In 1984, Jeanette Winterson wrote Oranges are not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical novel in which she draws on elements from her own life; she was twenty-four at the time. I recall watching the 1990 TV adaptation with my mother – it screened shortly before she died – but it’s taken me far too long to get around to the book.
Oranges is narrated by Jeanette, a young girl living in a working-class family in the North of England. As the novel opens, we begin to get a sense of Jeanette’s world and the dominant role her adoptive mother plays in her life – there is a father, but he’s largely absent from the story. In the eyes of Jeanette’s mother, everything is either black or white, either good or evil. There are no shades of grey:
She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies (pg. 3, Vintage)
Jeanette’s mother is heavily involved, obsessed even, with the local Pentecostal church and is grooming young Jeanette for a future as a church missionary. The novel contains some brilliant observations on the mother’s determination to take every opportunity to do the Lord’s work, converting the heathen in the ‘Great Struggle between good and evil’, and how family life revolves around this quest:
We had a lot of Bible quizzes at church and my mother like me to win. If I knew the answer she asked me another, if I didn’t she got cross, but luckily not for long, because we had to listen to the World Service. It was always the same; we sat down on either side of the radiogram, she with her tea, me with a pad and pencil; in front of us, the Missionary Map. The faraway voice in the middle of the set gave news of activities, converts and problems. At the end there was an appeal for YOUR PRAYERS. I had to write it all down so that my mother could deliver her church report that night. She was the Missionary Secretary. The Missionary Report was a great trial to me because our mid-day meal depended on it. If it went well, no deaths and lots of converts, my mother cooked a joint. If the Godless had proved not only stubborn, but murderous, my mother spent the rest of the morning listening to the Jim Reeves Devotional Selection and we had to have boiled eggs and toast soldiers. (pg. 5)
At the beginning of the novel, Jeanette is aged seven, and not attending school as her mother considers it a ‘Breeding Ground’ – Jeanette doesn’t understand what this means, but she knows it sounds bad.
It’s not long though before the authorities are on to Jeanette’s mother, and our narrator is plunged into an unfamiliar environment, one that exposes the differences between Jeanette’s home life and the lives of her classmates. There’s a particularly painful scene where Jeanette is desperate to impress her teacher and class with her ‘What I Did in my Summer Holidays’ essay. The other kids’ essays are all the same – full of fishing trips, swimming and picnics – so Jeanette’s story of the church camp trip to Colwyn Bay cannot fail to impress, surely? But as Jeanette reads her essay aloud, her tale of preaching on the beach and the ‘Healing of the Sick crusade’ is greeted with silence, then giggles and a swift curtailment of events by her teacher. The young girl is puzzled; she knows something is going on, but doesn’t understand the reason for her classmates’ and teacher’s reactions.
A few weeks slip by, events at school continue in a similar vein. When the children are asked to design samplers in sewing class, most opt for birthday motifs or dedications to their mother: ‘TO MOTHER WITH LOVE.’ Jeanette, on the other hand, wants her design to reflect the prophets, something from Jeremiah: ‘THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED.’ And in black thread to boot.
Jeanette’s behaviour begins to affect her classmates, and a couple of the other mothers descend upon the school:
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. (pg. 39)
I love that quote, and it shows how effectively Winterson captures an image and mood in just a few lines. It’s all handbags-at-dawn, and small details such as Mrs Spencers’ gloves really add something to the scene.
Mrs Vole, the headmistress, tackles Jeanette about her preoccupation with God, accusing her of ‘talking about Hell to young minds.’
It was true. I couldn’t deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident, and I gave her all my cough sweets afterwards. (pg. 42)
But when Mrs Vole writes to Jeanette’s mother asking her to moderate the young girl, the mother is not in the least concerned. If anything, mother considers it a victory:
Mrs Vole kept her promise. She wrote to my mother, explaining my religious leanings, and asking my mother if she would moderate me. My mother hooted and took me to the cinema as a treat. They were showing The Ten Commandments […]
After that day, everyone at school avoided me. If it had not been for the conviction that I was right, I might have been very sad. As it was I just forgot about it, did my lessons as best I could, which wasn’t that well, and thought about our church. I told my mother how things were once.
‘We are called to be apart,’ she said. (pg 42)
The situation leaves Jeanette feeling exposed and lonely at school, and as the years pass she takes comfort in a couple of friendships. She develops a bond with Elsie Norris, a kind lady and fellow member of the church who keeps an eye out for Jeanette and plays with her when the young girl’s mother is absent or absorbed in the church. And then Jeanette meets Melanie, a girl who works on the local fish stall, and she realises her feelings for Melanie run deep:
She stroked my head for a long time, and then we hugged and it felt like drowning. Then I was frightened but couldn’t stop. There was something crawling in my belly. I had an octopus inside me. (pg. 86)
When Jeanette decides to confide in her mother by revealing her feelings for Melanie, she is surprised by her mother’s initial reaction – the woman nods, appears calm and seems to have understood the situation. But what follows is painful and terrifying for Jeanette as she is exposed to the full wrath of the church, an institution that considers the girls’ relationship an example of ‘unnatual passions.’
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is a story with a number of themes. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age novel, the story of a young girl trying to find her place in a world when she seems ‘different’ to many of her peers – different in terms of her religious upbringing and to some extent her sexuality, too. But the novel also explores how difficult it is for Jeanette to live up to the expectations of her mother, especially when these expectations are so extreme. How can she when her mother thinks the following?
It all seemed to hinge around the fact that I loved the wrong sort of people. Right sort of people in every respect except this one; romantic love for another woman was a sin. (pg. 125)
I absolutely loved Oranges; it’s so well written, absorbing and full of slightly wry humour, too. For some reason, I was expecting it to be quite bitter, full of anger and rage, but it isn’t at all. Winterson writes with a great deal compassion and humanity. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so funny, so much so that it had me laughing out loud on a few occasions. I’ll finish with an extract from one those moments, Pastor Finch and his demon bus:
The first time that Melanie came to our church was not a success. I’d forgotten that Pastor Finch was visiting on his regional tour. He arrived in an old Bedford van with the terrified damned painted on one side and the heavenly host printed on the other. On the back doors and front bonnet he’d inscribed in green lettering, HEAVEN OR HELL? IT’S YOUR CHOICE. He was very proud of the bus, and told of the many miracles worked inside and out. Inside had six seats, so that the choir could travel with him, leaving enough room for musical instruments and a large first-aid kit in case the demon combusted somebody.
‘What do you do about the flames?’ we asked.
‘I use an extinguisher,’ he explained.
We were very impressed. (pgs. 81-82)
It was Max’s review that prompted me to read Oranges, book 5/20 in my #TBR20.
Oranges are not the Only Fruit is published in the UK by Vintage. Source: personal copy.