The Passion, Jeanette Winterson 1987, Random House 2001
Oh what a glorious book. It is set during Napoleon’s futile attempt to invade England in 1805 and the catastrophic march into Russia in 1812. Winterson paints a historical scene in the same way Van Gogh painted the world around him. It’s like stepping into The Starry Night where all of nature is illustrated to us through the prism of the artists mind. Jeanette Winterson pulls us through the looking glass to a time that happened and did not happen.
The story is in four parts. The first protagonist is Henri, a man who leaves home to fight for Napoleon. Driven by intense loyalty, Winterson illustrates the first of many shapes that passion can be made of. We never see much of Napoleon just learn of his appetite for chicken through Henri being recruited as an army cook. Henri’s love for Napoleon and his vision is his talisman against the harsh conditions, the brutality and the dead around him.
Without him, during nights and days when affairs of state took him back to Paris, our nights and days were different only in the amount of light they let in. For myself, with no one to love, a hedgehog spirit seemed best and I hid my heart in the leaves.
We then meet Villanelle, daughter of a Venetian boatman, and watch her roam the decadent chaotic city of Venice. This part of the story is more sensual and mysterious as she explores the casinos and dresses like a man and falls in love with a married lady. It felt so liberating to read about somebody who was such a strong heroine and freely loved life.
Despite being technically a historical novel this book felt extremely contemporary for me in the best way. Winterson weaves love, tragedy, idealism and gender into a macabre and beautiful tale of history. Sometimes when you read a book, the story plays out in your head so vivid you can see it like you’ve walked into the author’s dream. Winterson writes so well that I can still see the world she created when I close my eyes.
This is the third book I have read by Jeanette Winterson and my favourite so far. The language was gorgeous, the story rich and strange and the characters, especially Villanelle, leapt right out of the normal roles in historical fiction and fairytales and into weird and wonderful people.