The Winshaw Legacy

The Winshaw Legacy

Infobox Book
name = The Winshaw Legacy AKA What a Carve Up!

author = Jonathan Coe
cover_artist = Owen Smith
cover design= Susan Mitchell
country = London, Great Britain
language = English
genre = Mystery/Drama
publisher = Random House Inc
pub_date = 01 January 1996
pages = 502 Pgs.
isbn = ISBN 0-679-75405-9

"The Winshaw Legacy" is a Satire by Jonathan Coe that concerns the greed and corruption prevalent during the 1980s. This book was written in response to the corruption that plagued Britain during the 1980s. Coe utilizes the shallow and greedy characters to criticize how change was being brought about to satisfy a few of the people while the rest were forgotten. Also, with much change that happened within the health care system and the agricultural industry, people were overwhelmed with all the changes so there was little time to concentrate and demand that one thing be changed. If they were to concentrate on one thing, a new change would slip by unnoticed, causing more harm than good.

Plot introduction

Michael Owen is approached to write a biography about the Winshaws, a right-wing upper class British family who do whatever it takes to make money. Along the way, Michael learns about the Winshaws and himself through this thrilling tale of deceit, greed, and politics.

Explanation of the novel's title

Jonathan Coe’s novel has two titles. "The Winshaw Legacy" regards the Winshaw Family and the legacy of secrets and betrayals that they have procured throughout their life time. "What a Carve Up!" refers to the movie that Michael becomes obsessed with and finds himself in that fateful night at the Winshaw Towers.

Plot summary

Tabitha accuses Lawrence of killing Godfrey who was shot down in a fighter plane in Germany. She claims to have heard Lawrence speaking in German in his study, but no one believes her. When reconvening for Mortimer’s 50th birthday, Lawrence is attacked in the middle of the night, but survives killing the intruder. The Winshaws are the perfect example of upper class British families. Rich, political, and powerful this family knows how to get what it wants. Michael Owens, the narrator for part of the story, is a writer obsessed with the movie "What a Carve Up!" starring Shirley Eaton and Kenneth Connor. He is tasked with writing a biography of the Winshaws. Michael lives in London and has been a hermit for two years. He watches the same movie every night and does nothing else except eat, sleep, and think. Fiona, his neighbor, becomes his friend one night after she knocks on his door to ask for sponsorship in a 40-mile bike ride.

After this encounter, Michael begins to see that he can not continue to stay inside all the time and begins his work on the Winshaw’s biography once again. Hilary Winshaw is a well known columnist for a newspaper. Henry Winshaw is a politician famous for his backstabbing tactics. Dorothy Winshaw is a farmer who mistreats her animals and uses mass production in order to make a profit. Roderick (Roddy) Winshaw runs an art gallery, sleeping with every college-aged female painter along the way. Thomas Winshaw works for a bank and makes investments on film technology, while peeping on closed sets. Finally, there is Mark Winshaw who basically sells weapons to Saddam Hussein.

Michael was tasked with the project in 1982; however, by August 1990 he has still not finished it. When Findlay Onyx, a detective hired by Tabitha some years ago, tracks Michael down to help him figure out what secrets the Winshaws are hiding the story begins to come together. As Michael begins finding out more about these Winshaw characters, Fiona becomes ill and dies shortly in January 1991. Mortimer Winshaw also dies around this time and Michael is called to the reading of his will in order to document for his biography.

At the reading of the will, the younger generation waits greedily to hear what they will be getting now that Mortimer has died. They get nothing. As the night goes on, Henry is stabbed in the back; Hilary crushed by her a giant stack of her columns; Dorothy stuck on a meat hook like one of her farm animals; Thomas’ eyes are gouged out, his body never found. Mark’s arms are chopped off in a “farewell to arms” while Roddy is painted gold and suffocates. After Michael finds out from Tabitha that his real father is John Farringdon, the pilot who was with Godfrey, Michael understands why he was chosen to be the family biographer. As Michael goes through a secret hallway he discovers upon the way the Lawrence has most likely given away Godfrey’s location to the Germans. Then, Mortimer shows up. Covered in blood and looking tired, he admits that he killed off the whole younger generation of Winshaws: “Mr. Winshaw I do hope that you aren’t going to expend any pity on members of my family. They don’t deserve it” (pg. 484).The story ends in the edge of your seat fashion that exists throughout the story, with Aunt Tabitha taking over the plane that Michael is in. He experiences for the third time a dream that he has as the plane hurtles towards the ground, Aunt Tabitha singing “Row Your Boat”

Characters in "The Winshaw Legacy"

Lawrence Winshaw (1902-1984)- The eldest of five kids. He is the eldest of five and owner of Winshaw Towers, the family mansion. He was hated by his sister Tabitha because she believed that he was the reason that her dear brother Godfrey was killed in a plane crash in action during World War II. Tabitha accuses Lawrence of being in league with the Germans and passing secret information to them so that Godfrey would be killed.

Godfrey Winshaw (1909-1942)- Younger brother of Lawrence and beloved brother of Tabitha. He was killed during World War II in an unexplained plane crash and was the cause of Tabitha’s plunge into insanity.

Tabitha Winshaw (1906-1991)- She was the sister of Lawrence and hated him with a passion. Blames Lawrence for her Brother Godfrey’s Death. She claims that Lawrence was collaborating with the Germans and was the cause of her Brothers Death. After Hearing that Godfrey was killed in a plane crash, she becomes hysterical and puts the blame on Lawrence, claiming that it was the hatred for Godfrey that drove him to arrange the assassination. Lawrence sends Tabitha to an asylum in hopes of getting rid of her and her constant accusations. In the asylum, Tabitha hires an author to write a book on her family history in hopes that this might uncover the truth behind Godfrey’s Death.

Mortimer Winshaw (1911-1991)- Lawrence Youngest brother. He like Godfrey very much, but overall he hated the Winshaw’s. In fact, his dislike is clearly conveyed in the book when he says “let me give you a warning about my family, in case you hadn’t worked it out already. They’re the meanest, greediest, cruelest bunch of backstabbing, penny-pinching bastards who ever crawled across the face of the Earth. And I include my own Off Spring in that Statement” (pg. 209). By the end of the novel he is living within the house, neglected and disliked by the members of his own family.

Henry Winshaw (1926-1991)- The brother of Thomas Winshaw and son of Olivia and Walter Winshaw. He attended Oxford University and was a schoolmate of and had a small crush on Margaret Thatcher. He was man with ambition and a good head for politics. Never did anything if it did not gain him some type of profit. Was not above backstabbing those that had helped in some way or another, and did everything he could for profit, nothing more. The perfect example of a backstabbing, corrupt politician. He held the belief that “There is no point in passing some scandalous piece of legislation and then giving them time to get worked up about it. You have to get right in there and top it with something even worse, before the public have had a chance to work out what’s hit them. The thing about the British conscience, is that it really has no more capacity than….a primitive home computer…It can only hold two or three things in its memory at a time” (pg. 313). He was an avid Advocate for the National Health Services Reorganization Act of the Health Care System. And one of the main reasons why the Health Care System suffered in the 1980’s.

Thomas Winshaw (1924-1991)- He is the head of a bank in Britain. He believed that “Banking had become the Most Spiritual of all Professions.” He was the man who made it possible for the rich to become richer and the poor to be left forgotten in misery. He enjoyed making money out others misfortunes. He did not marry yet he was an “addicted Voyeur with an unhealthy fondness of his vcr's freeze frame button.” [ epinions] Also “the Knowledge that he was helping to deny ownership to many and concentrate it in the hands of a few filled him with a calming self of rightness. It satisfied something Primeval in him. The only place Thomas could find even greater, more lasting fulfillment, perhaps, was in the area of Mergers and takeovers.” (pg.321) “he was also unhampered by scruple, and had the not inconsiderable advantage of being on the terms of close personal friendship with some of the most important members of the takeover Panel”

Dorothy Winshaw (1936-1991)- A woman whose ambition is to sell as much meat as possible for the lowest possible production cost. She is the daughter of Lawrence Winshaw and wife of George Brunwin, a Farm owner. She takes over Brunwin farms and converts the farm from an animal friendly place to an industry in which genetic enhancements provided more meat, at less production costs. She could be considered the mother of commercialized packaged goods, and Frozen dinners as well as the forerunner of creating processed foods.

Hilary Winshaw (1954-1991)- A women who excels in writing in a newspaper Column. She makes Yellow Journalism look like it was nothing but the truth. Before she became a columnist, she was in the Television business but because on some poor decisions on her part she was forced to retire. Alan Beamish, the man who taught her everything there was to know about television comments on how her column is nothing but trash and does not deserve merit. In fact, he writes an article titled “The Barbarians at the Gate” and puts her at the forefront on what he hated in the cultural climate, and the decline of the public service broadcasting. She gets revenge by taking over his job on the BBC and states, “The barbarians aren’t at the gate anymore, Alan. Unfortunately you’ve left the gates wide open. So we’ve wandered right inside, and now we’ve got all the best seats and our feet are up on the table. And we intend to stay here for a long, long time” (pg. 86).

Roddy Winshaw (1952-1991)- He was an Arts dealer that will endorse any female artist as long as he gets to sleep with her. He knows nothing of art and only endorses painters that he knows he can make a profit out of.

Mark Winshaw (1943-1991)- he was an arms dealer and considered himself a “patriot” to England. This view he holds of himself, however is rather amusing because he sells weapons to Iraq in hopes of gaining a better profit. He is the only son of Godfrey Winshaw, yet does not care about his fathers supposed murder. He is much more concerned with making a profit instead of working to help others. He loved material possessions and when his wife died in one of his cars “ [he] was devastated by the loss. The car was a 1962 Morgan plus 8 Drop head Coupe in midnight blue, one of three or four left in the world, and it would be impossible to replace” (pg. 383).

Michael Owen – He was hired by Tabitha Winshaw so that he may write a book about her family. He starts off writing the book strong, yet a he begins to uncover the history of the family he loses interest and begins to seclude himself. As a child, Michael goes to the movie theater with his parents and Sees a movie What a Carve Up! This movie proves to be a defining moment in his life. So much so that by the end of the novel, Michael realizes that he has been living his life very much like the movie. Michael meets a woman by the name of Fiona and she helps him get out of his rut, in the end however, after realizing that he care about her, she dies an untimely death.

Onyx Findlay- He is an amusing old man that helped in the investigation of the death of Godfrey. He helps Owen find out who his biological father is and provides him with new pieces of information that ultimately help Michael uncover many more hidden truths about the Winshaw’s.

Fiona- A woman who helps bring Michael out of his shell provides him with much needed company. She becomes an unfortunate victim of the new health policy. With all the change that happens in the health care system, files and paperwork are misplaced and it is due to the negligence of the hospital staff that her illness is not discovered in time. Moreover, at the hospital, because they are severely understaffed and without many supplies, it takes hours to find Fiona a bed, let alone find a doctor to help her. In the end, Fiona dies of Lymphoma and as an indirect victim of Henry, and his greedy ways.

Graham – A young man with Radical political views. He believes that the government is taking things too far so he is determined to see what he can do to get the word out there. By chance he ends up meeting Mark Winshaw and working for him. While doing so, he is secretly keeping tabs on all of Mark's moves and is determined to film a documentary in order to expose him of his heinous deeds. In the end Mark finds out about the plot and decides to have someone take care of Graham. Graham, by some miracle, survives the attack that Mark had set up for him.

Phoebe - A young aspiring painter who falls prey to Roddy and his wicked ways. She becomes disillusioned and ends up working for Mortimer Winshaw, Roddy’s father, as his nurse.

Allusions to History and Geography

Henry: “I think I am in love. Yes! For the very first time! The President of the Association is a girl from Somerville called Margaret Roberts and I have to say she is an absolute pip! An utterly gorgeous head of nut-brown hair- I just wanted to bury myself in it” (pg. 122). This refers to the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose maiden name was Roberts.

Narration: “I’m a Midlander by birth and a Southerner by adoption. Never having lived in the North of England, I’ve always regarded it from a distance, with a mixture of fear and fascination” (pg. 273). This refers to the geography of England and the way that many Brits regard the island.

Narration: “Graham’s film was only about ten minutes long, and proved to be an efficient if unsubtle piece of polemic about the Falklands conflict, called ‘Mrs. Thatcher’s War’” (pg. 280). The Falklands War involved Argentina when they invaded the islands in April 1982, which were British territories.

Dialogue: “You know, it’s not that our leader doesn’t admire your country,’ said the general, returning to the subject of Mark’s patriotism. ‘It’s just that you make it difficult for him to trust you. So it’s sort of a love-hate thing with him. Our armies are still using manuals prepared by your War College. We still send our men to be trained at your air bases, and draw upon the expertise of your SAS. There is nothing better than a British military education. I should know: I was at Sandhurst myself” (pg 375). An Iraqi general is talking to Mark about Saddam Hussein and his relationship with England as Iraq is building up its own army.

Narration: “Luckily South London was more or less empty of traffic, and apart from a close shave with a red Sierra and a bruising encounter with the edge of a roundabout just outside Surbiton, we managed to get out into the countryside without serious incident” (pg. 347). This refers again to geography but more closely to the London area.

“The Leadership Election was a Joke, and now we have a new tenant at number ten which can only be described as a political dwarf, with no idea how to govern, and mandate from the people” (pg. 133) This is an allusion to the Mandate of Heaven in China. The Mandate of heaven meant that a ruler could rule a land without any fear of revolt as long as the Gods themselves provided them with the mandate. As soon as the people felt that the mandate had been lost, they could revolt against the ruler and elect, or chose a new ruler.



The idea of karma is explored in The Winshaw Legacy especially in regard to the fates of the Winshaw’s. Hilary is crushed by a stack of her columns filled with her hypocritical opinions. Henry is stabbed in the back epitomizing his continuous backstabbing political tactics. Dorothy is killed like so many of her farm animals, hung on a meat hook. Thomas has his eyes gauged out for being a peeper. Roddy is suffocted with gold paint, a reference to a James Bond film and his work as an art-dealer. Lastly, Mark, an arms-runner to Iraq has his arms chopped off in a lovely and ironic farewell to arms.


During the time-period of this novel, there are numerous social, political, and economic changes going on. The National Health Service is one focus in Henry’s diary. “Work on an NHS bill is progressing. I’ve managed to convince them that the first thing to do is reverse the policy of phasing out private beds” (pg. 134). Of course, this comes into play when Fiona is waiting for a bed while she is deathly ill. The fact that she does not get a bed in a timely matter attributes to her death. Michael also changes greatly throughout the story. At first he is a very goal oriented person, dreaming about becoming an astronaut. Then, as a writer he writes a few novels. It is his two-year hiatus, stuck in his flat, where he experiences a reversal of sorts in regard to his career and social abilities. With the help of Fiona and Findlay, he embraces society and succeeds in his career, finding that even though there are imperfections, you can not hide from society.


Mark and Henry are the winners for most greedy and corruptive in the Winshaw Family. Mark is basically an arms dealer to Iraq who frequents the country and makes military inspections on weapons. When Henry explains his concerns about Saddam Hussein and his use of weapons Mark replies: “Henry, what does it matter what he intends to do with them? If it starts to look as though he’s in a position to do any harm, then we find an excuse to attack him and wipe out the whole arsenal. And then we start selling again” (pg. 387). Henry, of course, writes in his journal, in November 1990: “The plain truth of the matter is that with Margaret a leader, the party is unelectable. ‘Dump the bitch,’ [Henry] said. ‘And fast.’ Nothing must be allowed to stop us” (pg. 141).

Media Impact

The idea of the media and it’s impact is explored in two aspects. Michael and his obsession with "What a Carve Up!" and Hillary’s column. The film Michael is obsessed with becomes a life reality when he goes to the Winshaw Towers and ends up in the same situation with Phoebe as Shirley Eaton and Kenneth Connor. Hillary is a hypocritical writer who writes about whatever she wants, and the public mood follows. She is influential enough to hold that kind of sway. Coe is clearly critiquing the effect that the media has on society.

Dreams vs. Reality

Michael has three dreams throughout his childhood that he remembers. One is him with Shirley Easton with himself as Kenneth Connor. Another with a crashing plane and another with a young Michael looking into the mirror and seeing an old, tired face looking back at him. In the end of the novel, Michael finds himself with Phoebe and sees his life as the movie. Murders are occurring, while a beautiful blonde woman is trying to seduce Michael. The old, tired face that Michael sees in his dream is that of John Farringdon, the pilot who was with Godfrey in the crash, and that occurrence ultimately ties him to the Winshaw’s because Farringdon is Michael’s biological father. Lastly, the dream with a plane crashing is his own demise when he realizes that crazy old Tabitha is flying the plane, hurtling it to the ground.

Allusions and references

-There is an allusion throughout the whole novel in regards to the movie "What a Carve Up."This movie set the whole basis for the novel and provides interesting plot twists.

-“ As far as I could see, the apartment described by Conan Doyle in "The Sign of Four", When Sherlock Holmes first encounters the Mysterious Thaddeus Sholto” (pg. 221). This allusion to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four helps cement the idea into the reader that Onyx Findlay is indeed a detective, as only a detective would decorate his apartment in a similar style that Doyle depicted in his literature.

-There is also a reference to Hercule Poirot a famous Belgian detective character by Agatha Christie on page 232.

-There is also a mention of “Singular Mr Owen, Singular” (pg. 232) which could be taken as a mockery of Watson’s “Elementary.”

-Coe alludes to Two Way Stretch, Dentist in the Chair, Watch your Stern, Follow that Horse, Inn for Trouble, Life is a circus, and School for Scoundrels, all films produced in Britain. Pg. 317

-There is also a reference to Orpheus when he says that he "had slipped across the divide, like a dreaming Orpheus" (pg. 411).

tructure and Format

The Winshaw Legacy is written in a first and third person narrative throughout the whole novel. This helps create a barrier between the narrator and the characters within the story. Also, it creates a barrier between the reader and the narrator. These barriers are created because there is no interiority involved within the novel. Without any interiority, the reader has no idea what is going on in the text which ultimately helps with the detachment between the reader and the characters as well as the characters and the narrator. Moreover, because the narrator (in this case Michael) does not know what is going on inside the head of the Winshaws, there is a clear divide between them, not only mentally but financially as well. Michael is a poor man, and as soon as he sets out to write his book, he realizes that there is a big gap between the Winshaws and him. The gap is formed through the financial difference between them.

Also, because there is a strong influence of the media on the book, the movie plays an important role in the book. Michael incorporates himself within the movie, as such by doing so, the text conveys how Michael’s life is ruled by the media. This is important because it depicts the extent of the role that the media had on society at such an early age. More importantly, it conveyed how easy it was to influence peoples decisions or opinions on daily matters.

Lastly, his usage of allusions to history helps solidify his satire. He mocks the way the politicians handled the situation during the time period and is able to express his displeasure at the lack of order and honor.

Literary significance and reception

“Wickedly breezy view of postwar Britain…as typified by one greedy, ruthless and mercifully imaginative English Family” San Francisco Chronicle

“An exuberant Social Satire…very Enjoyable and Darkly acerbic”-Boston Globe

“Savagely Funny…a big raucous and exhilarating novel”- Michiko KakutaniThe New York Times

“Hilarious…Riotous…Beyond his zestfully wry and ginger tone, Coe scores palpable hits as he satirizes an array of political historical targets….A comic/gothic delight, the Winshaw Legacy has the air of an idea conceived by Brontes, reworked by Dickens, and played by the Monty Python crowed…A gem”- Chicago Tribune

“ Horrifyingly believable and heartbreaking….An Orwellian Satire….Coe’s book is an elaborate hubbub of styles and Genres. It is a Baroque detective story an a parody of all such stories. It is a Juggling of reality. It is a succession of mordant cartoon pamphlets…like Orwell, Coe elicits our impulse to do something.”- Los Angeles Times

“A remarkable achievement; intelligent, funny, and important.” – The Times Literary Supplement (London)

"Unlike such harsher novelists as Will Self, Coe is still touched by Britain's failures, and angered by them too. He isn't cynical, and although the cast of characters in The Winshaw Legacy leaves us with little enough hope for Britain's future, the reader knows that idealism isn't dead as long as novels like this are written and published." - Carey Harrison, San Francisco Chronicle

The significance of Coe writing a novel like this is that it commented on how the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. This novel critiques how the decisions of a few people affect the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people daily, especially the lives of innocents. Living in a country where processed food were becoming common, and the health care system began deteriorating helped bring about the dissatisfaction of the people. In fact, all the drugs that the cows were forced to ingest daily were one of the causes for the emergence of Mad Cow Disease.


Winshaw Legacy won the 1995 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1995. [ Award]


BBC Radio 4 broadcast an eight-part dramatisation between February and April 2005 (under the title What a Carve up!, rather than The Winshaw Legacy). It was scripted by Reginald Perrin creator David Nobbs, and starred Robert Bathurst, and an impressive range of supporting actors, including Rebecca Front, Charlie Higson, Geoffrey Palmer and Jeff Rawle amongst others.

=External Links/References= [ Award]

[ epinions]

[ RadioListings]

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  • Jonathan Coe — Infobox Writer name = Jonathan Coe caption = At Humber Mouth Festival on 19 June 2006 pseudonym = birthdate = birth date and age|1961|8|19|df=y birthplace = Birmingham, England deathdate = deathplace = occupation = Novelist nationality = British… …   Wikipedia

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