North West Reads Book 10: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Published in 1985, Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel won the Whitbread Award for a First Novel and was adapted as a drama by the BBC. Winterson drew on her own unusual childhood, growing up in a strict religious home and church in a mill town in the North of England.
Jeanette’s mother could have had children of her own. She chose not and adopted her, telling her that she was a foundling. This was not strictly true, as Jeanette would later find out when her birth mother tried, and failed, to see her. It was one of the many half-truths her mother told her throughout her childhood and adolescence. Jeanette was her personal project to train to serve the Lord as a missionary, going out to convert the ‘heathens’ to Christ (attitudes such as this were prevalent and generally unchallenged in the 1960s and 70s). Mother did not send Jeanette to school, condemning it as a ‘Breeding Ground’ for sin and evil; she taught Jeanette a basic level of education using the Bible as her main teaching aid. Their God was not kind and forgiving, it was the vengeful God of the Old Testament. Jeanette grew up with an extremely rigid view of the world, a binary one consisting of Good and Evil.
Her mother was one of those formidable northern women: forthright, driven, certain of the correctness of her opinions, and not to be messed with! Her father was, by contrast, a quiet, compliant father and husband who went along with whatever his wife wanted to have relatively strife-free life. As Pentecostal Christians the world was divided on clear, simple lines between friends and enemies, good and evil; there were no grey areas within this particular sect.
Evil and ungodliness were everywhere, including their hometown. Mother was a snob in general but reserved much of her snobbery towards those who lived in an area called Factory Bottoms, who worked in the mills and were generally quite poor. One family from this area had moved next door and became part of mother’s war with the unholy. This ‘war’ included two women who ran a local newsagent who were rumoured to indulge in ‘unnatural passions’ (Jeanette thinks this means they put chemicals in their sweets). She is told that she is not to go there for her comics anymore with no explanation why. Adults were puzzling. Her observations of their behaviour and sayings are sometimes shocking and sometimes dryly humorous. More than one person would state bluntly to Jeanette that her mother was completely mad.
Mother showed Jeanette practically no affection or love; her behaviour was a combination of control and emotional neglect. When Jeanette developed adenoids and became deaf, her mother, along with some of the congregation, concluded that she was in a state of religious rapture. One of the other church members, Miss Jewsbury, realised that there was something medically wrong with her and took her to hospital, where she operated on a short while later. Mother delayed her visits to her daughter as she was waiting for the plumber to come.
An elderly friend, Elsie, visited Jeanette instead. She tells her stories to pass the time, stories that would help her understand the world. Elsie introduces her to writers such as William Blake, Walter Swinburne, Christina Rossetti and W. B. Yeats. When later faced with a world she didn’t fully understand Jeanette creates stories for herself instead, supplemented by her own reading at the local library (this reading was kept secret from her mother). Novels were not a form of escapism but a means of understanding herself, her own personal story. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit contains allegorical passages in the style of fairy tales and myths, such as the tales of King Arthur and the Round Table. They reflect the fact that though outwardly Jeanette was a loyal member of her church, inwardly she was beginning to question its teachings.
Jeanette’s life suddenly changes with the arrival of a letter from the local authority. Jeanette now has to attend school or her mother faces prison. Whereas the world she had lived in so far had firm rules and boundaries and was one she completely understood, school proved to be a strange experience and full of confusion. This was the first time she had mixed with a lot of children her own age. Having had little experience of other children she finds it difficult to fit in, no matter how hard she tries. She unintentionally upsets them with her talk of Hell and the more alarming parts of the Old Testament. The teachers find her preoccupation with God a challenge and additionally have to deal with complaints from other parents, who have reported that their children are having nightmares because Jeanette’s Old Testament stories. Mother, however, finds this all a hoot and rewards Jeanette with a trip to the cinema. Not fully able to adjust or understand these new ‘rules’, Jeanette just gets on with her schoolwork. She doesn’t have any school friends and the church remains central to her life.
Jeanette had been aware from a young age that she didn’t like men or the idea of marriage. She hates her Uncle Bill who teases her by rubbing his stubbly face against hers. She overhears other women discussing their own marriages; tales of disappointment, infidelities, and abuse that they simply put up with and are powerless to change. One neighbour, who complains about her marriage, is still concerned that her 17-year-old daughter doesn’t have a boyfriend. It seems they want their daughters to have the same unhappy and unfulfilled lives they have had, rather than encourage them to take a different path in life.
Some years earlier Jeanette had had an unsettling encounter with an old gypsy woman at the Annual Fair who told her that she would never marry. Questions or discussions about sex and sexuality are never raised in her household, discussions about personal relationships are made in a coded language that only the adults understand. A trip to the library and books, a reliable form of information for Jeanette, doesn’t help in this case. Are men really Beasts, the sort you find in the famous fairy story? Her love of stories and of literature would eventually lead Jeanette to leave her family and church, moving away to a new life at university in ‘the city’; however, a love of reading would not be the only reason for her to leave.
At the age of fourteen Jeanette discovers her sexuality through her friendship with a new church member, Melanie, who she met on a fish stall in the local market. This developed into her first relationship. Having never been told about sex or had the ‘unnatural passions’ of the newsagents explained to her, she makes the mistake of trying to articulate the nature of her relationship with Melanie to her mother. The pair are subsequently denounced in church as being under Satan’s spell. Melanie repents straight away but it takes an exorcism, in the form of her being locked in her in her room and prayed over for several days, to get Jeanette to repent; hungry and hallucinating, she had little choice but to concede to her church’s demands.
Her next relationship, with a young woman called Katy, is kept secret. But this didn’t stay secret forever as an unlocked door, when on holiday in Morecambe, brings her relationship to the attention of the church once more. This time Jeanette will not back down and refuses to accept that her love for women is wrong or evil. She leaves the church and is further ordered to leave home by her mother.
Whilst still a student Jeanette paid a visit to her childhood home during the Christmas break. In her hometown houses were now being updated with inside toilets and central heating. Jeanette’s mother had embraced change in her own way; gone was the old piano, replaced by an electric organ. Her role in the church had been reduced as the Elders had decided on a crackdown on women in positions of leadership in the church. To them Jeanette’s relationship reflected their view of women as weak and given to temptation, and so they were removed from positions of leadership and power. Though still not close, Jeanette is able to spend her Christmas with her. She escaped the future as a missionary planned by her mother, but you can never fully escape your past, ‘if the demons lie within they travel with you’. As an adult, Jeanette is not sure if God exists, but she still misses Him. She does not miss God’s servants.
Jeanette Winterson would return to her childhood with her memoir, Why be Happy when you can be Normal? This is what her mother, who she refers to as Mrs Winterson throughout the book, says to her as she is about to leave home, aged 16. She lived in her car, having no other place to stay, whilst studying at the local college and working part time at Accrington market. Eventually a teacher found out how she was living and gave her a room in her house.
When Oranges was written Winterson was only 25 and still processing how her upbringing had affected her; Why be Happy was published 27 years later and gives a wider insight into her early life, the intense and difficult relationship with her adoptive mother, her love of literature and poetry, her class consciousness and feminism. Through books Winterson expanded her own world beyond the boundaries of Accrington; what can be imagined can be achieved.
Winterson went of Oxford University because it was something working class people rarely did, and she achieved her ambition to become a successful novelist. However, success did not mitigate against the long-term effects of her childhood upbringing. The breakup a long-term relationship led to a serious depressive episode, and after the death of her father the discovery of a certificate relating to her adoption began the emotionally difficult search for her true identity. In both books Winterson ponders the different paths her life could have taken. It is a question we can all ponder on when looking back and thinking on the decisions made on our behalf when we were born and when growing up, and the life choices that are a consequence of them.
Written by Janet - Library Assistant
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