Jeanette Winterson and the Gospel of Literature

In person, Jeanette Winterson has a somehow otherworldly appearance. Small and lithe, her short hair curling over her ears and at the nape of her neck, she resembles an elf or a pixie.

Light-footed, she strides the stage at the Comedy Theatre as she greets her audience, brandishing her book as if talismanic object. She reads – or, more accurately, performs – the first chapter in full, but barely glances at it and rarely seems to turn the page. It’s as if she knows the story by heart – and she should; she lived it.

Jeanette Winterson: 'I was never going to be a nobody.'

Jeanette Winterson: 'I was never going to be a nobody.'

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal tells the true story partly covered in her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: living with her eccentric adopted parents, devout Pentecostals, growing up with books and language as her refuge from an arid emotional life. It picks up where Oranges left off, too, with her mother discovering her in bed with her female lover and kicking her out of home, aged just 17 – and goes on to take snippets from her literary career, and to follow her discovery of her birth mother (or ‘bio mum’, as she calls her). Threaded throughout are meditations on the nourishment of books and art, the way they offer solace, discovery and growth.

Not a memoir; a ‘cover version’

But Jeanette doesn’t like to call it a memoir; she prefers ‘cover version’, as she told Salon. In Why Be Happy, she writes, ‘Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.’

She tells her Comedy Theatre audience that the book is ‘an experiment with experience’.

Reflecting on Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, she channels the first chapter of the book in her hands, her memoir-of-sorts:

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 misunderstood Jane Austen’s comment that she 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 the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody?

Germaine Greer: ‘The lying autobiography’

Not everyone has embraced this experiment, nor her acknowledgment of the shifting border between fact and fiction.

In a recent First Tuesday Book Club, Germaine Greer called both Oranges and Why Be Happy self-serving and ultimately unfair to the characters portrayed in them, particularly Mrs Winterson, Jeanette’s adopted mother, a larger-than-life ‘monster’. Greer said the books belong to ‘a strangely female genre … the lying autobiography’. She declared that she wasn’t ‘buying’ Jeanette’s story of feeling unloved from birth, because ‘adoptive parents DO love children’.

An audience member asks Jeanette, during question time, for a response to Germaine’s comments – which she handles with dignified aplomb. She says she won’t ‘hear a word said’ against Germaine Greer, ‘mother of feminism’, but adds, almost as an aside, ‘I think it’s rather touching that she’s standing up for Mrs Winterson, who died in 1990.’

Mrs Winterson ‘was clever and she was trapped’

‘I think it’s a very affectionate portrait of her,’ she reflects. ‘I began to have a lot more sympathy for her, a lot more understanding.’ She concludes that her mother, Mrs Winterson, had none of the chances she did, coming of age when she did, before the 1960s changed the options available to women. ‘She was clever and she was trapped.’

Indeed, Jeanette is openly admiring as she recalls that her mother read her Jane Eyre as a child, but changed the ending, so that Jane didn’t end up marrying the dashing Rochester, with his mad wife in the attic, but her cold clergyman cousin St John instead. Jeanette didn’t discover what her mother had done until she found a copy of Jane Eyre in the library and read it herself. She’s now impressed by Mrs Winterson’s ability to make up her own alternative story as she turned the pages, fluidly inventing in the prose style of Charlotte Bronte.

Jeanette credits Mrs Winterson and her upbringing with making her who she is; surprisingly, though she has confessed both a longing to be loved and an innate inability to do so, she says she wouldn’t change her circumstances if she could.

‘You can rewrite yourself’

‘I was never going to be a nobody,’ she tells the Comedy Theatre audience, with a bright confidence. ‘That wouldn’t have suited me.’ She believes if her circumstances were different, she’d have a suburban house, kids, a Range Rover, and a high-flying corporate job. ‘I’d have had the energy but not the poetry.’

Her isolation, she says, meant that ‘I thought of myself as the hero of my own life.’

‘If you think of yourself as a fiction instead of a fact, you learn an important truth: you can change the story. You can rewrite yourself.’

Jeanette Winterson, it seems, is as passionate about her chosen religion as her mother was about God. Hers is art, literature, words.

Gesturing at the audience below her, at the blue velvet curtains at the sides of the stage, Jeanette Winterson laughs and says, ‘It’s the gospel tent, isn’t it? I’m hoping I’ll have saved some souls tonight.’

Jeanette Winterson appeared in a double bill with Chad Harbach at the Comedy Theatre as part of the Wheeler Centre’s Ten series of events, presented in partnership with the Sydney Writers Festival.

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