Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

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?


  1. I’ve never read anything by Winterson, though she’s long been on my radar. I actually have a copy of Written on the Body that I’ve picked up intending to read a few times, but it’s never felt like the right time. Even though your review was for a different book, you’ve convinced me that it’s time that Ms Winterson and I get better acquainted in some form or another!

  2. Hi John,
    This is an excellent review which leaves all the right questions unanswered; namely, those that we should find answers to in the book being reviewed. You’ve made me want to discover whether JW is really going to answer the question in her title; whether happiness was really the basic issue over which she wrestled with her step-mom; and whether her auto-bio is truly more fact (or at least honest delusion) than fiction (in the bad, equals a lie, sense of the word). This is one of your great virtues, it seems to me; you have presented the issues without spoiling the readers curiosity! (I wish I could say the same of myself!)
    I haven’t heard of this writer, but now I know to look out for her work –especially “Oranges” and this one. I get the impression that she is a writer whose main focus is herself, her angsts and identity issues and her troubled sense of not fitting in. At first blush, these issues seem not very appealing, probably because this ‘confessional’ trope has been lately so overdone in poetry, bad fiction, auto-biography and in popular culture. You have made JW’s case stand out, though, as – at least – worth the time spent looking in. It will be interesting to see what she offers by way of meeting her own challenge: to do something other than ‘fiction or lies.’
    And thanks for that,

  3. I think the quote “There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies” is absolutely and profoundly true. memory is fiction. A recreation at best. Honest autobiography is an impossibility.

    Her argument that “the chase is the aim” as you put it is a very persuasive one. The US Declaration of Independence doesn’t promise happiness, but it does the right to pursue happiness. That makes sense (though I consider the Declaration of Independence a superbly drafted document I admit). It’s even questionable whether the state of happiness is desirable except as something we strive for. I’m getting into Brave New World territory there though.

    I think she’s right too about the “conspiracy of ignorance” regarding women writers. Does she address who she thinks is ignored?

    “It isn’t a hiding place. It’s a finding place.” Brilliant.

    This isn’t for me yet, despite how good it sounds and how good your review is. I haven’t read any of her novels yet. Since you’ve been through thick and thin though I’d be very interested to hear what you think falls into each category.

  4. Well broadly Max, I’d put into thick (or worth reading): Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body, The Passion, Lighthousekeeping, The Stone Gods and (despite what I’ve said above) Oranges. And her essays, Art Objects.

    Into the thin, or best for converts only, I’d put Art & Lies, Gut Symmetries and The Powerbook. And her story collection The World and Other Places.

  5. I can only add to the consensus here: great review. Although I think Gut Symmetries (which has got a barmy Joan Bakewell quote on the jacket) is under-rated.

  6. Thanks John.

    Lee, I went off Joan Bakewell years ago when she did a Heart of the Matter about cryonics – the rather dodgy idea of freezing dying people in hope of resuscitating them in some future period when whatever’s killing them can be cured.

    It’s a dumb idea because on present tech ice crystals form in the brain cells during freezing, essentially exploding them and turning the brain into soup. Everyone frozen is simply dead without hope of return. I don’t deny the possibility that this tech may one day be viable, but today it’s fantasy and to make it viable would need some fairly fundamental breakthroughs that as best I know aren’t anywhere near in the offing.

    Joan Bakewell though. She took some kind of bizarre personal offence and was incredibly antagonistic to people who ultimately are merely foolish with their own money. I suspect the issue may have been a religious one for her, though I could be wrong, but she came across as fanatically opposed to a group who just didn’t merit any strong emotion at all. They were wrong, sure, but they were harmless.

    Barmy quotes from her wouldn’t surprise me. I understand that back in the day she was a major public intellectual, but like Jonathan Miller I was never persuaded she was actually particularly suited to that role.

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  8. John –

    your review of the above sent me to find the earlier book to which it so often refers – ‘Oranges’ (to use the parlance of Ms Winterson herself, in the strident intro to the vintage reissue). so far, i love it. now, i’ve looked up your review of ‘The Stone Gods’ and i have most of an answer to my question, but i’m wondering if you can unequivocally state which Winterson books you like (aside from those mentioned – namely ‘Cherry’, ‘Written’ and ‘Lighthousekeeping’), whether you’ve read (and enjoyed) ‘art objects’, and where you would go after reading ‘Oranges’? (also, does she have a proclivity for the sci-fi-ish, or is that just ‘Gods’?)

    thanks in advance for any tips.

  9. Jay, my favourite Winterson, as you’ve noted, is Sexing the Cherry. After Oranges, I’d head on chronologically, to The Passion and then Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body. After those came her ‘tricky’ period, though I have a good deal of affection for Art & Lies. I’d give the next two – Gut Symmetries and The PowerBook – a miss unless you feel you must read everything. Lighthousekeeping, which came next, was better, and I really liked The Stone Gods. It’s her only work of obvious SF, but most of her books have fantastical or mythical elements, and I suppose part of Sexing the Cherry could be said to be SF-ish.

    As to Art Objects – I loved it! I must go back to it some time. I’ve read it a couple of times, but both shortly after it was published (in 1995), so I would be most interested to see how it holds up for me.

      1. John,

        Just to let you know, I saved a link to your comment here with Winterson recommendations. It’s an incredibly handy resource for those of us just starting out with Winterson. Having now read Oranges, which was remarkably well written, I’ll check out The Passion next. Thanks.

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