In the 26 years since the publication of her highly acclaimed first novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson has proved herself a writer of startling invention, originality and style. Her combination of the magical and the earthy, the rapturous and the matter-of-fact, is unique. It is a strange and felicitous gift, as if the best of Gabriel Garcia Marquez was combined with the best of Alan Bennett. At her finest, (in which category I’d put The Passion, Sexing the Cherry and Lighthousekeeping) there is no one to match her.
The title of this memoir comes from the mouth of Mrs Winterson of Accrington, Lancs, the author’s adoptive mother. This is what she replied when her young daughter told her that she was in love with another girl, and happy. It is a testament to the subtlety and control of Jeanette Winterson’s prose that this monstrous woman, who, by her coldness and her madness and her misery, caused her only child such dreadful suffering, emerges from these pages as a figure of dark comedy, even of pathos.
Mrs Winterson loved Jesus, but he brought her no joy: ‘Jesus was supposed to make you happy but he didn’t, and if you were waiting for the apocalypse that never came, you were bound to be disappointed.’ In a state of constant rebuke, Mrs Winterson prayed and smoked (in secret) and stayed up all night, so as to avoid the marital bed. She had two sets of false teeth, matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for ‘best’. Other than the bible and one or two other texts, books were forbidden. Every day there was church, all day on Sundays. There was no cuddling, no laughter. Mrs Winterson was ‘a relentless brooding mountain range’ a ‘flamboyant depressive’ whose complaining was a ‘life-long soliloquy’.
Jeanette was told that her birth mother was dead. She was told that the Devil had led her adoptive parents to the wrong crib. Luckily for her (and us), she discovered the public library, where she secretly worked her way through English Literature in Prose A-Z. Once she had stumbled on T. S. Eliot, she included poetry. It is no exaggeration to say that books saved her. This remarkable account is, among other things, a powerful argument for reading. ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination’.
Winterson left home and the North, got herself a place at Oxford, moved to London and began to write. Mrs Winterson died, never reconciled with her child. For her daughter there was fame and fortune and love affairs. Then she had a breakdown and understood that ‘going mad is the beginning of a process. It is not supposed to be the end result.’
Winterson’s fiction had always been concerned with love and with loss. Here, she realises why:
Adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you — and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
Many of the best stories are about motherlessness, fairy tales, the works of Charles Dickens and even Harry Potter among them. I will not spoil this tale by revealing whether Winterson looks for, or finds, her birth mother. But I will say that the memoir is brave and beautiful, a testament to the forces of intelligence, heart and imagination. It is a marvellous book and a generous one. Mrs Winterson believed in miracles. The tragedy is that she wasn’t able to see that a miraculous talent was living under her own roof, all along.