. Last Thursday evening she described the fact of being an adopted child as analogous to arriving at the theatre a few minutes after curtain-up and never quite knowing the beginning of the story or to reading a book with the first chapter missing. It is an analogy Winterson has used frequently in previous works and interviews, indeed one often feels, and felt during the evening event, that she was performing a well-rehearsed act. Even the question-and-answer section seemed to have been primed in advance; all questions already explored and suitable answers of a suitable length formulated. This is not to say that I, or any other members of the audience, enjoyed the ‘performance’ any less for its apparent lack of spontaneity. There were certainly moments of sharp and off-the-cuff wit; a phone left to ring for a moderately impolite amount of time elicited a break in Winterson’s monologue and a pointed request to “Turn your fucking phone off!” There is something intrinsically intimidating in this undeniably charming, witty, small, slim, curly-haired woman that seemed to impress itself upon the audience; silence prevailed for an almost uncomfortable length of time before an audience member dared ask a question.
I had hoped to secure a post-event interview with Winterson, but after much haranguing of Topping & Co staff a full interview proved impossible. So like everyone else I waited in line to have my battered ex-library copy of Oranges and my shiny, unread copy of The Gap of Time signed by their author. It seemed that one or two questions or flattering comments would be accommodated, and I deliberated over which of the dozens of questions I had prepared should be given priority. In the end I was selfish. I asked the question whose answer would prove most useful to me, not in the writing of this article but more generally in answering a question fairly frequently asked of me. I asked her, as a former English student herself, what she thought the purpose of literary studies was, and why they were valuable. She seemed surprised when I elaborated, explaining that I, like many others, was often forced to justify the point, the commercial worth and the reasoning behind my chosen studies. After a moment of reflection she launched into a virtual sermon far more eloquent and profound than anything I could hope to reproduce of it. But her overarching point was that the study of literature, indeed of any art, allows us to imagine new and better worlds than our own, and that this is more important today than ever before.