I read Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body when it was first published by Vintage in 1996 and I never forgot it. The way she writes about her love, her passion for Louise, are some of the most eloquent and erotic passages I’ve ever read. The section where she delves into the body of her lost lover, the dermis and epidermis, the clavicle and scapula, the cavities and tissue, are so beautiful that I have thought about them over the years. I’ve even longed for such devotion. “What other places are there in the world than those discovered on a lover’s body?” (p82)
On re-reading it, I realised that it is a far more complex and probing book than I remembered. There is much pain mingled with love; there is a desire to go beneath the cliche, the happily-ever-after, and reach the raw places beneath. It’s as much about the confusion and risk of love as the elation of discovery. It questions what makes you hold on and what makes you let go. I’ve long been a fan of Winterson’s writing, she has an innate poetry that cuts to the very quick of anything she writes, be it novel, children’s book or essay. Her fame came early with her 1985 autobiographical debut, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, about a girl coming out within a religious family that found her sexual inclinations abhorrent. Her more recent work has been more experimental and not always critically successful. I often feel as though Winterson is one step ahead of the zeitgeist, she wrote about the physical dislocation of internet and issues around what it is to feel female or male or anything in between, before they were popular subjects. She’s spent a lifetime railing against her mother’s question, used as the title of her autobiography, “why be happy when you can be normal?”
From the first page of Written on the Body, we are immersed in the idea of what love is. “You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them.” (p9) It is a book about the narratives of love and attempts to depict love without them, to reject them for living experience. And also about how hard it is to avoid them. Her love for Louise is drenched in desire, yearning, she doesn’t dwell too much on the actual act of love as much as the whole physicality of her beloved. From the soup spoon that she places in her mouth to the French bread: “I watched her break and butter each piece, soak it slowly in her bowl, let it float, grow heavy and fat, sink under the deep red weight and then be resurrected to the glorious pleasure of her teeth.” (p36) Every tiny aspect of Louise is treasured from her mane of red hair to her feet to the tiny hairs on her skin. The smell of her. “I want to uncork her. I want to push my head against the open wall of her loins. She is firm and ripe, a dark compound of sweet cattle straw and Madonna of the incense. She is frankincense and myrrh, bitter cousin smells of death and faith.” (p136)
It is a book about sensuality, where love can lead to a wordless place that is instinct and compulsion. It is a love letter to Louise’s being, the intricate, secret places of it. A place of insulting happiness. “Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book.” (p89). And yet, when Louise tells her that she’s left her husband of ten years because that life is a lie, the narrator feels momentary panic. She’s so used to the married women with whom she has affairs staying with their husbands and children, “the same story every time.” (p13) Eventually, their brief happiness is disrupted by the revelation that Louise has a form of leukaemia and the belief that her ex-husband, a doctor, can save her. “Our love is not meant to cost you your life.” (p105)
The narrator packs up and moves into a cottage in Yorkshire, leaving no way for Louise to follow her. The book is an attempt to understand her own actions and the depth of her love. It’s a paean to grief. The first line is: “Why is the measure of love loss?” (p9) And perhaps there is no escape from our own habits and patterns when it comes to romance. Even though the narrator has spent her life avoiding the “happily-ever-after” and undermining the hypocrisies of settling down, “the saggy armchair of cliches” (p10), she is stuck as a heroic character. As Gail, the manager in the pub where she ends up working, says: “The trouble with you… is that you want to live in a novel… This isn’t War and Peace honey, it’s Yorkshire”. (p160) And it’s only once she’s left, once it’s too late, that she questions her grand gesture. Why couldn’t she stay and protect her beloved? “Will you let me crawl inside you, stand guard over you, trap them as they come at you?” (p115)
Written on the Body is not a classic work of erotic literature. Yet, by unpicking the sheer intimacy of love, it lays bare the fundamental role of consummation. Perhaps eroticism acquires depth with emotion, the desire to inhabit the beloved in all ways. I’m interested in why works of pure eroticism don’t sell very well, perhaps we crave emotional connection as well? And, after all these years, the section where she tries to understand Louise’s body as it’s attacked by cancer, to penetrate her very core, remains some of the most radiant, erotic pieces I’ve ever read.
“My eyes are brown, they have fluttered the distance of your body like butterflies. I have flown the distance of your body from side to side of your ivory coast. I know the forests where I can rest and feed. I have mapped you with my naked eye and stored you out of sight. The millions of cells that make up your tissues are plotted on my retina. Night flying I know exactly where I am. Your body is my landing strip.” (p117)
Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body, Vintage (1996)