Page 9. " Why is the measure of love loss? "

Lost love is a popular theme in literature, from the plays of William Shakespeare to the novels of Barbara Cartland to the poetry of - well just about everyone.

The 'love found, love lost, love found' format is also exceedingly popular in romantic fiction, its prevalence perhaps explained by its guarantee of a happy ending.

Romeo and Juliet
Public DomainRomeo and Juliet - Credit: Frank Bernard Dicksee

However, literary fiction with a romantic theme doesn't necessarily follow the same rules, so - reader beware! - a happy ending is not always guaranteed!

Audio extract from the start of Written on the Body, read by author Jeanette Winterson.






Page 9. " It hasn’t rained for three months "

Drought can symbolise death, starvation, sadness and sickness, and conversely the lack of a particular element such as love, sex, or happiness.

Page 9. " You taught me language and my profit on't is I know how to curse. "

This is a quote from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (Act I, scene ii). Caliban is an island native who becomes a slave of the magician Prospero. Caliban is often referred to as being a monster or a savage, worshipping what he doesn't understand.



Page 9. " the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid "

It is possible to shatter glass with a high-pitched note. In this context it could also be a metaphor for orgasm.


Page 10. " I shall call myself Alice and play croquet with the flamingoes "
Alice playing croquet
Public DomainAlice playing croquet - Credit: John Tenniel

 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a novel written by Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) in 1865. Alice is a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole into Wonderland, a place where animals talk, nonsense is normal, and fantasy and reality merge. At one point she finds herself playing croquet with a life-size pack of cards, using flamingos as croquet mallets and hedgehogs as balls. Alice is never quite sure about the rules in Wonderland, as they seem to keep changing.



Page 11. " You turned on your back and your nipples grazed the surface of the river and the river decorated your hair with beads. "

The painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais shows the drowned Ophelia floating on her back in a river, her skin pale and creamy and her red hair spread out around her head.


Page 12. " Is it because you come from Australia? "

Public DomainAustralia - Credit: NASA
The highest recorded temperature in Australia was 50.7°C (123.26°F), on January 2nd 1960 in Oodnadatta, South Australia.

Page 12. " Charing Cross "

Charing Cross is an area of Westminster, in London, England. It falls within the main roads of the Strand, Embankment, and Whitehall, and is not far from Trafalgar Square.


Google Map


Page 12. " Nelson's Column "
Nelson's Column
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeNelson's Column - Credit: Tagishsimon

 Nelson's Column is a monument built in the 1840s to commemorate Horatio Nelson's death at the Battle of Trafalgar. The column, topped by a statue of Nelson, is over 50 metres high. It stands in Trafalgar Square and is a popular tourist destination.

See Setting.


Page 13. " Better then to be a contented pig than an unhappy Socrates? "

This paraphrases a line by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, from his publication Utilitarianism (1863):

"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question."

Page 14. " Ella Fitzgerald, 'Lady Sings the Blues' "

 Ella Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer, whose career spanned from the 1930s to the 1960s. Lady Sings the Blues is a song written by jazz artists Billie Holiday and Herbie Nichols. It features on the Ella Fitgerald and Billie Holiday At Newport album.

Listen on Spotify: Lady Sings the Blues



Page 14. " the Open University "

The Open University is a UK university dedicated to 'supported distance-learning'. It is also known for having an open entry policy, meaning that no previous academic qualifications are needed in order to study there.

Page 16. " queue up at the Registry Office "

The Register Office in England and Wales is the office for the registration of births, marriages and deaths. It is often (incorrectly) referred to as The Registry Office.

Page 16. " I had a lover once, her name was Bathsheba "

Public DomainBethsabée - Credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme
In biblical stories, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, and was seduced by King David after he saw her bathing.


Page 17. " an Oxfam label "


Oxfam shop
Public DomainOxfam shop - Credit: Edward

Oxfam is an international organisation that works to 'eradicate poverty and combat injustice'. Oxfam has around 750 charity shops in the UK, selling donated second-hand items such as clothes and books, as well as new fair-trade goods. The proceeds from these shops go towards funding Oxfam's work.


Page 17. " Emma Bovary's eyes "

 Madame Bovary is the first published novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert. The protagonist is Emma Bovary, a disillusioned wife who indulges in extramarital affairs.

Flaubert famously changes Emma Bovary's eye colour several times throughout the text, variously suggesting her eyes are black, brown, and blue.

In Written on the Body, this reference is the first hint of many that the narrator may be unreliable, misremembering, or getting details confused.


Page 17. " Jane Eyre's dress "

 Jane Eyre is the eponymous heroine of the novel by English writer Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre's dresses were grey throughout the novel. 


Page 18. " like the Inquisition searching for a saint "

'Inquisition' refers to one of several historical tribunals within the Catholic Church that were responsible for prosecuting individuals on heresy-related charges.

Page 18. " the way God gazed at Adam "

God Creates Adam
Public DomainGod Creates Adam - Credit: Michelangelo
In the Bible, Adam was the first man created by God.

The narrator of Written on the Body is of unspecified gender, but throughout the text Winterson leaves a trail of hints and signs, teasing the reader and forcing a constant re-evaluation of our conception of the narrator.

Page 19. " sprung like a genie "

A genie (or djinn) is a supernatural entity, originating in Arab mythology. In modern mythology, a genie freed from imprisonment in a lamp grants the bearer three wishes.

Page 19. " British Rail "

British Rail was the operator of the UK's national railways until it was divided and privatised in the 1990s.

Page 19. " Aeroflot "

Aeroflot is the largest of the Russian airlines.

Page 19. " a far-out member of the Scottish Nationalist Party "

The Scottish National Party is a political party committed to Scottish independence.  Currently, the SNP is in power in Scotland, with a minority government. 

Page 22. " his painting of La Boulangère "

La Boulangère
Public DomainLa Boulangère - Credit: Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Page 22. " nothing between his balls but an old brush "

Pierre-Auguste Renoir did indeed claim that he painted with his penis.

The narrator makes this story ridiculous by taking it a step further. This suggests that s/he is happy to tell a tall-tale to a lover, as well as to the reader, further stretching his/her credibility as a reliable narrator.

Page 22. " concrete Nissan huts "
Nissen Hut
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeNissen Hut - Credit: Andy Potter

A Nissen hut is a structure built in the shape of a half-cylinder, usually with a sheet-metal roof.

Nissen huts were widely used in World War II.

Page 23. " I heard the opening bars of 'Strangers in the Night' "

 Strangers in the Night was written by Ivo Robić, and recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1966.

Listen on Spotify: Strangers in the Night



Page 23. " doubting John Thomases "

Winterson is making a joke by combining the term  'doubting Thomas' (someone who refuses to believe without hard evidence) with the term 'John Thomas' (British slang for 'penis').

Page 23. " the Pimlico Women's Institute "

The Women's Institute, or WI, is the largest women's organisation in the UK, providing opportunities for women to learn new skills, participate in social activities, and campaign on issues that are important to them.

Page 24. " I can tell by now that you are wondering whether I can be trusted as a narrator "

This is the first time that the nameless narrator directly addresses the reader, not only acknowledging that this is a text, but also that s/he may be unreliable in his/her storytelling.

Page 24. " Sometimes a breast is a breast is a breast "

This is a paraphrasing of a quote attributed to father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud: 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.'


Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams on Book Drum

Page 24. " the pigeons, Adam, Eve and Kissmequick "

The pigeons' names are taken from an alternative version of a children's rhyme:

   Adam and Eve and Pinchme

   Went down to the river to bathe.

   Adam and Eve were drowned.

   Who do you think was saved?

The rhyme is part of a rather cheeky children's game. One child recites the rhyme, ending with the question 'Who do you think was saved?', in the hope that someone will respond with the answer 'Pinchme'. The unwitting respondent is then set upon by the other children, having inadvertently given them permission to pinch him/her! 'Pinchme' can be replaced by an alternative instruction, with 'Punchme' and 'Kickme' being the more brutal versions, and 'Kissme' being an age-old excuse for little boys to kiss little girls, or vice-versa.

Page 24. " rechristened him Boadicea "
Queen Boudica
Public DomainQueen Boudica - Credit: John Opie

 Boudica (previously known as Boadicea) was queen of the Iceni tribe in the area that is now East Anglia, England. Circa AD60, Boudica led a revolt of the tribes against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire.

The humour and irony in this passage is that a male failed homing-pigeon that is afraid of heights could be renamed after a mighty warrior queen. It also plays with the idea of gender identity and gently pokes fun at the WI!

Page 25. " a nasty love affair that had given me the clap "

'The clap' is a slang term used to describe the sexually transmitted infection Gonorrhea.

Page 25. " Jacqueline worked at the Zoo "

 London Zoo, opened in 1828, was the world's first scientific zoo. It is situated on the Outer Circle of Regent's Park and is a popular tourist destination. Today the Zoo specialises in research, conservation, and education, as well as being a fun day out!


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