Twenty years ago I wrote a book called Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is about being brought up in a family of Pentecostal evangelists—Christian fundamentalists. I was adopted by my parents who believed that God had led them to the orphanage and they had to choose me because I would grow up to be a missionary and save the world.
My mother didn’t want to send me to school and it was only when she was threatened with prison that she eventually did so. And she took me out of school as much as possible so that we could tour the seaside towns of the Northwest in a gospel tent, trying to convert the heathen. And this is probably better than high doing biology.
But my mother was terrified of any secular influences entering our lives. My father is illiterate and my mother used to read to us from the King James bible. Only six books were allowed in the house. The bible was one, and the other five were books about the bible.
She was once prevailed upon to read Jane Eyre to me when I was very small because she loved that book. It was a fully mysterious text to her and she never quite explained anything. She did read it to me, but in her version, Jane didn’t marry Mr. Rochester. She stayed with St. John Rivers, and they all lived happily ever after. And Mrs. Winterson simply read the text, turning the pages, without a pause, and made up her own Brontë. It was only later in life that I discovered this extraordinary betrayal.
My mother was terrified that books would fall into my hands. But it never occurred to her that I might fall into the books—that I myself might put myself inside them for safekeeping.
And although in our house books weren’t allowed, because I had a job, I began to buy books with the money that I was earning and smuggle them in, secretly, and hide them under the bed. Now anybody with a single bed—standard size—and a collection of paperbacks—standard size—will know that 77 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. And this is what I did.
Over time, my bed began to rise visibly. It was rather like the princess and the pea. And one night when I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor, my mother came in because she had a suspicious nature and she saw a corner of the book poking out from under the counterpane and she tugged at it. And this was a disastrous choice because it was by D.H. Lawrence. And it was Women in Love.
Now, she knew that Lawrence was a Satanist an a pornographer, because my mother was an intelligent woman. She had simply barricaded books out of her life, and they had to be barricaded out of our lives. When challenged, with her defense she always used to say: “well, the trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”
How true… .
Click here to listen to Jeanette Winterson’s full speech, and to hear Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Chinua Achebe, and other writers speak at this event.
PEN Member Jeanette Winterson released her new memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? last month. She delivered this talk in 2006 at the PEN World Voice Festival of International Literature. PEN’s 2012 Festival will take place from April 30 through May 5.