Skip to content
October 31, 2011 / Rachel Bednarski

Jeanette Winterson for the Guardian

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 that would change me forever, like the contents of 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.

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. 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 feet, and towering over us. Then, because it was useless, redundant, only destructive, or so it seemed, she shrank back again, defeated.

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 safe keeping.

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 non-fiction 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 are carved heads of Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Dante. Inside are art nouveau tiles and a gigantic stained-glass window that says KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.

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. 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 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 for ever, 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 calledMurder in the Cathedral by TS 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, so I had a look and saw that it was written in verse. Definitely not right … I had never heard of TS 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 1965, 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 TS 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.

I used to work on 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.

She’s right, knowledge IS power.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: