This was February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was a feminist novel, in part to mark the 100th anniversary of the extension of the vote to a section of the female population in Britain. This book is normally considered a classic of the LGBT genre rather than feminist fiction, but, for me, Winterson is one of the most eloquent and interesting feminist authors around today, so I definitely felt this book was a worthy choice for the theme.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was Winterson’s first published work and proved a stellar launch to what has become a brilliant writing career. It was published in 1985 and won the Whitbread Prize (now known as the Costa book Awards) for a first novel that same year. I was a teenager at the time and can’t say for sure that I was particularly aware of it. I remember more vividly the 1990 television adaptation (written by Winterson herself) starring the late Charlotte Coleman (Marmalade Atkins, Four Weddings and a Funeral) which also won a BAFTA. This is a book with quite a pedigree.
Although Winterson insists this is a novel, it has strong autobiographical elements: the central character is adopted and called Jeanette, it is set in a northern industrial town, (the author grew up in Accrington), and it concerns a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality against a backdrop of religious zealotry. Winterson makes no apologies for this and writes in the Introduction to the 2014 Vintage edition that she “wanted to use myself as a fictional character – an expanded ‘I’.” She points to her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as being more authentically autobiograpical.
I had not read this book before but my memories of the television series were of something bleak and dark (and Charlotte Coleman’s brilliant orange hair!). I was expecting a sombre book with an overriding feeling of cruelty and oppression. In fact, it was lighter than I expected (Jeanette escapes, of course) with a great deal of humour, particularly in the characters, or rather caricatures, the author creates.
I’ll outline the story briefly. Jeanette is an only child, adopted as a baby. Her mother is a maniacal Pentecostal Christian “Old Testament through and through”, and her father, who has only a vague presence in the book, goes along with it, for a quiet life you suspect. In bringing up Jeanette, the mother attempts to instil in her daughter her own extreme religious views, keeping her as far away as possible from all other influences, including school. Every aspect of daily life is dominated by the church and all values and principles are predicated on the Bible teachings.
“The Heathen were a daily household preoccupation. My Mother found them everywhere, particularly Next Door.”
It is assumed that Jeanette will become a missionary when she grows up, like the charismatic Pastor Spratt, for whose work Jeanette’s mother raises substantial amounts of money, and for whom she harbours strong feelings which she would not describe as sexual, but which undoubtedly are.
There is cruelty in Jeanette’s childhood, in the way she is initially prevented from going to school, in the way her mother controls all aspects of her daily life, and attempts to control her mind, and in the way she denies her normal social interactions. This is tempered by the pithy and humorous observations the author makes about the church community, the hypocrisy, the characters she creates, and the naivety of some Jeanette’s observations. The following is an example – not long after Jeanette has started school, she reads out an essay in front of the class about what she did during the summer holidays:
‘”This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”‘ The teacher nodded and smiled. ‘”It was very hot and Aunty Betty whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”‘ The teacher began to look a bit worried but the class perked up. ‘”But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”‘ ‘Is your mother a nurse?’ asked the teacher with quiet sympathy. ‘No, she just heals the sick.’
There are passages in this book which are truly hilarious and it’s hard to pick out the best ones.
The level of cruelty, however, intensifies in Jeanette’s teenage years. This is the stage that her mother sees the greatest threat to the control she exercises over her daughter, and when the measures she adopts to keep her become the most extreme. Jeanette discovers she has feelings for a girl who has a Saturday job at the fish stall in the market. She contrives to spend time with her (in Bible study) but they become intimate. When this is discovered, Jeanette is forced to undergo a degrading ‘cleansing’ process, a kind of exorcism. At this stage the book becomes much darker.
Jeanette’s mother, although a frightening and unforgiveable bully, is of course a victim herself, driven to religious fanaticism, as the outlet for the frustration she has endured in her own life. Her bitterness and her need to oppress others, stems from her own anger and feelings of repression, and the author knows this. That is where I think a more feminist reading of the book can be taken. The men here are weak, pathetic, complacent, or downright creepy. The women are unfulfilled, frustrated or resigned. And it is this which has created the environment in which the promise of something more interesting and more empowering, albeit in the most dysfunctional of ways, through blind religious fervour, can thrive.
This is such a clever book, incredibly well-written, but complex. There are elements which are vaguely unsatisfying – the author tells a great story, but to some degree it is left unfinished. I found myself wanting more, wanting some answers. For me, it did fizzle out a bit at the end, but I can forgive this because the first half of the book is just glorious.
Highly recommended, but whatever preconceptions you might have about this book, set them to one side.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book, if you have read it.
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