Jack’s Naughty Bits: Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry

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Jack's Naughty Bits

With its live-in livestock, death carts in the streets and manor lords who could sleep with your betrothed and tax you as much as they felt like, the Middle Ages was a hell of a time to live. But as history moved along, things got a little better: the blanket was invented (what took them so long?), peasants could start owning land and a lighter form of literature emerged to go alongside all the religious poems and heroic epics: comedy. Comedy had existed in Greece and Rome, but it didn’t flourish again until the Dark Ages had brightened, and Europe approached its eventual Renaissance.


What comedy did obtain in the later Middle Ages jibed well with the culture of the time. Oft I have written of the medieval sense of humor, of its excesses and exaggerations, its vulgarity, its sense of the absurd. Where in today’s culture we have Dumb and Dumber, the Middle Ages had gross and grosser, with Boccaccio, Chaucer and Rabelais outdoing each other with tales of the scatalogical and obscene. When their characters weren’t having their asses rammed with red-hot pokers, they were falling into full latrines or standing beneath rivers of urine.


But what has become of comic saturnalia in the literature of our own hygienic times? T.C. Boyle’s raucous novel, Water Music, evokes the roguery and raunch that survived the Middle Ages into England’s eighteenth century; John Kennedy Toole’s bloated Ignatius J. Riley is a self-conscious throwback to the medieval in a variety of unappetizing senses; but nowhere do we find a character more truly Rabelaisian in proportion than the Dog Woman of Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry. Set in England in the years leading up to and just after the Restoration, Cherry is a nice tale of a boy and his mother — and what a mother! The Dog Woman proves to be larger than an elephant, louder than a thunderclap, keeper of fifty-plus hounds and beholden to none but them and her son. She is an architectonic force, and never more than in her disastrous encounters with the less fair sex. The excerpt below is her account of a man’s attempt at pleasuring her. Confronted with her not-negligible womanhood, he finds himself not quite up to the task. Sounds like he would have been happier reading theology.

* * *  

From Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

Whilst Jordan was away I discovered from time in the brothel that men’s
members, if bitten off or otherwise severed, do not grow again. This
seems a great mistake on the part of nature, since men are so careless
with their members and will put them anywhere without thinking. I believe
they would force them in a hole in the wall if no better could be found.


I did mate with a man, but cannot say that I felt anything at all, though
I had him jammed up to the hilt. As for him, spread on top of me with his
face buried beneath my breasts, he complained that he could not find the
sides of my cunt and felt like a tadpole in a pot. He was an educated man
and urged me to try to squeeze in my muscles, and so perhaps bring me
closer to his prong. I took a great breath and squeezed with all my might
and heard something like a rush of air though a tunnel, and when I
strained up on my elbows and looked down I saw I had pulled him in, balls
and everything. He was stuck. I had the presence of mind to ring the bell
and my friend came in with her sisters, and with the aid of a crowbar
they prised him out and refreshed him with mulled wine while I sang him a
little song about the fortitude of spawning salmon. He was a gallant
gentleman and offered a different way of pleasuring me, since I was the
first woman he said he had failed. Accordingly, he burrowed down the way
ferrets do and tried to take me in his mouth. I was very comfortable
about this, having nothing to be bitten off. But in a moment he thrust up
his head and eyed me wearily.

    “Madam,” he said, “I am sorry, I beg your pardon but I cannot.”
    “Cannot. I cannot take that orange in my mouth. It will not fit. Neither
can I run my tongue over it. You are too big, madam.”


I did not know what part of me he was describing, but I felt pity for him
and offered him more wine and some pleasant chat.


When he had gone I squatted backwards on a pillow and parted my bush hair
to see what it was that had confounded him so. It seemed all in
proportion to me. These gentlemen are very timid.

© Jeanette Winterson

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Jack Murnighan‘s stories appeared in the Best American Erotica editions of 1999, 2000 and 2001. His weekly column for Nerve, Jack’s Naughty Bits, was collected and released as two books. He was the editor-in-chief of Nerve from 1999 to 2001, before retiring to write full time and take seriously the quest for love.

Introduction ©1999 Jack Murnighan and, Inc.