Snooked Duck Tail

Lucy Daniel

  • Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
    Fourth Estate, 232 pp, £15.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 00 718151 5

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.

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