#100WomenNovelists: Jeanette Winterson

Blog Post 5: Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985)


Like most people I lived a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.

I first became aware of Jeanette Winterson when I watched her TV adaptation of ‘Oranges are not the Only Fruit’ many years ago. It was so enthralling that I had to read the novel. I have re-read it several times since, for the horrors, the one-liners, the wit, and the weeping. It is fresh every time.

‘Oranges’ is a novel about many things: religious extremism, a mother-daughter relationship, growing up in a northern town in the 60s, parental expectations, otherness. Like Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, this is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. We experience Jeanette’s absurd life through her eyes and ears. In fact it is her ears that play a crucial role. She goes deaf for three months which Mother explains away as Jeanette being ‘in a state of rapture’. She is eventually taken off to hospital by a church member and has her adenoids removed, which cures her. Her mother brings oranges, a recurring motif.

I tried to build an igloo out of the orange peel but it kept falling down and even when it stood up I didn’t have an eskimo to put in it, so I had to invent a story about ‘How Eskimo Got Eaten’, which made me even more miserable. It’s always the same with diversions; you get involved.

Jeanette’s mother, whose life revolves around her Pentecostal church and missionary work, sees the world in opposites: black and white, good and evil, saint and sinner, heaven and hell. She doesn’t even want to do the thing you have to do to beget a child so she adopts. Jeanette is very much wanted, but wanted as a future missionary, to save souls from the fiery furnace. Jeanette’s father lurks in the shadows and is never really a proper character. It is all about the mother.

Mother sees wickedness everywhere, especially ‘next door’. She keeps Jeanette at home until eventually the authorities force her to attend school. This is a shock not only for Jeanette, but for the teachers, the headmistress, her fellow pupils and their parents. There are complaints. Jeanette can’t understand why her sampler – THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED – gets her into trouble. Surely it’s more meaningful than TO MOTHER WITH LOVE?

I did upset the children. Not intentionally, but effectively. Mrs Sparrow and Mrs Spencer came to school one day all fluffed up with rage; they came at playtime, I saw them with their handbags and hats, revolving up the concrete, lips pursed. Mrs Spencer had her gloves on.

As Jeanette grows up she begins to understand that it is not just religious mania that is confining her, but also the lack of outlet for her creativity. Her life is framed by the Bible, it gives her structure, and it gives the novel its structure. But thread throughout the verses and references, are Jeanette’s flights of fancy which are caught up with myth and fable and fairy tale. Her imagination is her way of understanding the world and it is her escape.

When she falls in love with a girl, she is treated terribly by her church family and eventually leaves home to start another life in Wigan. Homosexuality and the Church is still wrought with contention and this novel is a timely reminder that Christians should act like Jesus, not like the avenging God of the Old Testament.

The dark humour (a theme emerging from my women novelists of the 20th century) pulls the reader through Jeanette’s traumatic experiences. Mother, the Ena Sharples of the church, has some of the best one-liners. Jeanette inherits this quick wit but she has a mind that soars above the pettiness of religious extremism and is won over by love.

When I came back into the hall somebody asked me if I’d seen Pastor Finch.

‘He’s in the Sunday School Room playing with the Fuzzy Felt,’ I replied.

‘Don’t be fanciful Jeanette,’ said the voice. I looked up. It was Miss Jewsbury; she always talked like that, I think it was because she taught the oboe. It does something to your mouth.

There is a ray of hope at the end, when Jeanette goes home for a visit. It has to do with pineapples.


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