Relying on the library and second-hand outlets means I rarely get to read books when they are first published, so I am always one step (if not more!)behind everyone else, but I have finally caught up with Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, and it was well worth the wait. The book has been flagged up as an autobiography, but it’s far more than that since Winterson uses words not merely to recount her childhood, breakdown, and search for her birth mother, but also to show how she learned to cope with life and make sense of the world around her. She’s a very intelligent writer, with wide-ranging interests, and here she ponders ideas about love, home, books, philosophy, religion, friendship, reality and fiction, nature versus nurture, and family relationships, especially those involving mothers.
Her own mother, who she invariably refers to as Mrs Winterson, has become a somewhat infamous figure, thanks to ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’, Winterson’s fictionalised account of her extraordinary childhood, which catapulted her to fame when she was only 25. Her childhood is the stuff of fairytales – you know the kind, the ones where a motherless child is cruelly treated by an evil stepmother or wicked witch. Winterson was raised by an adoptive mother whose behaviour can only be described as exceedingly bizarre. Converted in a Glory Crusade tent, she was a member of the Elim Pentecostal Church, which took the Bible very literally. Indeed, it still does, I think. Our local Elim Church does a lot of caring work in the local community, and are lovely people. I had dealings with them at work, so when they invited me to a service I went, partly because it seemed rude to refuse, and partly because I was curious. As I recall, the general gist of the visiting preacher’s sermon was a refutation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, on the grounds that monkeys still exist, so they can’t have evolved into humans. My upbringing was political, not religious – a world away from Winterson’s – and I was stunned into silence by this argument, which flies in the face of known facts and strikes me as being unacademic, unscientific, and just plain stupid. But the congregation, who were all very sincere in their faith, seemed convinced.
Maybe this offers some of kind clue to Mrs Winterson’s mindset. At any rate, she believed the apocalypse was imminent, and was prepared for the world to end at any moment. There were Biblical texts pinned up around the house, and God was appealed to in all adverse situations (including a plea for better weather if it rained when the washing was pegged out). And Satan was a real force for evil, responsible for everything bad, from food going off to young Jeanette’s sexuality.
Even without the all-consuming religion Mrs W was very odd indeed. Some of the incidents described here have already been featured in the earlier tale – the way Winterson was locked out of the house, her exorcism, living in a car when she is forced to leave home. But in this later book Winterson looks at events in greater depth, from a different perspective, and reveals the few details she knows about her mother’s life. It’s a kindlier portrayal than you might expect, but Mrs Winterson, a giant of a woman in every way, remains something of a mystery.
Strangely, perhaps, what shocked me most about her treatment of the child was her attitude towards books, which she mistrusted, apart from The Bible, which she read aloud every night for half an hour. When she reached the end she would give her husband and adopted daughter a week off, to think about what they had heard, then start at the beginning again, working her way through all the books of the Old and New Testaments.
Winterson tells us: “I asked my mother why we couldn’t have books and she said, ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.’” So she reads in secret, embarking on English Literature in Prose A-Z at her local library, and buying paperbacks with money saved from her after school and Saturday job. And she hides her books under the mattress. “Anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that seventy-two per layer can be accommodated under the mattress,” she writes. “By degrees my bed began to rise visibly, like the Princess and the Pea, so that soon I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than floor.”
But her mother spots a paperback sticking out below the mattress (DH Lawrence’s ‘Women in Love – an ‘unlucky’ choice), and her reaction is truly shocking. Volume after volume is hurled into the back yard, doused in paraffin, and set alight. It seems such a flamboyant gesture, echoing the actions of the Inquisition who believed, if I remember rightly, that by suppressing heresy they were saving souls.
Actually, I think Mrs W would have thrived as a Medieval nun, or better still as an anchorite so she would not have had to mix with other people. She would have eschewed all things to do with the flesh, and been incredibly inflexible, living her life according to what she saw as God’s word. Her oddities would have been regarded as sigs of holiness, and she would have been revered as a saint. She was certainly no stranger than many of the women who were honoured by the church.
At this point I was going to say ‘enough of Mrs Winterson’, but she dominates the book – and her adoptive daughter’s life. The sense of loss, of not belonging, of being unloved (and wary of loving), shaped the girl, and played their part in the breakdown Winterson suffered many years later. Her account of that dark period in her life is very moving, and searingly honest. Similarly, when she describes she found and met her birth mother, Winterson analyses her own emotions and reactions.
But don’t expect a neat, tidy, happy ending. Winterson was never reconciled with her adoptive mother, and acknowledges the difficulties involved in forging a relationship with Ann, her birth mother. She could never, she says, be the daughter that either woman wanted. But, interestingly I thought, she also acknowledges that while Mrs Winterson was a monster, she was her monster. And at one stage she explains: “Yet I would rather be this me – the me that I have become – than the me I might have become without books, without education, and without all the things that have happened to me along the way, including Mrs W. I think I am lucky.”
It’s noticeable that while Winterson’s sense of anger does not seem to have abated over the years, she never feels sorry for herself, and never regards herself as a victim. Quoting from Gertrude Stein, she knows that whatever road she is on is the right road, no matter where it may lead.
I’ve always loved her novels (especially ‘Sexing the Cherry’, which is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read) and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’ offered insights into the way she works, and how she used versions of the truth to create other ‘might-have-been’ worlds in her novels, which also reflect her search to love and be loved.