In an excerpt from her new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, novelist Jeanette Winterson recounts how there were only six books in her childhood home—and how the forbidden ones she brought home were set on fire by her mother.
There were six books in our house.
One was the Bible and two were commentaries on the Bible. My mother was a pamphleteer by temperament, and she knew that sedition and controversy are fired by printed matter. Ours was not a secular house, and my mother was determined that I should have no secular influences.
I asked my mother why we couldn’t have books and she said, “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”
I thought to myself, Too late for what?
I began to read books in secret—there was no other way—and every time I opened the pages, I wondered if this time it would be too late; a final draught (draft) that would change me forever, like Alice’s bottle, like the tremendous potion in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like the mysterious liquid that seals the fate of Tristan and Isolde.
In myths, in legends, in fairy stories, and in all the stories that borrow from these basics, both size and shape are approximate, and subject to change. This includes the size and shape of the heart, where the beloved can suddenly be despised, or where the loathed can become the loved. Look what happens in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Puck’s eyedrops turn Lysander from an opportunistic womaniser into a devoted husband. In Shakespeare’s use of the magic potion, it is not that the object of desire itself is altered—the women are who they are— rather that the man is forced to see them differently.
In the same play, Titania briefly falls for a clod wearing an ass’s head—a mischievous use of the transforming potion, but one that questions reality: Do we see what we think we see? Do we love as we believe we love?
Growing up is difficult. Strangely, even when we have stopped growing physically, we seem to have to keep on growing emotionally, which involves both expansion and shrinkage, as some parts of us develop and others must be allowed to disappear ... Rigidity never works; we end up being the wrong size for our world.
I used to have an anger so big it would fill up any house. I used to feel so hopeless that I was like Tom Thumb who has to hide under a chair so as not to be trodden on.
Do you remember how Sinbad tricks the genie? Sinbad opens the bottle and out comes a 300-foot-tall genie who will kill poor Sinbad stone dead. So Sinbad appeals to his vanity and bets he can’t get back in the bottle. As soon as the genie does so, Sinbad stoppers the neck until the genie learns better manners.
Jung, not Freud, liked fairy tales for what they tell us about human nature. Sometimes, often, a part of us is both volatile and powerful—the towering anger that can kill you and others, and that threatens to overwhelm everything. We can’t negotiate with that powerful but enraged part of us until we teach it better manners, which means getting it back in the bottle to show who is really in charge. This isn’t repression, but it is about finding a container. In therapy, the therapist acts as a container for what we daren’t let out, because it is so scary, or what lets itself out every so often and lays waste to our lives.
I was 16 and my mother was about to throw me out of the house forever, for breaking a very big rule—even bigger than the forbidden books.
The fairy tales warn us that there is no such thing as standard size—that is an illusion of industrial life—an illusion farmers still struggle with when trying to supply uniform vegetables to supermarkets ... no, size is both particular and subject to change.
The stories of the gods appearing in human form—scaled-down power deities—are also stories against judging by appearances: things are not what they seem.
It seems to me that being the right size for your world—and knowing that both you and your world are not by any means fixed dimensions—is a valuable clue to learning how to live.
Mrs. Winterson was too big for her world, but she crouched gloomy and awkward under its low shelf, now and again exploding to her full 300 hundred feet and towering over us. Then, because it was useless, redundant, only destructive, or so it seemed, she shrank back again, defeated.
I am short, so I like the little guy/underdog stories, but they are not straightforwardly about one size versus another. Think about, say, Jack and the Beanstalk, which is basically a big ugly stupid giant and a smart little Jack who is fast on his feet. OK, but the unstable element is the beanstalk, which starts as a bean and grows into a huge treelike thing that Jack climbs to reach the castle. This bridge between two worlds is unpredictable and very surprising. And later, when the giant tries to climb after Jack, the beanstalk has to be chopped down pronto. This suggests to me that the pursuit of happiness, which we may as well call life, is full of surprising temporary elements—we get somewhere we couldn’t go otherwise and we profit from the trip, but we can’t stay there. It isn’t our world, and we shouldn’t let that world come crashing down into the one we can inhabit. The beanstalk has to be chopped down. But the large-scale riches from the ‘other world’ can be brought into ours, just as Jack makes off with the singing harp and the golden hen. Whatever we ‘win’ will accommodate itself to our size and form—just as the miniature princesses and the frog princes all assume the true form necessary for their coming life, and ours.
Size does matter.
In my novel Sexing the Cherry (1989) I invented a character called the Dog Woman; a giantess who lives on the River Thames. She suffers because she is too big for her world. She was another reading of my mother.
Six books ... my mother didn’t want books falling into my hands. It never occurred to her that I fell into the books—that I put myself inside them for safekeeping.
Every week Mrs. Winterson sent me to the Accrington Public Library to collect her stash of murder mysteries. Yes, that is a contradiction, but our contradictions are never so to ourselves. She liked Ellery Queen and Raymond Chandler, and when I challenged her over the business of ‘the trouble with a book [to rhyme with spook] is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late ...’, she replied that if you know there is a body coming, it isn’t so much of a shock.
I was allowed to read nonfiction books about kings and queens and history, but never, ever, fiction. Those were the books there was trouble in.
The Accrington Public Library was a fully stocked library built out of stone on the values of an age of self-help and betterment. It was finally finished in 1908 with money from the Carnegie Foundation. Outside were carved heads of Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Dante. Inside were art-nouveau tiles and a gigantic stained-glass window that said useful things like "Industry and Prudence Conquer.”
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.
At home one of the six books was unexpected; a copy of Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Mallory. It was a beautiful edition with pictures, and it had belonged to a bohemian, educated uncle—her mother’s brother. So she kept it and I read it.
The stories of Arthur, of Lancelot and Guinevere, of Merlin, of Camelot and the grail, docked into me like the missing molecule of a chemical compound.
I have gone on working with the grail stories all my life. They are stories of loss, of loyalty, of failure, of recognition, of second chances. I used to have to put the book down and run past the part where Perceval, searching for the grail, is given a vision of it one day, and then, because he is unable to ask the crucial question, the grail disappears. Perceval spends 20 years wandering in the woods, looking for the thing that he found, that was given to him, that seemed so easy, that was not.
Later, when things were difficult for me with my work, and I felt that I had lost or turned away from something I couldn’t even identify, it was the Perceval story that gave me hope. There might be a second chance.
In fact, there are more than two chances—many more. I know now, after 50 years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.
And of course I loved the Lancelot story because it is all about longing and unrequited love.
Yes, the stories are dangerous. She was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?
I was 16 and my mother was about to throw me out of the house forever for breaking a very big rule—even bigger than the forbidden books. The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex.
I was scared and unhappy.
I remember going down to the library to collect the murder mysteries. One of the books my mother had ordered was called Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot. She assumed it was a gory story about nasty monks—and she liked anything that was bad for the pope.
The book looked a bit short to me—mysteries are usually quite long—so I had a look and saw that it was written in verse. Definitely not right ... I had never heard of T.S. Eliot. I thought he might be related to George Eliot. The librarian told me he was an American poet who had lived in England for most of his life. He had died in 1964, and he had won the Nobel Prize.
I wasn’t reading poetry because my aim was to work my way through English Literature in Prose A–Z.
But this was different.
I read: This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.
I started to cry.
Readers looked up reproachfully, and the librarian reprimanded me, because in those days you weren’t even allowed to sneeze in a library, let alone weep. So I took the book outside and read it all the way through, sitting on the steps in the usual northern gale.
The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family—the first one was not my fault, but all adopted children blame themselves. The second failure was definitely my fault.
I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels.
I had no one to help me, but the 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.
It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.
In many ways it was time for me to go. The books had got the better of me, and my mother had got the better of the books.
I used to work in the market on Saturdays, and after school on Thursdays and Fridays, packing up. I used the money to buy books. I smuggled them inside and hid them under the mattress.
Anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that 72 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. By degrees my bed began to rise visibly, like the Princess and the Pea, so that soon I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor.
My mother was suspicious-minded, but even if she had not been, it was clear that her daughter was going up in the world.
One night she came in and saw the corner of a paperback sticking out from under the mattress. She pulled it out and examined it with her flashlight. It was an unlucky choice: D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love.
Mrs. Winterson knew that Lawrence was a satanist and a pornographer, and hurling it out of the window, she rummaged and rifled, and I came tumbling off the bed while she threw book after book out of the window and into the backyard. I was grabbing books and trying to hide them, the dog was running off with them, my dad was standing helpless in his pyjamas.
When she had done, she picked up the little paraffin stove we used to heat the bathroom, went into the yard, poured paraffin over the books and set them on fire.
I watched them blaze and blaze and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night. And books have always been light and warmth to me.
I had bound them all in plastic because they were precious. Now they were gone.
In the morning there were stray bits of texts all over the yard and in the alley. Burnt jigsaws of books. I collected some of the scraps.
It is probably why I write as I do—collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative. What does Eliot say? These fragments have I shored against my ruin ...
I was very quiet for a while, but I had realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe.
I began to memorise text. We had always memorised long chunks of the Bible, and it seems that people in oral traditions have better memories than those who rely on stored text.
There was a time when record-keeping wasn’t an act of administration; it was an art form. The earliest poems were there to commemorate, to remember, across generations, whether a victory in battle, or the life of the tribe. The Odyssey, Beowulf are poems, yes, but with a practical function. If you can’t write it down, how will you pass it on? You remember. You recite.
The rhythm and image of poetry make it easier to recall than prose, easier to chant. But I needed prose too, and so I made my own concise versions of 19th-century novels—going for the talismanic, not worrying much about the plot.
I had lines inside me—a string of guiding lights. I had language.
Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.
I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.
There was pain. There was joy. There was the painful joy Eliot had written about. My first sense of that painful joy was walking up to the hill above our house, the long stretchy streets with a town at the bottom and a hill at the top. The cobbled streets. The streets that went straight to the Factory Bottoms.
I looked out and it didn’t look like a mirror or a world. It was the place I was, not the place where I would be. The books had gone, but they were objects; what they held could not be so easily destroyed. What they held was already inside me, and together we would get away.
And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do.
‘Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own.’