In the Guardian recently, novelist Graham Joyce accused Jeanette Winterson of elitism after she criticized the novels on this year’s Booker shortlist for not being difficult enough. It wasn’t the first time Winterson has been charged with intellectual arrogance. Following the success of her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, in 1985, Winterson’s outrageous claims that she was both the greatest living writer and that the only true heir to Virginia Woolf put off readers and writers alike.
Winterson’s fans are nevertheless still legion. And if her affecting new memoir makes anything clear, it’s that if she is an elitist, she got there through hard work, much of it done at the public library in the small town where she grew up in in Lancashire. There was certainly nothing privileged about Winterson’s upbringing as the adopted only child of an intimidating, depressive Pentecostal mother with two sets of false teeth and a heated corset whose default punishment was to lock her daughter out overnight on the doorstep. Reading Winterson’s description of her family’s dark row house, which didn’t have a working toilet until Jeanette was 14, it’s easy to forget she’s describing the 1960s, not the Victorian era.
Books that were not the Bible, especially fiction, were forbidden. So from an early age the rebellious, inquisitive Winterson sought them out, stashing them like pornography under her mattress to the point where her bed began to rise visibly. When her mother finally found one (“an unlucky choice; D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love”), she burned the whole lot in the back yard, an act that marked the start of Winterson’s resolve to be a writer: “The books had gone, but they were objects; what they held could not be so easily destroyed. What they held was already inside me, and together we would get away.”
Winterson is famously gay, but when her first relationship with a girl was exposed, her mother treated it as an exorcism, locking her in the parlour for three days with no food or heat. When, after her second transgression, Jeanette told her mother that being with her girlfriend made her happy, her mother tried reasoning with her. “Why be happy when you could be normal?” It was the last thing she said before she kicked her out of the house for good.
After describing how she talked her way into Oxford (her marks didn’t impress but her story did), Winterson jumps forward 25 years to 2007 when, after a string of break-ups and a botched suicide attempt, she decided to track down her birth mother, even though Mrs. Winterson (who died in 1990) had told her she was dead. The book’s tone changes considerably in this second section, but with no less emotional impact. I won’t give away the outcome of Winterson’s poignant, gripping search here. It deserves to be read in its entirety, without spoilers.
Why Be Happy? is part creation story, part apologia—the two being, in this case, inextricably intertwined. At times, Winterson appears to offer it as an olive branch to past lovers, chalking up her inability to love or be loved to the lack of precedent in her childhood. Her early, regretted support for Margaret Thatcher, likewise, is attributed to her need to believe in the latter’s model of the self-made woman and in “the culture of risk and reward.”
There is an inherent fascination to someone with such a powerful sense of destiny as Winterson’s. She’s also still cringingly prone to patting her own back, as when she calls the BBC adaptation of Oranges “a landmark for gay culture.” Introspection may have mellowed Winterson’s ego, but it hasn’t eradicated it entirely.
—Emily Donaldson, a freelance editor and critic