Title: The Gap of Time
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Genre: Shakespearean re-telling.
Pub date: October 6, 2015.
Read if you like: Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, strolling through Parisian streets, appreciating the beauty of video games.
Where to begin? This is my second reading of this incredible novel, an adaptation of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays: The Winter’s Tale. If you haven’t read The Winter’s Tale (or, better yet, seen it performed), you must do so immediately. One of his later plays, it falls into the category most commonly known as a “romance” – not quite a comedy, not quite a tragedy. It is filled with life and grief and jealousy and rage and loss and forgiveness. The characters are rich, the women are strong as hell, and the final scene requires just a little bit of magic. It is challenging and raw and has one of the best stage directions of all time.
I’ve been in love with this play for seven years now. I first encountered it during a summer program I attended for acting at the Yale School of Drama before my senior year of high school. After studying it in our classes, we took a bus into the city from New Haven to see the RSC production of the play at the Park Avenue Armory. While I may have spent most of the bus ride there making a fool of myself with the boy in the program that I had a crush on, I was immediately pulled out of my sixteen-year-old life and onto that stage by this work. It was a magnetic production with a truly brilliant set design that I will happily describe to you if you want to know. I still think about it all. the. time.
Fast forward to college. I double majored in English and Theater Studies at Duke University, so Shakespeare was my jam. It was in these programs that I first came across Sarah Beckwith, an English professor like no other. After one class with Professor Beckwith during the fall semester of my sophomore year called “Shakespeare on Love,” I was obsessed. During the course of that class, I learned The Winter’s Tale was her favorite of the Bard’s plays as well. Over the next three years, she would become my advisor, a member of my thesis committee, and the head of the study abroad program I attended in London. She is one of the most formative educators I’ve ever worked with.
So how to we get from this bit of personal history to Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time? We are almost there! During my final semester of senior year, Professor Beckwith offered a class on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and other works that shared similar themes. Not every work was explicitly an adaptation, but each circled back to the themes of the play in some way. The materials included novels, films, essays, and more. We capped off the class with The Gap of Time, assigned for the final week of class, one week before graduation.
After surrounding ourselves with the text of the play every day for four months, this adaptation was either going to be a hit or a complete flop – we were so close to the material and to each other, we were bound to be critical. Luckily, Winterson did a masterful job of creating a thoughtful, emotional, and powerful novel from the play. She was not restricted by the material. She is playful with the world of the play, and adds to the story in ways that the play does not allow for. She fills Leo(ntes) and Xeno [Polixenes]’s lives with backstory that offers explanation for their actions.
Rereading this book this past week, I was once again swept away into this story I love so dearly. In each reading, I see a bit more of myself in each of the characters. When I was 17, all I could see of myself in this play was in Perdita: youthful, naive, and willing to love. Now, I see a bit of Paulina (Winterson’s Pauline)’s fierceness and Hermione (Winterson’s Mimi)’s dedication to do anything to protect her family. I can find Leontes’ rush to jump to conclusions, to allow anger to blind him.
The end of both the novel and the play give me chills every single time I come into contact with them. Winterson’s concludes the novel with a thoughtful analysis of what sets The Winter’s Tale apart from Shakespeare’s other works that has never failed to bring goosebumps to my skin and tears to my eyes.
This novel hits two major criteria for me. The first is that it is an excellent adaptation and that it is because it embraces its new form. Winterson is not trying to simply recreate the play in a novel. Winterson draws on other sources of inspiration, such as the poetry of Gérard de Nerval and the artistry of designing video games. She gives Xeno a more well-rounded (but still very flawed) character. She gives Perdita a true chance at forgiveness.
The second is that it is perfect for rereading – as is the play. Each time I revisit this work, I learn new things. I see new character motivations that weren’t obvious before. I find symmetry between scenes that seem unrelated. Time, as a theme, is always relevant, though my interpretation of its role (yes, Time has an actual role in this play) changes slightly with each revisit. Second chances and forgiveness take on new meaning.
One element I love of Shakepeare’s romances is their endings: hope is restored in the form of a new generation. In comedies, the lovers get to carry on. In tragedies, well, it seems bleak for everyone. But in the romances, it’s the children of those who have royally messed up in the past who get the chance to fix things. Something about that feels particularly powerful in this moment in history, at this time of rereading.
The Winter’s Tale has a habit of popping up in my life at key moments. It has so many personal memories bundled into it – 2011 was the summer I decided theater was more than a hobby, and now it’s my life. It was also the summer I first got truly drunk, the summer I first fell in love, and the summer I got my first car and all of the freedom that came with that. Spring of 2016 included the professor who most impacted my college experience, the bond the 11 students in that class formed, the graduation that came soon after completing our course. An ending and a beginning all rolled into one – how Shakespearean. I can’t wait to see where it reveals itself next in my life. And if you don’t know it, I would highly recommend reading the play, and following it up with The Gap of Time. I hope you are as moved by the pairing as I am.
SYNOPSIS: (AS TOLD BY THE BACK OF THE BOOK)
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s late plays. It tells the story of a king whose jealousy results in the banishment of his baby daughter and the death of his beautiful wife. His daughter is found and brought up by a shepherd on the Bohemian coast, but through a series of extraordinary events, father and daughter, and eventually mother too, are reunited.
In The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson’s cover version of The Winter’s Tale, we move from London, a city reeling after the 2008 financial crisis, to a storm-ravaged American city called New Bohemia. Her tale is one of childhood friendship, money, status, technology, and the elliptical nature of time. Written with energy and wit, this is a story of the consuming power of jealousy, and the redemption and the enduring love of a lost child on the other.