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Jeanette Winterson: The Passion

This was the novel that finally brought Winterson fame, after the poorly received Boating for Beginners and a fascinating work it is. It uses magic realism, a deft interweaving of different stories which some may describe as fairy stories and a witty but well told exposition of the concept of passion. The story is set during the Napoleonic period and we are introduced to passion in the very first sentence – Napoleon’s passion for chicken. This section is narrated by Henri, a chef who is kept busy cooking chicken for the great man but has a passion of his own, a passion for Napoleon. Indeed, he has worked directly for Napoleon. Henri is a sensitive, delicate and religious man. Unfortunately, the cook, for whom he works, is a nasty, aggressive and large man.

The second part introduces us to Villanelle who lives in Venice, a city, Winterson tells us, of mazes and of dark intrigue. Villanelle’s father was a boatman and she has inherited webbed feet and the ability to walk on water, something that had never happened to a girl before. The midwife tries to cut off the webs but cannot so she keeps them. Villanelle is bisexual, a lover of the night and likes to dress as a man and it is as a man that she meets the Queen of Spades, with whom she falls in love. At the same time she meets a man who supplies meat and horses to the French army and is clearly the cook of the first part. He has fallen for Villanelle. Villanelle, as a young man, starts an affair with the Queen of Spades who is married but whose husband is away. But is there passion? Passion, I spit on it, she says. When she reveals her true sex, the queen says that she knew all along. Our two heroes meet in Venice and again in Russia. Henri is still a cook but is no longer enamoured of Napoleon. Villanelle had married the cook but he had sold her to the army as a prostitute, which she now is. Henri has fallen for Villanelle though she sees him as just a friend. He has the passion. She does not. They return to Venice but all ends badly.

Winterson does not tell a realist story but rather a fable. Villanelle’s heart is stolen literarily by the Queen and kept in a jar till Henri rescues it. A defrocked priest has a telescopic eye. Passion is, of course, the underlying theme and, of course, passion also means a lack of passion or passion lost. Winterson skillfully uses the form she has chosen to convey her idea of passion and create a modern fairy story worthy of Angela Carter.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Bloomsbury