I picked this book up from the library because the title was irresistible, started reading it on the train home, and was smitten, immediately. Often books arrive just when you need them the most, and this one arrived, volatile and funny, full of dark wit and poetry and joyful hope, on a grey Sunday in January. It was meant to be.
It is about striving for happiness: the tale of Jeanette Winterson’s upbringing, the making of her first novel, and the books and words that saved her along the way. ‘Books as a passport out of childhood’ as Marina Warner wrote of Lorna Sage’s magnificent Bad Blood, and there’s a similar map to both tales: deranged family, secret lust, books as weapons.
In both stories, the world of books is an escape from an unbearable life. Fiction is the door that opens. It’s the possibility of a future. Lines of poetry spark, otherworldly messages, in the middle of a cold, miserable reality.
She is sanguine about her childhood, drawing out the macabre humour in the bleakest of circumstances. After she was adopted (an event clouded in horrible mysteries), she is raised by her depressed, devout Pentecostal mother, delightfully referred to as Mrs Winterson.
She is aware, even as a child, that she was brought in to the house in the bizarre hope that she would be a friend to her adoptive mother: a cheering presence, a companion in the gloom. Not surprisingly, their relationship was stormy from the start – ‘we circled each other, wary, abandoned, full of longing’ – and her childhood was weird and mean, scraped together amidst miserable deprivation.
Mrs Winterson looms up, terrifying, tyrannical. She has searing contempt for all of life and everyone in it. Her religion is Old Testament, but with a surreal twist, hard and theatrical. She prays to be dead. She thrills at the thought of the approaching apocalypse, the fire that will devour anyone who has ever annoyed her. It’s hard for the young Jeanette to make friends at school when her mother has embroidered on her gym bag ‘THE SUMMER IS OVER AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED’.
There are many unspoken rules broken and vicious haphazard punishments doled out, and Jeanette is routinely locked outside overnight. She stays awake on the doorstep, waits for the milkman, drinks both pints of milk when they arrive and sets off for school, leaving the empty bottles to enrage her mother.
She survives by her wits. The adult author talks about the nebulous, untrustworthy quality of form in fairy tales – as Alice discovers through the looking glass, ‘both size and shape are approximate, and subject to change’. In childhood, Jeannette clings to this truth, because she’s definitely the little one in the house: powerless, unfed. Her mother is a giant. Yet she knows something that the adults don’t: the cleverest survive. The one who can move quickly on their feet and outwit others (David and Goliath, Jack and the Beanstalk) gets bigger and better. This was the key, and she worked it out very young. Be quick, be clever, and eventually you’ll escape.
From the fairy tales of her childhood, she grows and travels on to other books. Again Mrs Winterson provides the dark comedy – warning Jeanette that the problem with a book is that ‘you never know what’s in it until it’s too late’. Jeanette wonders: too late for what? For this reason, only 6 books were allowed in the house. Unfortunately Mrs Winterson wasn’t aware that even these, the ones deemed safe (the Bible, Le Mort d’Arthur) contained wonders and daydreams, and the foundations of rebellion. The Bible (the King James version) gives Jeanette the gift of an English language education: a book contemporary with Shakespeare’s plays and written in the same shared language. It’s the key to the literature of her country. She grows up versed in the oldest stories; the roots of modern tales. She can unlock difficult texts. Later in the book, she muses on reading lengthy tomes: ‘Those who were raised on the Bible don’t just walk away’. Similarly, she keeps her own faith, far away from Mrs Winterson’s penchant for vengeance and suffering. Like the fictions she loves, it has a protective function. The Bible tells her that God loves her, even if nobody does on Earth. She writes of the church, ‘it’s hard to believe the contradictions unless you have lived them. The camaraderie, the simple happiness, the kindness, the sharing, the pleasure of something to do every night in a town where there was nothing to do’. Contradictions are held up to the light and examined: messy, and mysterious. She grapples with life, interrogates it, besotted. She refuses to live in the gloom.
Another crack that lets the light in is Mrs Winterson’s conflicting love of pulp fiction murder mysteries (apparently they’re acceptable, because you do know what’s coming. A body). Jeanette is sent off to the library now and then to pick up the latest batch – and while there, she finds her wings, her means of flight. She begins at the beginning, reading alphabetically through ‘ENGLISH LITERATURE IN PROSE A-Z’. Her explorations are relayed with a crackling humour. She makes her way miserably through N (Nabokov is upsetting) and is warned by a teacher that she ‘may not read Mrs Oliphant’, because that is not literature. ‘I’ve got no choice – she’s on the shelf!’ Jeanette explains.
At the age of sixteen, life is considerable worse. ‘My mother was about to throw me out of the house forever, for breaking a very big rule’. Not just ‘no sex’, but ‘no sex with your own sex’. Her first teenage love, with another girl, is terminated by a brutal exorcism carried out by older church members, egged on by Mrs Winterson; a shocking episode (she is beaten and starved) that only serves to harden her indomitable rage. Around this time, ‘scared and unhappy’, she is in the library and chances on T S Elliot. Poetry is new. (She is still working through prose). She opens the book – she reads the lines:
This is one moment / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy
‘I started to cry. Readers looked up reproachfully, and the librarian reprimanded me, because in those days you weren’t even allowed to sneeze in a library, let alone weep’.
The hardness of life in this story is almost unbearable at times. How much can a person be damaged and recover, re-tell the story and resume with a life that they want? She reads and writes her way out of torment – from that first startling line from T S Elliot. Like her faith when she was young, ‘This is one moment’, carries her and protects her. She explains that in her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, she wrote her upbringing all over again, a version she could live with. This non-fiction book is the ‘silent twin’ of that novel. The life that really happened: stranger than fiction. The long painful slog to learn about love (how to give it, how to accept it) is given beautiful tribute. It’s tale of survival and forgiveness and resourcefulness, but it’s not only that. She goes one step further, and writes of happiness. Her wilful demand for a shot at happiness is poignant to behold, knowing what she came from: ‘As I try to understand how life works […] I come back to something to do with saying yes to life, which is love of life, however inadequate, and love of the self, however found. A salmon-like determination to swim up-stream, however choppy upstream is’.
The title of the novel comes from the moment that Jeanette Winterson tells her mother that she has fallen in love with a woman: ‘When I am with her I am happy. Just happy’. Happiness. As simple as that. After a lifetime walled in to sadness and loneliness, her mother seems to understand – ‘I thought, really, for that second, that she would change her mind, that we could talk, that we would be on the same side of the glass wall. I waited. She said, ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’
From coldness and lovelessness comes this brilliant, joyful book. This is her key, her passport to a happy life: she writes life again, until it is better; until it is believable. The idea of fiction as a luxury, an option, for ‘the educated middle classes’ alone, is ferociously skewered: Winterson suspects that the people saying these things must have had it pretty easy. ‘A tough life needs a tough language’, she writes. Fiction ‘is not a hiding place. It’s a finding place’.
Finding a book like this to tuck myself in to while winter dawdled on is not exactly the vertiginous survival revealed by Winterson, but like the very best stories, it was a warm heart and a bright light that made the rest of life much brighter and warmer, too. Without self pity or sentimentality, she shows how brazenly and determinedly you can choose your own story. Libraries are full of this sort of thing – how amazing. No wonder Mrs Winterson was so wary.