Sometimes after reading one of Jeanette Winterson’s novels (Sexing The Cherry, for example) I’m left thinking I like her as an author more than I like her actual novels. I just like her general attitude and her approach to writing. Maybe it’s a Northern thing. Even though she came down to Oxford along with the rest of the literary establishment, when she left again she didn’t take with her any sense of self-importance, and the establishment critics who have always hated her work actually did her a favour by either ignoring or disdaining her from the beginning. It’s meant that her books haven’t been able to coast to success because she’s been friends with the critics since they met at fresher’s week. They’ve got there on their own merits, by finding their own readership rather than having some broadsheet reader lap it up because he’s been advised to for the benefit of his educated soul.
Winterson’s novels are near impossible to pigeonhole. There’s an historical element to many of them, but all of them are timeless almost to the point of appearing anachronistic. Even reading the back cover is not a good indication of what you’re going to get, not least because Winterson’s eclecticism sometimes crops up within the books rather than just between them. The more of them I read, the more Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit comes across as the straightest of her books (in style if not in content, obviously). That said, The Passion is also immediately accessible and quite linear in the same sort of way, probably because that’s what a romantic tale which we are meant to feel our way through as much as read demands. And despite the fact I can still remember lines from Lighthousekeeping five years after reading it, I feel quite able to say I think The Passion is the best of Winterson’s novels I have yet read.
The Passion is the story of two lovers, though it’s not each other that they are in love with. Henri is a just another French peasant until he becomes a cook for Napoleon, following the newly annointed Emperor from battlefield to battlefield as he conquers Europe, and being swept up by the myth Napoleon cultivates for himself. Half a continent away, Villanelle is the web-footed daughter of a Venetian fisherman who disguises herself as a man so that she can work as a croupier, but then develops feelings for the wife of a rich patron at the casino. Very much a novel of two halves, the first half could be a Shakespearian romance (with plenty of scope for turning into a comedy of errors). It feels like other Winterson novels, full of colour and life and humour. The second half also feels Shakespearian, but it is pure tragedy.
Winterson apparently wrote the novel after her girlfriend returned to her ex-husband, and it shows. It might well be true what they say about all the best love stories ending badly, but then, this novel isn’t really about love, it’s about passion, even if – or especially because – the characters themselves don’t know it.