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Jeanette Winterson: Lighthousekeeping

Lighthousekeeping is about growing up, about solitude, about the dark and light side of people, about lighthouses (of course), about breaking out of the mould, about love (maybe). But, above all, it is about stories, telling stories. The heroine, Silver, lives with her mother in the North of Scotland. Her father, a fisherman, had impregnated her mother and then disappeared. The two of them live in a house on a steep slope, so holding onto things and fixing things so that they don’t slip away is very important. But, one day, the mother is blown over the cliff by a gust of wind and Silver, aged ten, is left alone. Miss Pinch, the local schoolteacher and a puritan, is able to have Silver adopted by the local lighthouse keeper, Blind Pew. The connection with Robert Louis Stevenson‘s character is not accidental, as Stevenson will play a small role later on in the book. Pews have always run the lighthouse at Cape Wrath but the current Pew is childless and wants to train Silver to succeed him. Pew is blind and he is also a storyteller.

While the book is about Silver, it is also about Babel Dark. Babel’s (fictitious) father Josiah funded the building of the lighthouse, whose architect and builder was Robert Stevenson, famed lighthouse builder and grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson. Babel, as Pew gradually recounts to Silver, was a dandy and met a young woman in a haberdashery shop, called Molly O’Rourke. He fell in love with her. She became pregnant but Babel denied that he was the father and left, to become a clergyman, with a living in Salts, near Cape Wrath. He is a mysterious man and clearly has a dark and light side, as is mirrored in the book of Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dark will meet Stevenson, as well as Charles Darwin, who comes to visit when Dark accidentally finds a cave containing many fossils. Dark does marry but he is still in love with Molly. We learn that for two months every year he disappears from Scotland, no-one knows where, but we soon learn it is to be with Molly back in Bristol. He does not tell her about his wife and son but she founds out when visiting Salts, using the name Tenebris. (To complete the dark-to-light theme, she will later be known as Mrs Lux.)

Meanwhile, Silver is learning her trade. It is not easy but she gets on well with Pew, who is fair and honest and tells her stories. She is learning to be a lighthouse keeper when they learn that the lighthouse is to go fully automatic. On the last day, Pew disappears, the boat gone and no sign of him, having vowed never to leave the lighthouse. He leaves some money (though old money) and Silver leaves. She is out of touch with the world and finds that she cannot become a librarian, as suggested by Miss Pinch, as she has no qualifications. We then get a series of vignettes of her life – in Italy (where a bird talks to her by name), in Greece, as Isolde in the legend of Tristan and Isolde and as a lover. Above all, as Pew has told her, she is made up of stories. There is no real ending – Pew has told her that stories never have endings – either for her or for Dark and his adventures with Molly, Darwin and Stevenson. Winterson’s stories, however, are wonderfully told and the link between the stories, between the stories and the people and the stories Winterson tells and Stevenson’s are superbly drawn.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Fourth Estate