Mrs Winterson’s Daughter
- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Cape, 230 pp, £14.99, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 224 09345 3
I was friendly with Jeanette Winterson in the 1980s – we even went away for a weekend together. I went slightly cool on the friendship, though she didn’t exactly do anything wrong. We ran into each other occasionally after the publication of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and we once read to an audience of nine in Burnley (I doubt if even one of the nine was there to hear me). Otherwise my memories are from the period before she was ‘Jeanette Winterson’, the outsider who gatecrashed the canon, or alternatively the self-sabotaging golden girl and egomaniac who could never match that first success.
When I met Jeanette she was working as the women’s editor at Brilliance Books, a gay publishing house that received funding from the GLC and was based on Clerkenwell Green, near where I lived. She poured a lot of energy into the job. She was efficient and didn’t mind hard work. She was helpful. When the two men who ran the press, Roy Trevelion and Tenebris Light, went on holiday to Gran Canaria, she willingly redecorated their flat. Editorial routines didn’t need to be solemn: on one occasion she and Roy sifted poetry submissions by reading them aloud in a Barnsley accent. Anything that didn’t produce hysterical laughter went forward for further consideration. When Roy’s father died she volunteered to help with the catering after the funeral, but made herself scarce when family arrived so as not to intrude.
At the time she was living in the house of a merchant banker in exchange for domestic chores. As she told the story, she had answered an ad in Time Out along the lines of ‘Ex-hippie, now half-ashamed breadhead, offers accommodation in exchange for housekeeping duties to firebrand willing to remind him of his radical ideals’. It was a good fit for Jeanette. Her landlord came to rely on her energy and initiative. One day he asked her to acquire a sports car. She found a smart yellow one at a reasonable price. He drew a circle on a map and asked her to find him a country cottage within that radius. She found one in Oxfordshire. He let her use both car and cottage when he didn’t need them himself.
At the time I was working on an anthology of gay and lesbian fiction for Faber and had chosen a story by Peter Hazeldine, whose novel Raptures of the Deep was a Brilliance venture. One day Jeanette showed me something she had written, a few handwritten sides of what seemed to be prose poetry. Would it do for the book? I didn’t think so. I told her it seemed like a standard piece of rhetoric. ‘Look at this, for instance,’ I said: ‘“My mother always felt she owned me …” What does that actually mean?’ She told me what it meant, the whole history of being brought up an adopted child in Accrington by Elim Pentecostalist parents, her deafness being mistaken for rapture, falling in love with another girl, the three-day exorcism, the works. Of being a child preacher and making a large number of converts, many of whom sent word, after her disgrace and departure, that they were praying for her. I said what any halfway competent creative writing teacher would have said (a job I had had at a lowly undergraduate level in the States a few years earlier). The more plainly you write it the better it will be. No extra spicing required for so fully flavoured a dish.
When we went away for the weekend, it was to the cottage in Oxfordshire, and Jeanette drove us there in the yellow sports car. I assume that her London landlord was non-tall, like Jeanette, or he would forever have been bashing his forehead against the lintels, as I was. In the evening we visited the village church. For some reason we talked about E.R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational. I had done the first two years of a Classics degree, but she was the one who had actually read the book. I told Jeanette about an ‘unhappy love affair’ (I think the conversational link was the necessary destructiveness of Dionysus), fully generic enough to warrant the inverted commas.
The next morning she bounced into my bedroom to say she had dreamed about the lover who was (in my version) behaving so badly, and had given him what for. I could just about imagine having such a dream on someone’s behalf, but not presenting it as a gift, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have someone fight your battles for you. If I’d gone to the bother of having my own revenge dream, at least I’d have known what the guilty party looked like.
Later in the day I came across a piece of paper with writing on it, on a sideboard or similar surface. I thought it might be a note left for me. In fact it was a sort of lyrical diary entry, saying that she and I (my name was used) had never been so happy, that we were spending the whole time gazing into each other’s eyes. If I was shown that note for the first time now, I might think, extraordinary how memory plays tricks – I enjoyed our weekend, but had entirely forgotten that level of closeness. Reading it on the spot, and influenced by the little incident of the dream, I thought my hostess slightly delusional and decided it best to hold off.
Jeanette had boundary issues before they were fashionable. Obviously she did. How could she not? She was brought up according to a religious code by which outsiders were to be made over into believers, and in an emotional environment which allowed no nuance of belonging between being spat out and being swallowed alive. She was already getting a reputation as someone who broke off relationships abruptly, not just severing the connection but leaving an indictment itemising every character flaw and wrong action since first meeting. I had no special reason to be fearful, since any such docket of grievance would be relatively painless considering our mild association, but I didn’t look forward to getting one just the same.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is an erratic piece of writing, with oddities of structure and point of view (most obviously a narrator who is steeped in English literature before being exposed to it). But it has any amount of flair. Memory is kind to the book, editing out the bits that don’t work, the lumpy fables and the sermonising. This for instance from the section called ‘Deuteronomy’:
Very often history is a means of denying the past. Denying the past is to refuse to recognise its integrity. To fit it, force it, function it, to suck out the spirit until it looks the way you think it should. We are all historians in our small way. And in some ghastly way Pol Pot was more honest than the rest of us have been. Pol Pot decided to dispense with the past altogether. To dispense with the sham of treating the past with objective respect. In Cambodia the cities were to be wiped out, maps thrown away, everything gone. No documents. Nothing. A brave new world. The old world was horrified. We pointed the finger, but big fleas have little fleas on their back to bite them.
This hectoring voice has never entirely gone away, and has sometimes predominated to the point of seeming Winterson’s preferred style of utterance, but it isn’t an interloper or a side-effect of celebrity. It was there from the beginning. It’s hard to imagine anything less engaging or novelistic, but the vitality of the whole, the sense of Alan Bennett characters filled with Old Testament fervour, was strong enough to blot it out.
Towards the end of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit the narrator wonders what would have happened if she had stayed in the church. She decides she would have been a priest rather than the prophet she has become. The role of the prophet is embraced without any thought about whose prophet she can possibly be, now that she has repudiated the church that has repudiated her. In another late passage, ‘Jeanette’, on a return visit to Accrington, sits on a hilltop and imagines preaching to the faithful she has left behind, taking the weather conditions she can see before her as her text: ‘I could have made a very impressive sermon . . . “My sins like a cloud hung over me, he blotted them out when he set me free …” that sort of thing. But where was God now, with Heaven full of astronauts and the Lord overthrown?’ It’s a question that many have grappled with, including Joni Mitchell, lightly paraphrased here. The lines are from ‘The Same Situation’ on her 1974 album Court and Spark:
Still I sent up my prayer
Wondering where it had to go
With heaven full of astronauts
And the Lord on death row.
The song ends:
Still I sent up my prayer
Wondering who was there to hear
I said ‘Send me somebody
Who’s strong, and somewhat sincere’
With the millions of the lost and lonely ones
I called out to be released
Caught in my struggle for higher achievements
And my search for love
That don’t seem to cease.
This is an unusually elevated register for a pop song, and Mitchell’s modesty is hardly a byword, but it seems half-hearted when set beside Winterson’s sense of herself as a writer. In her terms, to assess a book like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as very good of its kind, as it certainly is, is close to an insult. It must be more than a book, absolutely a thing by itself. If it’s only a book then it isn’t anything. It’s less than nothing.
Even Laura Riding, no shy blossom, a writer who characterised her own work as being poetry of the first water, emphasised that it wasn’t better than poetry. She was making a philosophical point, that our overvaluation of works of art leads us into a category error when we remove them from the context in which they function. The truthfulness of an observation, the beauty of a phrase or a rhythm can’t be promoted into some higher realm of meaning. For Winterson that promotion isn’t a mistake but one of the articles of her faith. When your template is the Good Book, merely to set out to write good books is to fail before you start.
The high point of her cult of herself as a writer must be the 1991 introduction to the Vintage reissue. ‘In structure and in style and in content Oranges was unlike any other novel,’ she declares, though in fact the book fits snugly into the tradition of the Bildungsroman, and to locate a work in a genre is not to diminish it but to embed it where its vitality is richest. ‘Fiction,’ she goes on, ‘needs its specifics, its anchors. It needs also to pass beyond them. It needs to be weighed down with characters we can touch and know, it needs also to fly right through them into a larger, universal space.’ Her subsequent work has seemed short on those anchors, launched onto the tide (or into space, the imagery isn’t clear) topheavy.
Winterson’s new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, revisits the material of the first novel and then skips a quarter of a century, rather abruptly, to describe a recent crisis and its partial resolution, through a new lover, Susie Orbach, and the establishing of contact with her birth mother. Some elements familiar from the earlier narrative are missing: preaching and the making of converts, a source of satisfaction, even vanity, for the narrator of the novel (‘Some of us could preach, and quite plainly, in my case, the church was full because of it’), recede into invisibility. There are occasions when something is presented as new although it has already been explored. When her birth mother mentions the possibility that Mrs Winterson was ‘a latent lesbian’, Winterson reacts with shock: ‘I choke on my tea. That is like Burn a Koran Day. There are some things you can’t even suggest. But now that it has been suggested I am overwhelmed by the awful thought.’ In fact there are strong hints in the novel that the narrator’s mother isn’t as ignorant of unconventional loves as she makes out. On the page of her photograph album labelled ‘Old Flames’ there is a picture of a pretty woman holding a cat. When ‘Jeanette’ asks who it is, she replies that it’s an old boyfriend’s sister and she doesn’t know why she put it there. ‘Next time we looked, it had gone.’ Later on, when the narrator is in trouble for her liaison with another girl, Miss Jewsbury (herself gay) describes the mother as ‘a woman of the world, even though she’d never admit it to me. She knows about feelings, especially women’s feelings.’ Though the narrator describes this as something she didn’t want to hear about, the writer has certainly flagged it up. It’s as if Jeanette Winterson is so determined not to be defined by her first book that she has forgotten what’s in it.
The tone of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is highly unsettled. There’s a frequent effect of slippage, a grinding of gears between memoir and newspaper column, that secular sermonette. A lament for the well-meaning replacement of the King James Bible by more narrowly relevant versions reads like a transplanted think-piece. A passage describing the technicalities of roofing (‘with slate roof tiles your pitch can be as shallow as 33 degrees – with stone tiles you must allow 45 degrees or even 54’) doesn’t really suggest someone charting the history of Lancashire, more someone who has been doing up an old house.
The most complex slippages take place in a set piece, early in the book, describing the call Winterson made to her adoptive mother (both of them in phone boxes), who was understandably upset when the novel was published.
I tried to explain what I had hoped to do. 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. 1985 wasn’t the day of the memoir – and in any case, I wasn’t writing one. I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about ‘experience’ – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold – the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
Mrs Winterson was having none of it. She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn’t go out to work. Books had been forbidden in our house … and so for me to have written one, and had it published, and had it win a prize … and be standing in a phone box giving her a lecture on literature, a polemic on feminism…
No one reading such a passage could reasonably expect transcribed memory. It could only ever be fabulation – if this was a true-crime programme it would have the word RECONSTRUCTION at the bottom of the TV screen. But there’s so much adrift here, so much that is actively unreal, impossible to take seriously. It’s not just unreliable but ostentatiously unreliable.
Can you really make claims for the glorious freedom of your approach to fiction when you are defending your novel about a larger-than-life adoptive mother, who among other things improvised a more edifying ending to Jane Eyre (Jane ended up with St John Rivers), to the larger-than-life adoptive mother who among other things improvised a more edifying ending to Jane Eyre? Then there’s the rhetorical preening of Winterson’s last paragraph, which affects to pass her mother the microphone. If this conversation follows on the publication of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, then the book hasn’t yet won the Whitbread Prize for best first novel. It doesn’t seem likely that Mrs Winterson, of all people, would play a waiting game.
In an age of search engines, misquotation and misattribution are largely psychological matters. It has become very easy to check if you try, but not everyone tries – self-reliance hardening into an inability to consider the possibility of being wrong. The homily here is stirring (men’s virtual suppression of women’s writing by condescension and marginalisation) but has no point of contact with the chosen example. The person who compared Jane Austen’s writing to painting on ivory (two inches wide, rather than four) was not Henry James but Jane Austen, writing to her nephew in 1816, a quarter-century or so before James drew his first, possibly condescending, breath.
The most sympathetic interpretation of this disarray would be that it shows Winterson’s great ambivalence about her project. She had mixed emotions about her mother (to put it mildly), and perhaps also now about Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. That book acted out a liberation from her past, yet here she is returning to it. In the mythical terms to which Winterson is so strongly drawn, it’s as if Perseus, making use of the mirrored shield of art to slay the Gorgon, finds he has killed only her reflection and must go back to finish the job.
In the new book she says that ‘the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.’ This seems to promise grim revelations, which don’t materialise (the difference is of tone rather than of incident), but perhaps something else is meant. Winterson points to the made-up character of Elsie in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as proof of the book’s hybrid nature, neither wholly remembered nor wholly made up. ‘I wrote her in,’ she says, ‘because I really wished it had been that way.’ Elsie is an invented protective aunt or grandmother figure, a backdated imaginary friend with a resemblance to Thora Hird. Perhaps by inserting elements of tenderness and tolerance into the story of her past, Winterson could emerge from it with a fantasised wholeness – certainly a healthier escape than the one foxes manage from traps, having gnawed off a leg. The positive charge of the novel, the insistence on the narrator’s undamaged status, was distinctive and winning. Winterson carried over into her new life and her new personality the remnant of a Pentecostal certainty, refusing all shadows, but over time it can be a strain to project yourself as both an exception and an example, and the insistence on not being damaged can seem like damage in another form.
The portrait here of Mrs Winterson (as she’s usually referred to in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) represents a definite darkening. Whatever else she was, the mother in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was a life-force, but now she has been denied vitality: ‘She just didn’t like anyone and she just didn’t like life.’ ‘She had lost something. It was a big something. She had lost/was losing life.’ The conflict between them is reformulated in a way that refuses shadows all over again: ‘The battle between us was really the battle between happiness and unhappiness.’ There are moments of almost sorrowful contemplation of Mrs Winterson, as if the daughter was rehearsing the maternal role in fantasy: ‘I could have taken her out of her life and into a life she would have liked a lot’; ‘She never understood that energy could have been her own true nature while she was alive. She did not need to be trapped in mass.’ It may be that Winterson sees herself in converse terms, as energy without mass. Any possible historical Mrs Winterson is washed away by the opposing tides of rejection and appropriation, the speaking against her and the speaking for her. Yet there is also a fear that she continues to exercise an influence, lurking rather than exorcised. The novel’s title contradicted one of Mrs Winterson’s catchphrases; the memoir’s title reproduces one of her remarks without alteration.
Although being accepted into Oxford was a crucial part of Winterson’s escape from her background, it turns out that it was her exotic history, and therefore in effect her mother, that tipped the scales in her favour: ‘There was nothing for it but to explain at Shrek-speed about the Hillman Imp, and the tent, and the market stall where I worked, and a little bit about the Apocalypse and Mrs Winterson.’ In a sense her mother provided the petrol for the getaway car. Mrs Winterson continued to have an effect on life choices far removed from her own experience: ‘She hated the small and the mean, and yet that is all she had. I bought a few big houses myself along the way, simply because I was trying out something for her. In fact, my tastes are more modest – but you don’t know that until you have bought and sold for the ghost of your mother.’ It was never going to be easy to make this tone of plutocratic insouciance come off – the property ladder standing in for the therapist’s couch – but the swerve into the second person doesn’t help. And are those modest tastes free of influence anyway? Clearing out her father’s bungalow after his death, Winterson discovered among his effects ‘bits of crockery that brought the taste of my childhood back into my mouth. Mrs Winterson’s “cottage” plates, hand-painted with golden edges, and in the centre a little cottage on its own in a wood … (rather like where I live now).’ In a horror movie this would provide a frisson, but here it’s an oddly blank moment.
In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit the mother tells ‘Jeanette’ that she can change the world. In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? everything Mrs Winterson says amounts only to ‘a lifelong soliloquy’, as if Jeanette wasn’t really being addressed. Meanwhile, Mr Winterson is even more recessive than the father in the novel. It comes as a small shock when a memory is accompanied by a costume: ‘I am wearing my favourite outfit – a cowboy suit and a fringed hat. My small body is slung from side to side with cap-gun Colts.’ There’s nobody on view in the book with any interest in this child’s desires, for clothing or anything else.
Mrs Winterson is denied credit for helping to forge the strength that was successfully used against her. Jeanette’s ability to resist exorcism now goes further back: ‘The mistake they made at church was to forget that I began my small life ready to be given up. Love didn’t hold when I was born, and it was tearing now. I did not want to believe that love was such flimsy stuff. I held on tighter because Helen [the girl accused with her] let go.’ The logic here is tortuous (in what way is any baby ‘ready to be given up’?) but the emotions attending an adoption can hardly be anything else. No adoption is a simple equation, with a surplus baby cancelling a baby deficit, and the feelings involved can be very raw. Emotions are never subject to simple arithmetic, but adoptive ones seem to work by a particular negative algebra, a play of substitutions that refuses to be resolved. Outsiders can see that an adopted child might have a feeling of rejection, but not that such a person can feel twice rejected, once by the birth parents and a second time by the adoptive ones, who wanted something else – the baby of their bodies – but took what they could get. In this respect Jeanette Winterson was lucky, since from her mother’s point of view she was an absolutely primary phenomenon, not a substitute for anyone or anything else.
There’s a certain amount of discussion in the book about character flaws and bad behaviour. The pattern is there from schooldays:
If someone liked me, I waited until she was off guard, and then I told her I didn’t want to be her friend any more. I watched the confusion and upset. The tears. Then I ran off, triumphantly in control, and very fast the triumph and the control leaked away, and then I cried and cried, because I had put myself on the outside again, on the doorstep again, where I didn’t want to be.
Despite the reference to being left outside on the doorstep, which was her mother’s preferred way of punishing her, Winterson traces her behaviour to the general psychology of adoption: ‘You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you.’ Presumably for the pattern to be addictive it must feel different every time, as if each new friend will turn out to be the true one and create a new world.
It seems to be taken as read here that an adopted person’s psychology is negative, both in its emotional shading and its effects. Perhaps it’s so in some cases, but there are any number of benefits (for others, it’s true, in the first instance) that flow from a feeling of non-entitlement. Organisations both commercial and voluntary have reason to be grateful for workers who never slack off, and let’s not be in too much of a hurry to write off the value of friends for whom nothing is too much trouble. Entitlement can be very smug.
It’s in the romantic arena that the pressure is greatest and distortion becomes most intense. It’s here that the drive to be indispensable becomes destabilising and starts to work against its conscious aims:
Mrs Winterson was her own secret society, and she longed for me to join her there. It was a compulsive doctrine, and I carried it forward in my own life for a long time. It is of course the basis of romantic love – you + me against the world. A world where there are only two of us. A world that doesn’t really exist, except that we are in it. And when one of us fails the other …
And one of us will always fail the other.
There are other, less high-pitched versions of romantic love, but they are unlikely to have much appeal for someone whose formative experience, her template, is folie à deux.
Sometimes the tone of such passages is regretful, at other times closer to pseudo-regretful:
The working-class north of England was a routinely brutal world … I grew up not caring much about physical pain. I used to hit my girlfriends until I realised it was not acceptable … I’ve spent a lot of time understanding my own violence, which is not of the pussycat kind. There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people.
It is better to know it. Better to know who you are, and what lies in you, what you could do, might do, under extreme provocation.
Why is this so hard to take as heartfelt? Mainly it’s the choice of that ersatz phrase ‘not acceptable’, so foreign to Winterson’s own moral vocabulary. Those brought up in the sulphur glow of hellfire have no fear of unacceptability, nor does inappropriateness alarm them. Then there’s the additional evasive touch of ‘I realised’, as if no outside influence was involved. By the end of the passage, under the banner of self-knowledge briskly waved, a capacity for violence has been turned into something not far from a badge of authenticity. Is violence in fact a response to provocation? A large body of thought, much of it feminist, would say not.
Elsewhere, the cadences of therapy are used to suggest self-analysis while sliding over it: ‘And if we hate her [mother] later, we take that rage with us into other lovers.’ In the space of half a dozen words, hatred has become rage, though rage is rather different. Rage has glamour. Rage is hatred with a press agent. It’s much more Winterson’s style to glorify an impulse than to examine it. Lament for past mistakes keeps modulating into self-praise. This is one of the standard rhetorical techniques in autobiographical writing, but it has to carry the reader along. ‘I never did drugs, I did love – the crazy, reckless kind, more damage than healing, more heartbreak than health.’ But soon the register changes, to sound more like the personals column, less like self-scrutiny: ‘Love is vivid. I never wanted the pale version. Love is full strength. I never wanted the diluted version. I never shied away from love’s hugeness.’ Sometimes a blockage in the grammar sends the current of thought into strange eddies: ‘And the people I have hurt, the mistakes I have made, the damage to myself and others, wasn’t poor judgment; it was the place where love had hardened into loss.’ Other people are there at the beginning of the sentence, they promise to be its subject, their existence is asserted afresh after the second comma, and still they have somehow evaporated before the full stop.
Winterson accounts for the complexity of her emotional life by saying: ‘I have loved most extravagantly where my love could not be returned in any sane and steady way – the triangles of marriages and complex affiliations.’ There may be a little more going on in her case than the standard self-thwarting whereby the inaccessibility of the love object, far from disqualifying it, renders it compelling. ‘Affiliations’ carries inside it the Latin word for child, and suggests the establishing of a relationship on a junior basis. It doesn’t seem strange that she should especially be drawn to emotional triangles, given that an adopted child necessarily completes or contests a couple.
One past lover, Deborah Warner, is mentioned by name, presumably with permission and without obvious rancour, but with one strange choice of word: ‘Deborah was right to go. What had begun with great hope had become slow torture. I do not blame her for anything. Much about us together was marvellous. But as I was to discover, I have big problems around home, making homes, making homes with someone. Deborah loves being away from home and thrives on it. She is a cuckoo.’ A cuckoo is not a bird of passage, which would be the meaning expected. If there is a single word that expresses the negative mythology of the adopted child, as a destructive alien with an agenda of displacement, it’s ‘cuckoo’. It can hardly be used neutrally, not by an ambitious writer, not by a writer of any description. What is it doing here? It emits a low hum of disavowed feeling.
Susie Orbach, who seems strong and somewhat sincere, was able to help Winterson deal with the emotions (and the maddening bureaucracy) involved in contacting her birth mother. She may also have influenced a few passages which speak up for the merits of the emotional middle ground over the extremes. Winterson’s obsessions with ‘love, loss and longing’ are not distinctive, despite her claiming them as ‘Wintersonic’. What is unusual is her equation of any uncertainty or hesitation with blasphemy against love itself – the evangelical strain. As she says here, ‘I can juggle different and opposing ideas and realities easily. But I hate feeling more than one thing at once.’ There’s a similar shrinking in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: ‘Uncertainty was what the Heathen felt, and I was chosen by God.’
In a strange sentence about her desperate state in February 2008, she describes her difficulties: ‘I had been twice born already, hadn’t I – my lost mother and my new mother, Mrs Winterson – that double identity, itself a kind of schizophrenia – my sense of myself as being a girl who’s a boy who’s a boy who’s a girl.’ The last piece of information seems to come from nowhere, cast up on the shore of a grammatically churning sentence. It’s not examined or repeated. This seems quite a lot of simultaneous feeling to contain, if you hate having more than one emotion at a time. It goes a long way to explaining the primacy of love in Winterson’s private cosmology, as a transcendent state redeeming and sealing up, while it lasts, the internal divisions she so rarely admits. Perhaps the surprise isn’t that such a riven psychology, so doctrinaire about its own wholeness, should have had ‘a couple of minor breakdowns and a psychotic period’ but that she should ever have been able to function on an even keel.
For so polarised a temperament it’s the milder emotions that are likely to embody therapeutic breakthroughs. ‘Living with life is very hard. Mostly we do our best to stifle life – to be tame or to be wanton. To be tranquillised or raging. Extremes have the same effect; they insulate us from the intensity of life.’ That’s the way forward, in theory: to engage with the true intensity of experience without resorting to melodrama. From this point of view, the most admirable passage in the book describes Winterson’s reaction to meeting her birth mother at last: ‘I have read a lot of overwhelmingly emotional accounts of reunion. None of that is my experience. All I can say is that I am pleased – that is the right word – that my mother is safe.’ ‘Pleased’ has a promisingly tentative and provisional feel.
If the road to recovery must pass through the middle ground, then it’s certainly uphill work for her. The spiritual grandeur that is so clearly her adoptive mother’s thumbprint on her character shows no sign of wearing off. No comparison is out of scale when it comes to expressing her restored sense of proportion: ‘There feels like an inevitability to who I am – just as of all the planets in all the universes, planet blue, this planet Earth, is the one that is home.’ She wonders if her history of negative feeling towards men doesn’t come from blaming her biological father for letting her be given up, a consoling fantasy that allowed her to exonerate her birth mother. Still, that’s in the past.
I don’t feel negative about men any more – that was something else that shifted decisively when I was going mad. The men I knew were kind to me, and I found I could rely on them. But my change of heart was more than specific; it was a larger compassion for all the suffering and inadequacies of human beings, male or female.
This is hardly the voice of born-again moderation. Martyrs at the stake have spoken with more diffidence. In this new book the contradictions of Jeanette Winterson’s character are more evident than any perspective on them. I don’t doubt that she’s wounded, only that she knows her wounds.