By Jeanette Witherson.
160 pages

London: Penguin Books, 1987.
ISBN # 0-14-010831-9

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2001

This imaginative and challenging volume is four vignettes which are vaguely ordered by the campaigns of Napoleon. The related short pieces are:

  1. The Emperor. Set in 1804 at the port of Boulogne, we meet one of the two central characters, Henry who works in Napoleon's kitchen ringing the necks of chickens. He narrates the story of life in this campaign and the relationship of the cooking staff to Napoleon.
  2. The Queen of Spades. In Venice after the Napoleonic influences we meet the fantastic character of Villanelle. The daughter of a Venician boatman, she has the legendary webbed feet of boatmen, an unheard of phenomenon for a woman. She is a free spirit, gambler, bi-sexual cross-dresser who lives a life rooted in the present moment.
  3. The Zero Winter. In Russian campaign in the winter of 1812 Villanelle, who has become a prostitute for high ranking officers on Napoleons staff, meets up with Henry who is still wringing chicken necks. They desert and walk the 1500 miles from Moscow to Venice and form a strange partnership which Villanelle describes as a brother/sister relationship with incest.
  4. The Rock. Back in Venice after 1814, Henry takes the blame for murdering Villanelle's husband, is convicted as insane and become completely insane in the prison asylum itself. He spends his days believing he is with Napoleon on Elba and that Villanelle is daily on her boat off the shore of the island.

The novel is about what the title suggests: passion. The passion of war and the passion of love. Henry knows that passions are essentially lived. He tells us of his childhood:

I was happy but happy is an adult word. You don't have to ask a child about being happy, you see it. They are or they are not. Adults talk about being happy because largely they are not. Talking about it is the same as trying to catch the wind. Much easier to let it blow all over you. This is when I disagree with the philosophers. They talk about passionate things but there is no passion in them. Never talk happiness with a philosopher.

In the war the dominant passions were to survive and to escape. In order to cope with the likelihood of doing neither, the soldiers tended to create false worlds of nostalgia allowing them to escape into hope:

As the weeks wore on, we talked about going home and home stopped being a place where we quarrel as well as love. It stopped being a place where the fire goes out and there is usually some unpleasant job to be done. Home became the focus of joy and sense. We began to believe that we were fighting this war so that we could go home. To keep home safe, to keep home as we started to imagine it. Now that our hearts were gone there was no reliable organ to stem the steady tide of sentiment that stuck to our bayonets and fed our damp fires. There was nothing we wouldn't believe to get us through: God was on our side, the Russians were devils. Our wives depended on this war. France depended on this war. There was no alternative to this war.

And the heaviest lie? That we could go home and pick up where we had left off. That our hearts would be waiting behind the door with the fog.

Not all men are as fortunate as Ulysses.

But the greatest passion of the novel comes from Villanelle. She cannot sit still a moment. The world is her play toy and she can remain restricted by nothing at all. Her repeated words on the meaning of human existence are: "The cities of the interior are vast and do not lie on any map." She can be in the middle of some course of life and within seconds have a whim to drop it like a hot potato and take off on some new venture.

The hardest of all her relationships is that with Henry. He falls desperately in love with her. She is, in some strange sense, in love with him as well, but it is a quite unconventional love in which she simply must pick up and leave when she needs. She calls him her brother and not lover, but when in the mood she leads him in passionate love. He can't bear this ambiguity and uncertainty and seems like a helpless puppy dog who must trail after her as he can. Villanelle's analysis of Henry is rather astonishing: "When passion comes late in life it is hard to bear." She was born as passion itself and has never found either reason or possibility to tame hers in the slightest iota.

This is a fascinating short volume and Villanelle may be the singly most liberated and passionate character I've ever read in fiction. My heart often ached for Henry; he was in over his depth and suffered all the time, yet was hopeless to turn from the unintended seduction of Villanelle's very being.

Jeanette Winterson was born in England in 1959. After a series of odd and strange jobs she went to Oxford to read English and became a novelist. This volume won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize for 1987.

Bob Corbett

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