As a reader who’s been with Jeanette Winterson through thick and thin (and there was enough of the latter to make me wonder if the thick, viewed from a distance, was thin too), I was disappointed to hear that she was publishing a memoir. Didn’t she say “There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies”? That was the refrain from her 1994 novel Art & Lies, one of the thinnish moments I’m nonetheless very fond of (“my most closed piece of work … written at a time when I was looking inwards not outwards”). But there needn’t be any contradiction here: the most interesting kind of memoir – from Nabokov to Burnside – is that where the author acknowledges both the limitations of memory and the creative aspect of the process of writing the life. In the foreword to This Boy’s Life, expert liar and memoirist Tobias Wolff says that “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell.” Or as Winterson puts it here, the ending you need is not normally available unless you write it yourself. “Reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is the only way to keep the narrative open.”
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? takes its title from the response Winterson’s adoptive mother made when she told her how happy she was in a relationship with another woman. Ah, Mrs Winterson, who has loomed large in the public perception of the author to the detriment of two and a half decades of interesting work. She only has herself to blame, perhaps, having begun her career with a semi-autobiographical novel, and having begun that novel with a depiction of her monstrous mother. (“Like most people, I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling. My mother liked to wrestle. It didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.”) For Oranges are not the only fruit to have become Winterson’s most famous book is not very surprising: it’s her most straightforward, her most plainly warm and witty and affecting. (The award-hogging TV adaptation didn’t hurt.) What came next in her fiction was always more ambitious, and to me more interesting, even when it felt inchoate or reiterative. Oranges is the book, twenty-six years old, which is still the only one namechecked on this cover; though that’s apt enough as it seems clear that this memoir is destined to become her second most famous.
It’s apt too as Winterson expresses rueful regret at the way in which Oranges has been taken as her autobiography: so here’s the real thing. Oranges was a “cover version … a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.” If Oranges was all about her mother, then Why Be Happy is all about her mothers: Mrs Winterson, who took her in (though “the Devil led us to the wrong crib” she would say when young Jeanette was troublesome), and her birth mother, who gave her up aged six weeks. (As I write this, my son aged four weeks is sleeping in front of me. This is heady stuff to contemplate.) She does it plainly, and winningly, part confessor friend, part eloquent persuader.
Mrs Winterson dominates the first half of the book, as she dominated Jeanette’s life (I’m using her first name not to sound cosy but to prevent a blizzard of Wintersons from blocking up my sentences). She dominated, yes, because she was large: “she loomed up. She expanded. Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself.” The tone and intention is not mocking or disdainful. Jeanette wants to understand Mrs Winterson, with her contradictions, eccentricities (“two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer”) and infectious misery. To Mrs Winterson, the universe was a “cosmic dustbin”, and it seems to Jeanette that her religious attachment to an Old Testament God was a manifestation of her fear of happiness. “She thought that happy meant bad/wrong/sinful. Or plain stupid. Unhappy seemed to have virtue attached to it.” The battle between her and her mother, Jeanette says, was between happiness and unhappiness. Reading the book, and in particular the later sections which disclose her violence towards her girlfriends, failed relationships, breakdown and suicide attempt, one could hardly consider this devotee of happiness an untroubled soul. Then again it is not happiness she argues for, but the pursuit of it. The chase is the aim.
Jeanette does not denounce Mrs Winterson, nor the Church which carried out an exorcism on her to rid her of the demon of homosexuality. “I saw a lot of working-class men and women – myself included – living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the Church.” This is not so surprising when we consider her love for the Bible as a work of literature. She writes of evening classes attended by working men, in the days when “the idea of ‘bettering yourself’ was not seen as elitist.” The classes were big on Shakespeare, “and none of the men ever complained that the language was difficult. Why not? It wasn’t difficult – it was the language of the 1611 Bible; the King James version appeared in the same year as the first advertised performance of The Tempest.” The problem with “modern Bibles with the language stripped out” is that “uneducated men and women, men like my father, and kids like me in ordinary schools, had no more easy everyday connection to four hundred years of the English language.”
Her childhood is a resource both personal and political for her. It surely wasn’t so very unusual to grow up in the 1960s without a car or telephone (outside toilets were perhaps rarer), but certainly her upbringing was without frills. This, combined with a nascent feminism, contributed to Jeanette’s decision to vote for Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 general election: her first vote at the age of 19. Thatcher “seemed to me to have better ideas than the middle-class men who spoke for the Labour party, and the working-class men who campaigned for a ‘family’ wage, and wanted their women at home.” By then she was thrilling to the “energetic quiet” of Oxford University, even though she discovered there a neglect of women writers that was not so much a conspiracy of silence as “a conspiracy of ignorance.”
Later, when I was successful, but accused of arrogance, I wanted to drag every journalist who misunderstood to this place, and make them see that for a woman, a working-class woman, to want to be a writer, to want to be a good writer, and to believe that you were good enough, that was not arrogance; that was politics.
She always was a scrapper, never one to compromise. “I am an ambitious writer – I don’t see the point of being anything; no, not anything at all, if you have no ambition for it.” The book evolves from memoir to manifesto, as impassioned on the subject of literature as her essay collection Art Objects (which, when I read it 16 years ago, left me cheering and wondering how I could join her society). T.S. Eliot, she says, kept her company when she felt alone at home; she found his books in the library where she collected murder mysteries for her mother. “I had no one to help me, but T.S. Eliot helped me.”
So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that’s what poetry is. That’s what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.
It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.
She has a deft way of combining commonsense with high ideals, though with a tendency to venerate aspects of the past in a way slightly out of sync with her literary enthusiasm for making things new. She soon realises that voting for Margaret Thatcher did not bring her what she wanted. “I did not realise then that when money becomes the core value, then education drives towards utility or that the life of the mind will not be counted as a good unless it produces measurable results.” And her defence of libraries – the places where she found herself – is apt in the current economic climate, where they feel like a soft target for councils strapped for cash. “It seems so easy now to destroy libraries – mainly by taking away all the books – and to say the books and libraries are not relevant to people’s lives. There’s a lot of talk about social breakdown and alienation, but how can it be otherwise when our ideas of progress remove the centres that did so much to keep people together?”
Social breakdown and the strength of society is important to Jeanette because she needed to get the sense of community that was lacking in the home from somewhere. “I never believed that my parents loved me.” (And suddenly it becomes clear why love is relentlessly presented as our highest value and achievement in her fiction.) “When love is unreliable and you are a child, you assume that it is the nature of love – its quality – to be unreliable.” The Bible helped, telling her that God loved her, but as she reached middle age, she found herself unable to resist seeking out her first mother, the one who gave her up. “Adoption drops you into the story after it has started. … The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you – and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.” The last third of the book is a gripping and powerfully affecting trail in search of her birth mother, and of what happens afterwards. It is typically honest and unsparing, and left me feeling emotionally exhausted.
The three elements in the book – love, literature, life in the world – are ultimately inseparable. Mrs Winterson “read the Bible as though it had just been written – and perhaps it was like that for her. I got a sense early on that the power of a text is not time-bound. The words go on doing their work.” Jeanette not only explains but shows how her childhood informed her fiction, including the lack of straightforward narrative which she attributes in part to her own life’s lack of narrative. “That’s not method; that’s me.” She gives new life to the textual refrains from her books which ring like mantras for those who know her work well. Here, in an eloquent chapter ending, which seems appropriate to end this review, the last sentence is the first sentence of her 1992 novel Written on the Body:
[My mother] didn’t like stories about being raised from the dead. She always said that if she died we weren’t to pray to bring her back.
Her funeral money was sewn into the curtains – at least, it was until I stole it. When I unpicked the hem, there was a note in her handwriting – she was so proud of her handwriting – it said: ‘Don’t cry Jack and Jeanette. You know where I am.’
I did cry. Why is the measure of love loss?