There were only six books in the Winterson home, Jeanette writes. Mrs. Winterson said that “’The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.’” Jeanette read in secret throughout her childhood, drawing strength from stories of transformation, trickery, and belonging in one’s world.
Despite her strict no-books rule, Mrs. Winterson herself read murder mysteries voraciously, and sent Jeanette to the Accrington Public Library to collect and return books for her. Eventually, on one of these trips, Jeanette began reading fiction, starting alphabetically. Jeanette concedes that her mother was, in a way, right about stories being dangerous: “A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?”
The inequality and unfairness between Jeanette and Mrs. Winterson is highlighted in this passage. Jeanette’s mother did have a love of literature, but refused to pass that along to her daughter consciously—rather, she made Jeanette’s love of reading an inevitability by making it something that was restricted in the first place. Jeanette concedes that her mother was right about the power of books and the role that storytelling would come to play in her life.
Jeanette recalls being sixteen and about to be “throw[n] out of the house forever”—Mrs. Winterson has found out that Jeanette is a lesbian. Jeanette recalls a trip to the library during this period to collect one of her mother’s books—Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot, which her mother mistook for a murder mystery. The book was a book of poetry, and Jeanette opened it and began to read it even though she was strictly working her way through “ENGLISH LITERATURE IN PROSE A-Z.” Jeanette began to cry reading Eliot’s lines, and felt that though she was confused about everything in her life at that point, poetry offered her “tough language” and a “finding place” that helped her to push through.
Literature—not just stories, but poetry and language—have been a refuge for Jeanette in the worst moments of her life. Even in times of despair, when she felt as if she would never escape her mother’s controlling world, words were what gave Jeanette a sense of purpose, hope, and community.
Also during this time period, Jeanette was working at the Accrington market on Saturdays, and putting the money she earned there towards buying her own books and hiding them away beneath her bed. One night, Mrs. Winterson came into her room and saw a corner of a paperback—it was D.H. Lawrence. Believing Lawrence to be a “Satanist and a pornographer,” Mrs. Winterson threw the book out the window and then ransacked Jeanette’s secret collection. She took Jeanette’s books into the other room, over to the stove, and lit them on fire. The books, in that moment, were being destroyed, but also provided the literal light and warmth that they had always represented to Jeanette. Jeanette believes this incident had an effect on the way she writes—“collecting scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative…[in Eliot’s words,] These fragments have I shored against my ruin…”
Mrs. Winterson’s attempt to control Jeanette’s world so stringently, and to keep her from the things she loved, only made Jeanette more resolute in her desire to seek her own happiness and fulfill her own wishes for herself and her life. The moment when the burning scraps of Jeanette’s books provide her, for just a moment, with the literal warmth and comfort they have been metaphorically giving her over the years, is symbolic of the irrefutable value and meaning of literature in Jeanette’s life. Stories are the only things keeping her from “ruin.” At the same time, the image of burning books shows just how tyrannical Mrs. Winterson truly is.
The book-burning incident also forced Jeanette to confront that anything physical could be taken from her—only the things inside of her were safe. She began memorizing poetry and prose, believing them to be “medicines.” She felt pain, but also joy, and she one day realized that “there was something else [she] could do”—she could write a book of her own.
Jeanette steeled herself against further punishment and disappointment by realizing that she needed to internalize everything that was important to her—and that she could generate material from her own sorrow and trouble.