Teaching is done! So now I can read with abandon, promiscuously, widely. But after wolfing down the much ballyhooed The Hunger Games (just to see what all the fuss is about) I pick up, of course, a recent memoir.
Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? has just come out. We know much of her life story from her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, an autobiographical novel that she wrote when she was so young, just 25 when it was published. But this is the real thing: the memoir. Featuring her larger-than-life Evangelical Christian adoptive mother whom she calls “Mrs Winterson,” the story traces her childhood and her coming into writing, as well as her coming out as a lesbian. Mrs Winterson is a harridan. A big, fat woman with rigid views on everything, a woman who deliberately shuns pleasure, who refuses to sleep with her husband and actively dislikes her adopted daughter. I’ve just begun the book, but I’m already hooked.
Winterson was born at about the same time in about the same place as me: Manchester, England, 1959. She was the child of a factory worker, who gave birth at age 17 and couldn’t keep the child. There’s a whole chapter on Manchester, the first industrial city, and I know so well the houses and streets she describes: the two up and two down terraced houses, the coal sheds, the slate roofs, the back alleys, the cats, the corner shops, the public library, the terraces and brick walls, the grey, cold days. Eating a bag of chips. Drinking milk from the glass bottles left on the doorstep by the milkman. Jam sandwiches, corned beef sandwiches, sponge cake. School uniforms. Endless pots of tea. Holidays at the seaside. That sense that Manchester is in the southern part of the North (my paternal family comes from Yorkshire, the real North). All of you Corrie fans know it too.
But whereas in my home books were sacred and reading encouraged, in young Jeanette’s home books were banned–except the Bible, commentaries on the Bible, and one or two others. Fiction was banned because, according to her mother, “The trouble with a book is that you don’t know what’s in it until it’s too late.” So Jeanette sneaks books from the library, buys books with her market-stall work earnings, hides books under her mattress. When her mother finds her stash she promptly throws the books out of the window into the yard; then grabs paraffin, goes outside, and sets them ablaze. The image of books burning always makes me gasp.
For the young Jeanette, books offer a world outside, a magic carpet that spirits her away to a better place, a place where she might be loved, where she might be happy.
Jeanette recalls finding T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, opening it, reading the first lines —“This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy”— and instantly bursting into tears. She took the books outside (because weeping in a library is not the thing) and reads it straight through. Then she writes:
I had no one to help me, but T.S. Eliot helped me.
So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language–and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers–a language powerful enough to say how it is.
Literature is what makes life better. Later in the same chapter: “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”
Oh, yes. Yes. Yes.