Born in Manchester, England, Jeanette Winterson, CBE, is the author of
seventeen books, including the national bestseller Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
, Sexing the Cherry
, and The Passion
She has won many prizes including the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the E.M. Forster Award, and the Stonewall Award.
Jeanette was born in 1959. Her mother was 17, and worked in a factory called Raffles, sewing overcoats for Marks and Spencer.
1 of 10 children herself, Ann couldn’t keep her new daughter and she was adopted by Jack and Constance Winterson who raised her in the nearby town of Accrington.
Jeanette’s new parents were Pentecostals – a religious evangelical group who read the Bible more or less literally, and believe in the Second Coming of Christ and the End of the World.
Jeanette was raised to be a missionary. Books were not allowed at home unless they were religious books. As Mrs Winterson pointed out, ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it till it’s too late.’
There were only 6 books in the house, including the Bible, and Cruden’s Concordance to the Bible. But there was another book – an accident, a chance – Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. These stories of the Grail, of Lancelot and Guinevere, of Arthur and the Round Table became as central to Jeanette’s imagination as the Bible.
Jeanette attended a girls’ grammar school – Accrington High School For Girls, and later read English at St Catherine’s College Oxford.
In between, she was living in a Mini, driving an ice-cream van, working in a funeral parlour and falling in love.
Her love affair with another girl at 16 meant that Jeanette had to leave home. Her mother asked her why she was still seeing this girl when she knew the consequences – homelessness. Jeanette replied – She makes me happy.
Mrs Winterson’s response was, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’
She was a violent philosopher.
After Oxford Jeanette worked in the theatre for a while, at London’s The Roundhouse with the legendary Thelma Holt. ‘I did everything; wrote the programme notes, sold ice-cream, swept up, drove Thelma around, collated reviews and tried to sell advertising space to magazines like Time Out
In 1983, at a job interview at the newly formed Pandora Press (in the heyday of women’s presses in the UK), Jeanette started telling the boss interviewing her about her idea for a novel called Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
The boss was Philippa Brewster. She said, ‘If you write it the way you tell it, I’ll buy it.
Jeanette didn’t get the job but she did write the novel and Oranges
was published in 1985.
Mrs Winterson said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.
The novel was a word-of-mouth success round the independent bookshops. Then it won a few prizes and got picked up by the press. Suddenly it wasn’t in the Jams and Marmalades sections anymore.
In 1994 Jeanette did two things; left London to live in the Cotswolds, where she still lives, and bought a derelict building in Spitalfields – London’s East End. At that time few people lived around the old fruit and veg market.
Over 2 years Jeanette rebuilt her building, and later put a shop back on the ground floor where it had been, on and off, since 1810. The shop Verde’s is still owned by Jeanette, and run by Harvey Cabaniss, who has made it into a successful business. Jeanette says, ‘It is beautiful to look at and it is as asset to the neighbourhood – especially now when the whole place is becoming a corporate playground.’
If you want to read about Jeanette and her life, buy the memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
In 2009 Jeanette met Susie Orbach, psychoanalyst and author of the classics, Fat is a Feminist Issue
and Impossibility of Sex
Susie had been separated from her partner of 34 years for 2 years, and Jeanette had also been 2 years out of a break up with the theatre director Deborah Warner.
Susie and Jeanette began an unexpected and unlikely romance. They married in 2015.
Jeanette continues to live in the Cotswolds. Susie continues to live in London.
‘There are so many ways of managing love and life. Be creative!’
Jeanette is also a Professor of New Writing at the University of Manchester.
Photography: Sam Churchill