The Books: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery; ‘Writer, Reader, Words,’ by Jeanette Winterson


On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, a collection of essays about art by Jeanette Winterson.

In Jeanette Winterson’s incredible memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, she describes her first time walking into a bookstore that had five floors. It overwhelmed her. She comes from working-class Manchester, and it was not expected of people from her class (or of her gender, really, let alone her sexual orientation) to get truly educated. A little reading and ‘rithmetic maybe, then technical school, or jobs in the mines/factories. Education was seen as a middle/upper-class thing. But Winterson did get educated (Oxford), where she was often a fish out of water. Her approach to literature is immediate and urgent. She did not grow up with middle-class assumptions like, Oh, yes, T.S. Eliot is important. Oh, yes, Virginia Woolf, too. Where do you want to go for lunch? She came to these writers fresh, raw, and they both (among many others) helped re-arrange her molecules. She is not “over” anything. Winterson is damn proud of her working-class background, and also proud of her education. That pride has been mistaken for arrogance. But I’ll let Winterson tell it. This is an excerpt from the memoir:

I had never seen a shop with five floors of books. I felt dizzy, like too much oxygen all at once. And I thought about women. All these books, and how long had it taken for women to be able to write their share, and why were there still so few women poets and novelists, and even fewer who were considered to be important?

I was so excited, so hopeful, and I was troubled too, by what had been said to me. As a woman would I be an onlooker and not a contributor? Could I study what I could never hope to achieve? Achieve it or not, I had to try.

And later, when I was successful, but accused of arrogance, I wanted to drag every journalist who misunderstood to this place, and make them see that for a woman, a working-class woman, to want to be a writer, to want to be a good writer, and to believe that you were good enough, that was not arrogance; that was politics.

In this essay, included in the collection Art Objects, Winterson talks about the relationship between writer and reader. Winterson has had both a passionate and a prickly relationship with her fans. They will follow her anywhere. They also want to limit her. This is part of hitting it huge when you are young, I suppose. People want you to just keep repeating yourself. I basically will follow her wherever she goes, through whatever phase (and I’ve not been a fan of everything she’s done), but I want her to please herself. That’s always the most interesting/useful thing an artist can do.

Winterson is a lesbian, although she doesn’t use that word, she refers to herself as a “pervert” (which gives you some idea of her contrarian standpoint) . She has a huge queer following who also seem to want to limit her. Or, perhaps, they are just limited thinkers themselves. Who knows. Winterson doesn’t say what she’s supposed to say or how she’s supposed to say it (and language is so so strict now. I’m glad she hasn’t caved.) She also talks a lot about “autobiography” in this collection – or at least the relatively modern concept that a writer IS his or her work. Biography is more important than art. Winterson can’t stand this attitude, because then the writer becomes a symbol, a public figure, a role model, whatever.

This essay’s focus is much broader than her own personal experience. She brings to bear all her knowledge about the Romantics, the Victorians, the Moderns … how these gigantic movements flowed into one another, reacted against one another, changed the boundaries between writer and reader, and then changed back. The process continues.

I particularly enjoy in the excerpt below her observations on how the Victorian reaction against the Romantics impacted men much more than it impacted women. Women were wrapped in their “Other-Ness” which was limiting but it also protected them. The Victorian era required men to button it up, enough with all that emotion flying about, it isn’t manly, it isn’t done.

Excerpt from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery: ‘Writer, Reader, Words’, by Jeanette Winterson

It was the Victorians who introduced an entirely new criterion into their study of the arts; to what extent does the work correspond to actual life? This revolution in taste should not be underestimated and although it began to stir itself before Victoria acceded the throne in 1837, Realism (not the Greek theory of Mimesis) is an idea that belongs with her as su rely as the fantasy of Empire. To fix the date is difficult but I do not think it far fetched to say that the gap between the death of the last Romantic (Byron) in 1824 and the heyday of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s, is the gap where Realism, as we understand it, was birthed and matured.

It is instructive to look at how dress codes alter between, say, 1825 and 1845. The eighteenth-century dandy is out, the sober Victorian so beloved of costume drama, is in. No more embroidered waistcoats, lurid colors, topiary wigs, dashing cravats, pan-stick faces and ridiculous buckles and heels. For men, the change is immense and as men are stripped of all their finery, women are loaded down with theirs. There is a marked polarization of the sexes, and whereas Byron could cheerfully wear jewels and make-up without compromising his masculinity any man who tried to do throughout the sixty glorious years might pay for his display with his liberty. The new foppishness of Oscar Wilde and the Decadents in the 1890s was as much a strike back into what had been allowed to men, as a move forward into what might be. As the eighteenth century disappeared (and centuries take a while to disappear) it took with it, play, pose and experiment. And I am not only thinking about dress. Can anyone imagine Tristram Shandy as a nineteenth-century novel?

The reaction against Romanticism was a very serious one, and if the Romantics were emotional, introspective, visionary and very conscious of themselves as artists, then the move against them and their work was bound to be in opposition; to be rational, extrovert, didactic, the writer as social worker or sage. The novels of the 1860s, the novel form we still assume to be the perfect, perhaps even the only model, were at that time a strange hybrid of the loose epic poem and the pamphlet. It was not the inheritor of the play, pose and experiment of Smollett and Sterne. The dreary list of Braddon, Elephant, Trollope, Wood, need not bother us here, although I think that the eagerness with which the sentimental and the sensational was mopped up by novel readers, was in itself a backlash against the intensity demanded by the Romantic vision. Even Byron at his most rollicking and least controlled is an intense poet. Intensity was not a Victorian virtue. Or was it?

It was women poets who benefited from the collapse of the Romantic sensibility. Whilst the male poet suddenly found himself at odds with his poetic tradition, he should not be dreamy, contemplative, a little mystical, a little delicate, a woman had no such struggle. If the sensibility of the Romantics looked “unmasculine” to a fast developing action culture, it could certainly be feminine. We think about women novelists as being a nineteenth-century product but the rise and the popularity of the woman poet is just as extraordinary. The woman poet, unlike the majority of the woman novelists, accepted her mantle of Otherness gracefully. She would lead the mind to higher things. She would redirect material energies towards emotional and spiritual contemplation. LEL (Letitia Elizabeth Landon), Felicia Hemans, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, each accepted the distinction of the poet as poet. The particular struggle of Tennyson, how to be sensitive in an age that disliked sensitivity in men, was clearly not a problem for a woman. I do not want to suggest that women writers, and in particular women poets, found themselves in a blessed century, but I do think that the perceived alliance between the qualities peculiar to poetry and the qualities peculiar to women gave women a freedom to work their own form within the authority of tradition. It was this freedom, I think, which cleared the ground for the significant contribution of women to Modernism. Like Romanticism, Modernism was a poet’s revolution, the virtues of a poetic sensibility are uppermost (imagination, invention, density of language, wit, intensity, great delicacy) and what returns is play, pose and experiment. What departs is Realism.

That should be unsurprising. Realism is not a Movement or a Revolution, in its original incarnation it was a response to a movement, and as a response it was essentially anti-art. The mainspring of tension in the best Victorian writers is not religious or sexual, it is between the dead weight of an exaggeratedly masculine culture valuing experience over imagination and action above contemplation and the strange authority of the English poetic tradition. Who should the poet serve? Society or the Muse? This was a brand new question and not a happy one.

If the woman poet could avoid it, the male poet and the prose writers of either sex could not. Of the great writers, Emily Bronte chose well. Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot continually equivocate and the equivocation helps to explain the uneven power of their work. Dickens is to me the most interesting example of a great Victorian writer, who by sleight of hand convinces his audience that he is what he is not; a realist. I admit that there are tracts of Dickens that walk where they should fly but no writer can escape the spirit of the age and his was an age suspicious of the more elevated forms of transport. What is remarkable is how much of his work is winged; winged as poems are through the aerial power of words.

The Victorian denial of art as art (separate, Other, self-contained) was unsustainable, and like many a Victorian neurosis began to collapse under its own image. That art should not be art but a version of everyday life was absurd and men like Wilde, Swinburne and Yeats were proving it. The Muse was fighting back, cross-dressed as a pretty young man or dressed in robes of Celtic Twilight. It began to look as though dowdy Realism was dead.

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2 Responses to The Books: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery; ‘Writer, Reader, Words,’ by Jeanette Winterson

  1. Martin says:

    This reminds me of Thomas Hardy–how he never actually wanted to write fiction, but turned to it only because he couldn’t get his poetry career going. The excerpt seems spot-on with regards to his experience.

    • sheila says:

      Martin – Interesting!! I knew he had been a poet for 20 years before he turned to fiction – kind of a rare thing, if I’m not mistaken – but hadn’t thought of it in terms of Winterson’s analysis – or the fact that the Victorian era was not good to the male poet in that it inhibited the poet’s true instincts, which is usually emotional in nature.

      Thanks for your comment!

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