Today in Literary History – August 27, 1959 – novelist Jeanette Winterson is born

The British novelist Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester on August 27, 1959. She was given up for adoption at birth and does not know who her biological parents were and claims to have no curiosity about them.


Her adoptive parents were fundamentalist Pentecostals. “Their God is very literal — Jimmy Swaggart’s God,” she told an interviewer, “a television evangelist’s God, whose theology never deviates from the Bible and has little intellectual content. It was a very unusual childhood but more and more it seems exactly right for the person I am. You have the childhood you need as an adult and I was happy — probably because I have an optimistic and positive nature.”


Still, she grew up in a household without books or music or art. Her only reading material was the Bible, and she later said that a strong grounding in Bible stories served her in good stead as a novelist. From the age of 12 she began to write and deliver fiery sermons at her parent’s church and became well known as a child evangelist. She had childhood dreams of becoming a missionary.

But, her growing realization that she was attracted to other girls and women soon led to conflicts with her beliefs. Her parents caught her in bed with another girl when she was 16 and she left home to study at a technical school, supporting herself by working a series of odd jobs, before getting accepted by Oxford University.

Her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published in 1985. It is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story. It didn’t have strong sales to begin with but word of mouth made it a bestseller. It won the Whitbread First Novel Award that year.


She followed this with a string of popular novels with more fantastical elements to them, such as Sexing the Cherry, The Passion and Written on the Body. I began reading her work in the 1980s and always found her vivid and imaginative explorations of sexual and social identities beautifully written.

Her most recent novel is 2016’s The Gap of Time, a queer retelling of The Winter’s Tale in the always interesting Hogarth Shakespeare series of modern “re-imaginings” of Shakespeare’s plays.

Earlier this year Winterson was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to literature.

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