by Jeanette Winterson, 1987 Author Charlie Fletcher celebrates an enduring historical fantasy
Charlie Fletcher on The Passion by Jeanette Winterson.
I fell in love with Jeanette Winterson by mistake. I picked up her first book Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit exactly 30 years ago, solely based on the striking Pandora Press cover art (by Sue Sluglett), and added it to a pile of other books I was buying thinking it’d be good to break out of my unleavened diet of genre novels. I took a punt, thinking that if I didn’t take to it in the first few pages, it would make a nice-looking present for a friend with a looming birthday. The fact I still have that edition and can flip it to find the name of the illustrator tells its own story.
The Passion, which she wrote two years later, is in every sense of the word a wonderful novel. Genre-wise, I can’t tell you where precisely it sits on the spectrum between historical fantasy and magical realism, but I do know that it’s a true classic of imaginative fiction, a good tale, perfectly told in two voices: that of Henri, the young soldier whose burning love for Napoleon turns to hate on the cold road to Moscow, and of Villanelle, cross-dressing web-footed daughter of a Venetian boatman. Their stories take us all over the map of Europe, at the same time humanely and honestly charting the smaller and more intricate topography of the human heart.
Henri’s journey takes him from the happy fields of his rustic childhood to the furthest extent of his hero’s imperial adventure in Russia, at which point the two strands intersect and head south to warmer, if not entirely happier climes. The descriptions of the Grande Armée’s suffering during what he calls the “Zero Winter” have stayed with me, especially the memorably horrible image of a cavalryman who slits his horse’s belly to put his feet in for warmth, only to wake finding his horse has frozen round him and that his comrades, unable to free him, must leave him screaming in the snow.
The world of Villanelle’s Venice is bought to life as a living, shifting, fugitive place – a watery city that wears as many masks as its inhabitants. Villanelle takes her boat through this place of mazes, taking us into “the city within the city” where the rats run and the unseen survive. Thirty years later I have not shaken the image of the old woman, once rich, who lives on a watery step draped in the rotting curtains she tore from her palazzo as she left, her hair now green with slime from the walls around her and wreathed with a crown of dead rats.
What I really love, beyond the imagination, the compelling narrative and the characters whose fates you come to care desperately about is something much more mundane. I just like Winterson’s voice, and two aspects of it especially: she uses plain language to evoke the most visionary and unworldly things, which makes those fantastic elements entirely real. And above all there’s a quality of wild decency in her writing. She’s imaginatively tough and uncompromisingly honest.
The Passion stands up three decades later. On a re-read it seems different, richer even. The things that broke my heart when I first read it don’t now. Or not as much. The observation that passion is survivable doesn’t seem a betrayal at all. It just seems part of the wider enduring gamble that is life. As Villanelle says, “You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.” As a reader, I’m glad Winterson is still in the game.
It’s a short book. If you love reading – hell, if you just have a working heart – read it.
The Paradox, the latest book in Charlie Fletcher’s Oversight trilogy, is out now. He is also the author of the Stoneheart trilogy.