It would take a powerful and imaginative writer to create a character as imposing and memorable as Mrs. Winterson, a major player in Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove). But creating her wasn’t necessary. The memorable Mrs. Winterson was Jeanette Winterson’s adoptive mother, and a mother most of us would consider terrifying.
But the beauty of Winterson’s telling of her childhood is that for all the locked in the coal scuttle and out on the front doorstep, burnt books, and the final humiliation of an exorcism during which she was “locked in the parlour with the curtains closed and no food or heat for three days” after being discovered sleeping in the same bed with her schoolmate Helen when she was a teenager (“Nobody...” Winterson writes, “could believe that anyone as faithful as I was could have had sex—and with another woman— unless there was a demon involved”), Winterson is emphatic that she did not have an unhappy childhood and did not set out to write “a misery memoir.”
And she hasn’t. What she’s done is taken the circumstances of her life—her adoption as an infant by Pentecostal evangelicals in the working class north of England in 1960, her reading through the shelves of English literature from A to Z in the Accrington Public Library, her attending Oxford, her stumbling upon papers after her father’s death that led her to the search for her biological mother—and written the story, not only of her life but of how her experiences have made her who she is, crediting not least of all the church community and the Bible. “The Bible is a very economically written text,” Winterson says. “A precursor of Twitter really... if you think how short the verses are.... It’s very tight. and I think that really has shaped me in moving away from any rambling narrative.”
She calls that wall of literature in the library a refuge from her chaotic home life. “The library was absolute order... something I could depend upon, but within that order I found this exuberance, contrary to the order. There were the books and they looked so perfect and inside them was this crazy wild world.”
Winterson’s mined the circumstances of her young life for her fiction, notably her first, hugely successful novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (U.K.’s Pandora Press 1985). But while she’s written novels, nonfiction, children’s books, and screenplays since then, she never expected she would write a memoir. It was discovering her adoption papers that “compelled her to start the journey” to find her mother. “I believed that my mother was dead,” Winterson says unapologetically. “Where do you think I got my information? The arch fiction writer, Mrs. Winterson. I thought, ‘if she can make up the ending of Jane Eyre, she can sure invent a dead mother.’”
Winterson laughs at this, the same way she laughs about an exchange with her partner, the psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach. Winterson “gets cross” about interviewers who write that she was abused, that she had an abusive mother, because, she rebuts, “I was not an abused child because that’s not how I see it at all.” Susie replies: “She did lock you in the coal hole, Jeanette. Some people would call that abuse.”
Winterson insists that she was not an unhappy child: “I really wasn’t, certainly not until things went very wrong, around the exorcism. I wasn’t miserable. I don’t think of myself as a victim.”
And she treats us to happy moments: “At Christmas time the bartering system was in full swing. We could offer brussels sprouts on stalks from our allotment, apples wrapped in newspaper to make sauce, and best of all the once-a-year cherry brandy made from the morello cherry tree in the yard, and steeped half a year in the back of a cupboard on the way to Narnia.”
“Our church had a giant tent and every summer we went up and down with the Glory Crusade,” she writes. “In a tent you feel a sympathy with the others even when you don’t know them. The fact of being in a tent together is a kind of bond, and when you see smiling faces and when you smell the soup, and the person next to you asks your name, then quite likely you will want to be saved. The smell of Jesus is a good one.”
She recounts her shock when she met Anne, her “bio-ma” (the playful name she and Orbach have given to her biological mother), and realized very clearly “that if she had not given me up, I wouldn’t have had either the education or that strange battle with the monstrous Mrs. Winterson that was so shaping, and I wouldn’t have had the church, which did give me a community and a context and all those Bible stories.... I would have been frustrated and I wouldn’t have had either the language or the capacity for self-reflection.”
Mrs. Winterson had a great presence. She used formal language and flamboyant images, which Winterson says “gave me a sense of my world that was not small and mean, but as something impressive and large.” If a mouse ran across the floor, Mrs. Winterson would explain it away as ectoplasm. “Immediately, it’s impressive,” Winterson says. ”Other people have mice. We have ectoplasm.”
Exuberant, feisty, intuitive, and good-natured, Winterson is also very funny. About the librarians who are thrilled with the library references in Why Be Happy she says, “Apparently, they’ve all gone in raptures about the Dewey Decimal system, they’ve gone dewy-eyed.”
But when she talks about the search for her birth mother, she becomes serious. The memoir came about, she says, because besides all the “boring legal stuff,” it was disturbing emotionally to be thrown back to what she calls the “old present.” Winterson began taking notes and writing the two parts of her life simultaneously, the past and the present. She considered doing a newspaper piece, but her agent wanted to have it in a book. “It’s the first time that the initiative has come from somebody outside of myself with my work,” Winterson says.
Secure in what she believes and what she’s done, Winterson tells why she voted for Margaret Thatcher. “She was a woman. She knew the price of a loaf of bread and so did I. I thought if a woman could be prime minister, I could get a book on the shelves of English literature.” About adoption she says: “There will always be a wound that you can’t cover, but you can work with it.”
Winterson doesn’t shirk from the difficult questions, either, like why the English press turned against her in the ’90s. She says her career trajectory coincided with the “move to make writers into celebrities.” According to Winterson, in the ’80s, writers became public figures, they appeared as opinion makers, and they made a lot of money. “I was ill equipped to cope with either the money or the celebrity,” she says. She was 24 years old when Oranges made her name. “I was working class: wrong. I was a woman: wrong. I was earning a lot of money, and I was outspokenly gay.” Winterson thinks the attacks came from several directions, not least because she was having affairs with “some glamorous women.” Julian Barnes’s wife, for one. “You can’t do that to literary men,” Winterson says. “You can’t steal their women.”
“I’m many things,” Winterson says, “but I’m not dishonest.” It broke her heart, she says, to have her success thrown back at her as arrogance. “What kind of smuck would I be if I was writing and thought I was rubbish?” She tells young writers to stick around, that it’s a wheel and you have to do a few turns.
In summing up Mrs. Winterson, there’s a wistfulness: “She really got her place. She always appeared,” Winterson says. “She would have loved that. I’m just sorry that she couldn’t see that the miracle was standing next to her.”