After stealing a talking parrot on the island of Capri, Jeanette Winterson’s latest narrator is referred to the Tavistock Clinic, where she explains that she was trying to capture some sort of meaning. The therapist innocently suggests she write a story, ‘with a beginning, a middle and an end’, to get back in touch with reality. That was never quite on the cards: as Winterson predictably claims, you can never tell just one story, and there’s no such thing as an ending, even though she has described her previous seven novels as a completed cycle. Perhaps Lighthousekeeping returns us to the beginning of the cycle, offering an elegiac, fantastical setting for the naive, blunt, genial voice of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985).
The narrator’s name is Silver, as in Long John. She lives with her mother in Salts, in the far north-west of Scotland near Cape Wrath: ‘cliff-perched, wind-cleft’, a ‘Fossil Town’, ‘salted and preserved by the sea that had destroyed it too’. When her mother falls to her death, Silver and her dog, DogJim, are adopted by the blind lighthousekeeper Pew (more names from Treasure Island), and she becomes his apprentice. Pew likes to spin yarns and has a tendency to make deep utterances about storytelling, so she becomes an apprentice storyteller, too. ‘Tending the light’ is the central metaphor for this. In Pew’s words: ‘Every light had a story – no, every light was a story, and the flashes themselves were the stories going out over the waves, as markers and guides and comfort and warning.’ The entire novel is an extended metaphor for literary creation, full of play on light and dark. The darkness inside the lighthouse encourages Silver’s imagination, and she invents stories in the time it takes a match to burn out.
One of the stories Pew tells is that of Babel Dark, a mysterious 19th-century clergyman from Salts, who, according to local legend, inspired the story of Jekyll and Hyde. This is the novel’s second strand, and Silver takes over its narration about halfway through. Dark falls in love with Molly, a Bristol woman, but when he catches her with another man he marries a woman he doesn’t love and goes into exile on Cape Wrath. His bitter self-denial sows the seeds of his monstrous double life: after meeting Molly again in London by chance, he spends two months every year with her. Silver’s search for a story – and an identity – ends up with this Victorian melodrama at its centre.
In her 1995 essay collection, Art Objects, Winterson dismissed 19th-century plot structures in modern novels as ‘reproduction furniture’. She’s known for her radical use of different timeframes – the Napoleonic wars in The Passion (1987), 17th-century London in Sexing the Cherry (1989) – where historical characters find modern counterparts and past and present are interwoven. We should, then, be wary of supposing that her use now of a 19th-century story with large 19th-century themes is mere historical aping, or a means of producing a more readable book. Among the big Victorian preoccupations laid out here – the Industrial Revolution, the Great Exhibition, Darwinism, science and religion – the 19th-century novel itself is perhaps the most important.
As Pew and Silver tell it, Robert Louis Stevenson visits Dark at the lighthouse and gets drunkenly loquacious on the subject of man’s shadowy inner self. When Dark discovers an evolutionist’s treasure trove of fossils, he becomes the embodiment of post-Darwinian angst, and Darwin himself turns up to offer some wise advice. Unsurprisingly, given the varied company he keeps, Dark loses faith in the world’s continuity and meaning: ‘That things might be endlessly moving and shifting was not his wish. He didn’t want a broken world. He wanted something splendid and glorious and constant.’ This is also meant as an analogy for modernity’s effect on traditional story-telling. Silver, born a hundred years after The Origin of Species was published, undergoes a similar crisis, but her uncertainties concern the beginnings of stories rather than the beginnings of the world. Towards the end of the book, Silver’s nameless lover asks her to tell the story of how they met. Stories are apparently a way of taking hold of a slippery world, in which ‘the continuous narrative of existence is a lie.’ Between chapters, addresses to the lover – ‘Tell me a story’ – are reminiscent of Ali Smith’s fiction, but ‘Tell me a story’ is also an unmistakable Winterson refrain; The Passion’s last line is: ‘I’m telling you stories, trust me.’ Winterson is at a stage in her career where her postmodern ways of bucking tradition are in danger of becoming repetitive.
Halfway through the novel, the lighthouse is automated, as lighthouses are, and Silver is forced to leave. She has found a chest containing ‘sovereigns and guineas and sixpences’, and an old rum-stained map which starts her on her journey. Objects and devices brought out of the past aren’t much use in the modern world, as the receptionist at Bristol’s Holiday Inn explains – ‘doubloons were no longer legal tender in the Eurozone.’ The map doesn’t really lead anywhere, its unreliability as a document standing for the impossibility of using the literary past as a model.
In Bristol, Silver is unleashed on a world full of books. She is refused a library ticket, but this doesn’t stop her pursuing her love of reading (like the narrator of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit): ‘I never got to the end of a story before another person took the book out on loan. I was so worried about this that I began to buy myself shiny silver notebooks with laminated covers, like astronaut gear. I copied the stories out as fast as I could, but all I had so far were endless beginnings.’ Lighthousekeeping sees life and fiction as endlessly beginning stories. Silver’s appropriation of stories in her own notebooks also dramatises Winterson’s domineering use of literary allusion.
Lighthousekeeping’s epigraphs are from Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori (‘Remember you must die’) and Ali Smith’s Hotel World (‘Remember you must live’). This is a little too neat; Smith’s line was presumably already a reference to Spark’s. In Art Objects Winterson aligned herself with Woolf, Eliot and Stein. They used echoes of other work to redouble and agitate meaning, but Winterson wants to go one step further, citing the Modernists themselves. ‘Lighthousekeeping is a way into the rooms of our own that we secretly inhabit and the lighthouses we strive towards,’ the novel’s dust jacket announces. With a claim like that, you expect some elaborate play on Woolf to dominate the novel, but perhaps there are too many other influences vying for space.
Foiled again by the snooty librarian, Silver stalks a copy of Death in Venice across Bristol, and in so doing usefully links Winterson’s themes of love and storytelling. Mann’s tragic view of the pursuing artist is replaced by madcap adventures and an elaborate chase scene. The object of Silver’s affection is the book itself: the forbidden passion that drives her to distraction is the passion for a good story. Stealing a copy of Death in Venice is another literalisation of the idea of literary magpie-ism. Mann’s story is itself highly allusive, incorporating translations of Homer and Wagnerian references which connect with Winterson’s use of Tristan and Isolde. The episode recalls the Venetian escapades in The Passion. It is also a tribute to a story that addresses the nature of art.
Is this a pseud’s game, or is there more to it? The point with highly allusive books should be that the more you put in, the more you get out. This works only up to a point. Winterson has claimed several allusions as personal motifs, or, as she calls them, ‘talismans’: the Grail legend, for example, has appeared throughout her fiction. In Lighthousekeeping the layers of reference created by Tristan and Isolde and Treasure Island seem too distant. That reading involves work is an important point for Winterson. An allusive text has you burrowing into the recesses of your knowledge of other texts to interpret it. But the effort of interpretation creates a weight of expectation that may prove intolerable, and stuffing such big claims as ‘Ulyssean’ into such a thin book – as the dust jacket does – might make it burst.
In the Babel Dark sections, Winterson allows herself to tell, in part, an old-fashioned love story (while Silver’s is both ‘a love story’ and ‘not a love story, but love is in it’). The stormy passion of the conventional story is itself seductive: it romances the reader as well as the characters. It has the reader expecting romantic conventions, and illuminates our own conventionality about love and about stories. The book is also full of more gentle love; the humility of the engineer, the blindness of the storyteller, the nakedness of the lover, are all represented with care and tenderness. Winterson luxuriates in language but achieves her effects economically.
She has a way with the absurd and the macabre, too: there’s a Dickensian orphanhood complete with a mean-spirited schoolmistress, Miss Pinch, whose eiderdown is stuffed with a whole duck, including feet, bill, eyes, ‘and snooked duck tail’; there’s the darkness which shrouds them in the lighthouse, and which they eat with their sausages (‘Put your hand in a drawer, and it was darkness you felt first, as you fumbled for a spoon’). Pew drinks from a barrel of rum ‘so thick with dust that if you stood a glass on the top of it, the glass sank like a ghost ship in the fog’. Reading Captain Scott’s diaries, the lonely Silver imagines his death, ‘husky-haloed’ and drawn by the moon. When Dark beats his wife for the first time, he plunges his arms in boiling water, crying out, then, ‘with the skin white and bubbled on his fingers and palms, he went outside and began to chop wood until his wounds bled.’ Kissing Molly, the same man sees himself through her eyes: ‘gentle, ardent, hesitant a little, his skin unwritten but filling up with this new language’.
Winterson’s seriousness – which doesn’t prevent her from being funny – and dedication to form are unshakeable. The strange heroic mantle she assumed in the 1980s was almost dislodged by a critical backlash, but hostility may fade with this novel, which suggests she has mellowed since the concept-driven The.PowerBook (2000) and the fiercely experimental Art and Lies (1994). But perhaps it is a sign of weakness that we want the comfort of a rattling good read. Or perhaps Winterson has modified her ideas about making her readers work, and decided to charm them with intimacy instead. She has written elsewhere that a book should never be judged ‘by how little bother it gives us’. Lighthousekeeping slips down easily, while keeping us alert to the likelihood that there were things we should have chewed over on the way.
When writerly preoccupations disrupt her emotional pull, things become less palatable. The metaphorical possibilities of the lighthouse are predictable. As well as being a recurrent image of storytelling, the light is a Cyclops, a moon and Molly’s love, shining through Dark’s darkness. Its mechanisation signifies a computerised age without stories. The lighthouse also becomes ‘Pew-shaped, Pew-still, hatted by cloud, blind-eyed, but the light to see by’, while elsewhere, Dark is the lighthouse: ‘He was dark. Babel Dark . . . The instruments were in place, and polished too, but the light was not lit.’ (Dark calls his alter-ego ‘Lux’; Molly disguises herself as ‘Mrs Tenebris’.) On another occasion the lighthouse is a seahorse. Dark is also a seahorse to Molly’s sea cave; the fossilised seahorse found in the real cave represents memory, and therefore a remembered and fossilised love, and so on. These images are ingenious, but throttle suggestiveness.
Lighthousekeeping’s diction is simple but it can also be glib. Announcing characters and places with phrases such as ‘here he is,’ ‘look at it’ or ‘look at this one’ evokes nothing so much as children’s TV. Winterson’s intelligence is less effective for this haranguing overtness. From the outset she dishes out aphorisms; of The Origin of Species she explains: ‘It was a long story, and like most of the stories in the world, never finished. There was an ending – there always is – but the story went on past the ending – it always does.’ Her insistence on talking us through her metaphors is perhaps the result of her heightened consciousness of technique, but it ends up sounding like a lecture: ‘Darwin overturned a stable-state system of creation and completion . . . Darwin and his fellow scientists still had no idea how old earth and her life forms might be, but they knew they were unimaginably older than biblical time, which dated the earth at 4000 years.’ This is just saved by another satisfying image: the earth as the blue ball with the winning number in the evolutionary lottery.
Any story which takes stories as its subject-matter automatically creates a metafictional platform from which meanings emanate with little authorial effort – anything untoward, any ellipsis, can be taken by a generous reader as grist to the mill of self-consciousness and reflexivity. We assume, for example, that fragmentation (here in the form of the dialogues between Pew and Silver, and Silver and her lover, inserted between chapters) exists to make us think about more than just the story, to distract us, to remind us of the act of reading we are engaged in. In Lighthousekeeping we learn that ‘there has always been a Pew at Cape Wrath’ and that the present Pew is, in a magical realist way, either the same Pew or a practically identical descendant of the one who knew Babel Dark. But the first time Pew offers an eye-witness account of events that occurred 120 years earlier, we don’t yet know this, and it’s confusing. Genuine anachronisms tend to upset the metafictional applecart. I was surprised when Silver visited a Starbucks in Bristol, as I had imagined we were still in the 1970s, given that she was being described as a ‘young offender’ and had been born in 1959. The presence of coronation chicken (invented in the 1950s) at the Great Exhibition was also disconcerting. I worried that at the beginning of the novel Silver says she still sometimes finds peas dropped by her mother when she was a child, but by the end she no longer lives in the same house. These are little things, but in a novel balanced so precariously this side of believability, they erode the reader’s confidence. Of course, as the book argues that no story is complete, it has a built-in excuse system for itself.
Babel Dark keeps two diaries, one for his Jekyll and one for his Hyde, but neither is really him. If fiction is making something unreal appear real, Winterson paradoxically (but not originally) asks: ‘Are real people fictions? We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.’ Meanwhile, Silver handles the real notebooks used by Dark, one neatly illustrated, the other a bundle of papers, scribbled and torn; Stevenson sends Dark a copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, bound in tooled leather with engraved type. Fittingly for their overbearing presence in the novel, books are physical, not just ideological entities.