Jeanette describes the history and geography of her hometown, Accrington. Once, the land, as described in ancient English texts, was an “oak-enclosed space” with rich and heavy soil. Accrington eventually made its money in the cotton industry, though it didn’t make much—the town and its neighboring settlement, Oswaldtwistle, were both very poor towns. There was a dog biscuit factory in Oswaldtwistle, and many girls at Jeanette’s school would bring dog biscuits to eat for lunch.
Jeanette contrasts ancient descriptions of her hometown as a fertile and lush place with the reality of what she knew of it as a child—which was an impoverished and industrialized northern town.
When Jeanette and Mrs. Winterson would walk through town, Mrs. Winterson would point out the vice and sin all around them—in every shop front, on every street corner. Jeanette loved visits to the Accrington market, where prices were never set, though her mother hated to be seen bargain-hunting. On trips to the Palatine restaurant, Jeanette’s mother would order beans on toast and dream of Jeanette’s future, longing for her daughter to grow up to be a missionary and go far away from Accrington. “She longed for me to be free,” Jeanette writes, “and did everything she could to make sure it never happened.”
Jeanette grew up conscious of her mother’s fear and hatred of everything around them. Mrs. Winterson was full of contradictions when it came to her feelings about Accrington—she hated it, but would not leave, and she openly spoke of her desire for Jeanette to leave and see the world, but did everything she could to keep Jeanette confined and chained down.
Jeanette found small refuges in the town library and in the second-hand rummage shop “somewhere under the viaduct which was the last relative of the nineteenth-century rag-and-bone shops.” Down there, Jeanette purchased armfuls of books, got lost in the wonders of other people’s secondhand objects, and listened to music.
Jeanette’s main sources of comfort throughout her difficult childhood were books and objects from the past. She could lose herself in the stories books had to offer, or the stories of the antique and secondhand objects she browsed through at the rummage shop.
Jeanette recalls the nervous “egg custard mornings” during which Mrs. Winterson would make a custard and then disappear. Jeanette would have to let herself into the house through the back. Her mother would always return, but Jeanette never knew where she’d gone and never asked, though she suspects she might have gone to the Odeon Cinema to watch movies in secret. To this day, Jeanette says, she does not eat egg custard.
Mrs. Winterson remained a mystery to Jeanette for much of her life, and the “egg custard mornings” stood out as one of Mrs. Winterson’s most bizarre behaviors. The abandonment, uncertainty, and strangeness of these disappearances have a lasting effect on Jeanette, as she somewhat comically compartmentalizes these fears into the form of an aversion to eating egg custard.
There was a sweet shop in town run by two women who Jeanette now realizes were more than likely lovers. Jeanette was eventually forbidden from visiting the shop—the owners “dealt in unnatural passions,” Mrs. Winterson said, a statement that made the young Jeanette wonder whether the two women put chemicals in the candy.
Mrs. Winterson’s bigoted and fearful views prevented Jeanette from enjoying something as simple as candy from a local shop.
Jeanette would also visit liquor stores on her mother’s behalf, to purchase cigarettes. Jeanette would return bottles there for money, and found the shops—where all kinds of men and women congregated to talk and laugh about adult things—exciting.
The idea that Mrs. Winterson sent her daughter to the liquor store to buy her cigarettes but would not let her visit a candy shop run by two women who may or may not have been romantically involved is played up to comic effect.
The few things Mrs. Winterson actually seemed to love were the Gospel Tent, Royal Albert China, and Christmas. Christmas was a time of luxury and celebration, and “the one time of year” when Mrs. Winterson did not act as if the world was a “Vale of Tears.” Mrs. Winterson would attend Jeanette’s school concerts at this time of year. One year, when a friend of Jeanette’s pointed out Mrs. Winterson during the concert and asked if she was Jeanette’s mother, Jeanette replied: “Mostly.”
Mrs. Winterson was a woman of very few pleasures, and Jeanette recalls Christmas time as the time of year when she was closest to her mother. Even at this time, though, Jeanette only ever felt that Mrs. Winterson was “mostly” her mother.
Jeanette describes a day, years later, when she was returning to Accrington after her first term at Oxford. As she neared her parents’ home, she saw her mother through the window playing a song called “In the Bleak Midwinter” on an electronic organ. She recalls looking through the window and thinking that Mrs. Winterson was both her mother and not her mother, before ringing the bell to be let inside.
This image of Mrs. Winterson is locked in Jeanette’s mind, and represents a moment in which she was separated from Mrs. Winterson by time and distance but was once again approaching home—Mrs. Winterson existed in an in-between space, at arms’ length, and seemed to be both significant to Jeanette and not significant at all.