Jeanette Winterson recounts the history and geography of the place of her birth—Manchester, England, which is in the “south of the north” of the country. Jeanette describes the region as “untamed and unmetropolitan [but] connected and worldly.” As Manchester was “the world’s first industrial city”—and, until WWI, the place where 65% of the world’s cotton was processed—it was influential on industrial cities and towns the world over. Manchester was and is “all mix”—both radical and repressive, utilitarian and utopian. Manchester life in the late mid-1800s was difficult, grimy, and “raw,” and even Charles Dickens wrote of the plight of the working class there, describing factory workers and their children as “ragged [and] filthy horde[s].” The despicable conditions “pitched Manchester into radicalism.”
Jeanette wants for her readers to understand the world from which she comes. She describes Manchester as a gritty and grimy place which ultimately rose above its own circumstances—as Manchester was radicalized, it took control of its own narrative. Jeanette herself has done this with her own life, and, as she will soon explain, she believes that without the example of her birthplace she might not have gained such control.
Jeanette argues that “where you are born stamps who you are.” Her birth mother was a factory worker and her adoptive father was a manual laborer—Jeanette’s history, both biological and adoptive, is the history of the working class. Jeanette “dreamed of escape” from an early age, and now as an adult she wonders what happens to society when individualism and escapism win out over community.
Jeanette, like the city of Manchester, has risen above her circumstances and changed the narrative of her life. As she ponders whether individualism is a detriment to community, she realizes that the two are linked—she is who she is because of where she comes from, but she does not have to surrender herself to the “story” of her life—she can make a new one for herself.
Jeanette describes the route between Manchester, where she was born, and the town of Accrington, where she was raised—the Pennines, a “wild rough low mountain range” is in view during the journey one might take between the two points, offering an “[un]easy beauty.” Jeanette describes the landscape as “taciturn [and] reluctant.”
The land between Manchester and Accrington and its “uneasy beauty” is symbolic of the gap between where Jeanette was born—and who she was born to be—and where she was raised, and how.
Jeanette was born in August of 1959 and adopted on the 21st of January, 1960. Jeanette does not know—and “never will”—whether Mrs. Winterson was unable to have children or just unwilling to “put herself through the necessaries.”
This passage illustrates how little Jeanette knows, even as an adult, about her mother. She will never know whether her mother was struggling with infertility or was simply too pious and afraid of pleasure (or possibly even asexual, as is later suggested) to attempt to bear her own children.
Jeanette’s adoptive parents, the Wintersons, had purchased their home in 1947. Before they found religion, they smoked and drank—after they become Pentecostal Evangelicals, both quit drinking but continued smoking. Her mother smoked in secret, and allowed her husband only a few cigarettes a week, describing them as “his only pleasure.” Jeanette laments her father’s restricted and sexless life.
Jeanette’s parents led strict and solemn lives, but she especially feels for her father, who she believes would have chosen pleasure and happiness if he had been able to.
Jeanette writes that she screamed nonstop until she was two years old. As child psychology “hadn’t reached Accrington,” her adoptive parents failed to realize that perhaps she was experiencing “the trauma of early separation from the love object that is the mother,” and instead proclaimed her a “Devil baby.” As a child, Jeanette was “very often full of rage and despair,” and her parents fought often—the battle between the three of them “was really the battle between happiness and unhappiness.” Jeanette turned to the Bible, which told her that even if she was unloved on Earth, “there was God in heaven” who loved her enormously. In spite of all the traumas of her childhood, Jeanette says, she “was and [is] in love with life.”
Jeanette was singled out as a tool of the Devil from infancy—her parents did not perceive her as her own person, and they were unequipped to cater to their daughter’s needs. As Jeanette grew older, the battle for “unhappiness” to take over the Winterson household raged on, and Jeanette fought back at every turn.
Mrs. Winterson, on the other hand, did not love life. She saw the only escape from her misery as the Apocalypse. She kept her War Cupboard, full of emergency supplies, intact, planning to use it as a bunker when the end of the world arrived. Mrs. Winterson told Jeanette that an angel would come to collect them, and Jeanette realized that her mother’s mind was totally occupied with “elaborate interpretations” of the Apocalypse and its aftermath. Jeanette writes that she and her mother had both lost things in life, and were “matched” in their feeling of being “dislodged” and wanting to go “Home.”
Jeanette and her mother were entrapped in similar feelings of being out of place in their own worlds. However, a vast chasm remained between them, and they were never able to bond over their “matched” feelings. Mrs. Winterson was too obsessed with the end of the world, and with acting strict and pious in order to hopefully herald its arrival.
Jeanette writes that she was “excited” about the Apocalypse as a child, but “secretly hoped” that she would live to adulthood in order to see what the world had to offer her. She reflects on her lifelong goal of pursuing happiness, and describes the right to the pursuit of happiness as “the right to swim upstream, salmon-wise.” Jeanette believes that the pursuit of happiness is not the same thing as being happy, and that happy times will always pass. Pursuing happiness, however, is a “quest stor[y]” which is “life-long and not goal-centered.”
Jeanette’s “upstream” quest throughout her entire life started at an early age. In the midst of a deeply unhappy childhood, she dreamed of a better existence, and the entire driving force of her life has been to embark upon—and enjoy—the journey toward happiness. Though Jeanette is still unsure about happiness as a state of being, she believes that the pursuit is worth everything.