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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette Winterson

(Grove Press; US: Mar 2012)

Just When You Think Sentiment Can't Touch You

Being a tired old cynic, I was ready for this memoir. I love Jeanette Winterson’s humour, I like her views on dealing with dysfunction and confusion via sarcasm and bluntness. Her descriptions of her interactions with her Evangelical Christian mother, ‘Mrs. W’, are always witty, sometimes infuriating, shocking, and hilarious, and if you are not yet familiar with Lancashire humour from the North of England, then here is a taste, as Winterson and her mother walk through Accrington town centre on their way to the Palatine Café for beans on toast ‘Mrs. W’ provides a running commentary:

“We went past Woolworths – ‘A Den of Vice.’ Past Marks and Spencer’s – ‘The Jews killed Christ.’ Past the funeral parlour and the pie shop – ‘They share an oven.’ Past the biscuit stall and its moon-faced owners – ‘Incest.’ Past the pet parlour – ‘Bestiality.’ Past the bank – ‘Usury.’ Past the Citizens Advice Bureau – ‘Communists.’ Past the day nursery – ‘Unmarried mothers.’ Past the hairdresser’s – ‘Vanity.’” (86-87)

Winterson admits there was no way she could have been allowed to be ‘Happy’ or ‘Normal’ – whatever that is – raised in her home. From the outset her adoptive mother, Mrs. W, told her that they had gone to the ‘Wrong Crib’ when they selected her, and she should have been a boy named Paul, instead. So rejection and disappointment were simply a fact of life for her from the start. There are glimmers of happiness amidst the gloom, and her life, like her surroundings in the countryside of Lancashire, had a certain beauty – but it was a ‘difficult beauty’.

Then – and this is a rare occurrence – something hit me as a reader that was both so powerfully sentimental and profound that it dispelled the gloom and it all got very personal. Just when I think that there is nothing left that can touch my critic’s flinty heart, I felt a pang when I read of Winterson’s adolescent project to attempt reading ‘ENGLISH LITERATURE IN PROSE FROM A-Z’. This plan came about according to the Dewey Decimal shelving system in the Accrington Public Library.

“The library held all the Eng lit classics, and quite a few surprises like Gertrude Stein. I had no idea of what to read or in what order, so I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen…” (37)

This alignment of chance, and life and art conspiring to help out the lonely teenage girl, is a remarkable and touching vision of the formulation of the young writer. Throughout this inspired work you are definitely rooting for the central ‘character’ of the young Jeanette, whose journey is confused, frustrating, tragic, but reflected upon with a genuine quality of honesty. She admits to the concoction of certain events and the blending together of fact and fiction because as she tells us: ‘Truth for anyone is a complex thing. For a writer what you leave out says as much as those things you include…The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world.’ (8)

Read this as an investigation into the creation of an author – a 20th century Lancashire David Copperfield. Read it because it’s a memoir of striking honesty, realism and wit. Read it because it is also the Romance of a life in pursuit of love: ‘I was stalking love, trapping love, losing love, longing for love…’


Dr Gabrielle Malcolm is a writer, artist and academic based in the UK. She is known for her publications on Victorian literature and culture and her writing on Shakespeare on stage, TV and Film. She has published alongside writers such as AS Byatt in 'The Dickensian' journal, and her performance art pieces were featured in the Liverpool City of Culture celebrations in 2008, at the Liverpool Tate amongst other venues. Recent publications include a chapter in 'Writing Women of the Fin de Siecle: Authors of Change' (Palgrave McMillan, 2011). She is an avid fan of the Gothic and the Neo-Victorian. Her literary blog 'A Special Mention' has many followers and she can regularly be found tweeting @gabymalcolm, with fellow Shakespeareans and fans of Gene Kelly.

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