A black-and-white photograph of Jeanette Winterson's head and shoulders

Jeanette Winterson on the books that changed her life

The author of 12 Bytes on how even a limited access to books helped her confidence as a writer, from The Bible to Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

In in our house there were only six books, one of which was the Bible, and that was the book that I was brought up on. My mother, Mrs. Winterson, would read from The King James Bible, every day, morning and evening, so it underpinned everything that followed.

As a little girl in the 1960s, in a non-bookish household, to have that early access to the language operating at a high level was a huge advantage to me as a working-class child. The King James was published in 1611 and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was first put on in 1611 – it was not difficult to be in that glorious linguistic space.

I think for a writer, to have a long stretch of language to feel at home in, whether you’re reading something from the 1600s or not, gives you enormous confidence. You’re not trapped in your own linguistic time, you are a free traveller. The Bible gave me great confidence with language and with reading; I always felt able to manage text, even if it was unfamiliar or difficult, because I’d had that basis. I still do only read the King James version, as the language is so great, and because it’s deep in me. It’s the same copy as when I was a child; lots of underlining, lots of notes in the margins.

'There was this sense that words were not contained in books at all but were living things, vital entities that had a life of their own'

I discovered Finn Family Moomintroll in the library. When I was growing up, there wasn’t just a fantastic public library for grown-ups, but a completely separate building next to it – and equally majestic. Now it’s closed, but it allowed me the sense of a place where children could go: there were little chairs, little tables, a children’s librarian and the real encouragement to just stay all day if you wanted to. So I would go down to the library and get Mrs Winterson’s murder mysteries, which she liked because she was a woman of many contradictions, and then spend my time reading whatever there was.

I loved the Moomins as a little girl, and I still love them because they’re so funny and they are simple. I’m always looking for texts that work on more than one level and the Moomins do. There was a particular story in there about the hobgoblin’s hat which they treat like a wastepaper basket. One of the things they throw in there is the dictionary. At night, the words crawl out of the hat and up the walls and around the house. It’s an image I’ve never forgotten. There was this sense that words were not contained in books at all but were living things, vital entities that had a life of their own; that words would surprise you, had to be treated with respect, were powerful and also had this magic quality to them.

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was among the six books in the house – an inheritance from Mrs Winterson’s late brother. Again, it was written in a language I wouldn’t have been able to manage but for The Bible, because it’s arcane, but it includes all of the Arthurian Legends: the forming of the Round Table, the knights that join it, their various quests, the Lady of the Lake.

Books come to you at certain times in your life, and there are moments when you’re not ready for the book and the books aren’t ready for you.

I found them astonishing as stories but also in their poignancy. That was the thing that really stayed with me at the time, that humans with the best ideals, the loftiest intentions and good hearts still fail. Things still go wrong; nothing is stable forever; people will find it incredibly hard to manage their affections, their passions. The sense that the best people often will usually only inevitably fail was really interesting to me. Failure is not a failure, it’s whatever it is at the time. I have put the Arthurian stories in my own work since – they’ve been a continual touchstone for me.

I didn’t come across Virginia Woolf until I was in my twenties. Not for my degree, because in the 1980s Oxford University didn’t consider Virginia Woolf to be part of the canon – but never mind, I was reading widely anyway. Books come to you at certain times in your life, and there are moments when you’re not ready for the book and the books aren’t ready for you. That has to be accepted. But I was around 20, 21 when I started to read Woolf and understood a feminist as a thinker and an ancestor for something that I wanted to do.

Orlando was written in 1920 as the first trans novel. Its sexual politics are absolutely spot on, but the language is so boisterous. It’s her most playful book as well as one of her most serious books. I love the idea of the non-binary, of not being bound to your gender. Also, as a woman writing it, of a woman being the hero of her own life. It was an empowering book for me at that time, wanting to be a writer. She achieves so much in the short space of that novel and brings it home; structure is so important and Woolf is really good at that.

T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets is one of my favourite poems. Ever. It’s long, so you can dip in and out of it. His sense of what time is and how it runs through us is phenomenal. It’s a poem that slows you down, it forces you to get into its rhythm. You know, take your hand off the panic button. For me, this poem is like a vast 3D installation: it is somewhere you wander around. You rest a while, then you go ahead, you think about it. It’s almost like a little holiday, being in there, if you can give yourself over to it.

Eliot’s a very good essayist because he is vivid in that his intention always is to make the thing real to the reader. And when I’m working with images, as well as ideas, I like to write visually. Whatever I’m doing has to be strong enough to provoke an image.

I just wanted to throw an extra one in at the end: Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was one of the maddest, most inventive, craziest books. It was very freeing for me. It showed me that you don't need to be bound by any particular form, or constraint. You just set sail like a pirate and you take what you need from where you need it. I was always really bored with the idea of ‘this is a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end’. I wanted to bring in all kinds of ways of playing with fiction, using legends, using real people, using historical characters that I had re-invented, using myself as a fictional character. I could do all that because modernism – with Stein, and Woolf, and Eliot – collapsed those walls. There’s no need for a novel to be anything except yourself.

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Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin

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