London burning, spirits dancing, gardeners gathering

Winterson, Jeanette. 1989. Sexing the Cherry. Vintage International, New York.

For all you excitable Mickey Spillane fans, this is not about what you think it is. And it really isn't about botany, either, although John Tradescant's experiment of grafting cherries is mentioned briefly. Rather it is an oneiric, Rabelaisian romp, told by two characters from one of London's seamiest neighborhoods in the 17th century, and then by those same two (or consciousnesses much like theirs) in the late 20th, meant to suggest that all eras are really simultaneous.

All the fun however is in the 17th century, when big things were happening in London, all narrated by the horridly ugly, monstrously powerful, gigantic, illiterate and lovable person who calls herself the Dog-Woman: civil war, regicide, plague and the burning of London (a firm royalist herself, Dog-Woman happily maims any Puritan with the audacity to cross her path, and while not actually igniting did throw oil on the flames that consumed the city). Too huge and ugly to have ever had a boyfriend, she is so ignorant about sex that when she bites off a man's penis (thinking that that was what he was asking her to do), she imagines that it will grow back again. Other men she dismembers (that is, their limbs, not their "members"), and two of her special foes, great Puritan hypocrites, she beheads with an ax in a brothel. But she has her sweet side: she has pulled a baby boy out of the filthy Thames and named him "Jordan" (for a cleaner, holier river). The boy loves her and also loves boats, and grows up to be a sailor who accompanies John Tradescant on his expeditions to gather exotic fruit such as the pineapple. In his rovings, he stumbles into an enchanted city that floats above the planet and espies a dancer there, scampering gracefully across a tightrope high above the nothingness, and he falls in love with her.

In his pursuit of this dancer who (he thinks) may not really exist, he discovers her eleven sisters, also dancers, each with a tale of how she resolved an unhappy marriage. The twelfth was agile enough to escape marriage all together, and now teaches other girls, transformed into spinning lights, to be as agile.

The flow of language and of images, from the crudest farce to the airiest acrobatics, make the reading a delight. And incidentally will remind you of those terrible events in London. What the book is really about, I think, is the great power of a mother's love (Dog-Woman goes to great and violent lengths to protect her adopted son) and the son's inevitable departure, and also (those twelve dancing sisters) about the various ways women must scheme to escape their brutish, or egotistical, or simply stupidly demanding husbands. Male humans are OK as long as they are your sons, or (in the case of Tradescant) your son's tutors, but you wouldn't want one for a partner!

Top: Great Fire of London - 1666; Portrait of John Tradescant the Younger (1608-1662) from Museum of Garden History Portraits

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