Illustration by Rachel MacNaghten
This, dear reader, marks the beginning of our venture into the rich legacy of literature that has its roots in the ever-rainy north of England. I would like for us to get to know each other better, so for this article I have decided to delve into a book that I hold close to my own personal history and home. ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ is a coming of age, partial memoir by Manchester-born, Accrington-raised Jeanette Winterson that centres on her relationship with her mother, religion, and lesbianism as a young girl in the 1960s and 1970s, which is equal parts biting humour and painfully relatable.
On what may be the most light-hearted note of the novel and this article, it warms me to read speech in that particular way: all vowels, no “h’s”. The way her mother demands that all her friends are ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ – whilst not unique only to the north, it was certainly a key in my Mancunian upbringing and that of many others. After moving to Birmingham some years ago, speech has always been a sore spot. Losing my accent felt like losing my identity. Reading it in the casual chatter between neighbours has helped me to reconnect to that indescribable feeling of home.
The presence of the mills is a (very) small element that I enjoyed whilst reading; though demonstrative of the generational cycles of poverty, they have kept many small-town families employed over several generations and have moulded much of the culture shared across county lines. In fact, Winterson’s biological mother, Ann, was herself a young, single girl who worked in the local mills. She put her daughter up for adoption after six weeks, feeling it would be better for her to have two parents.
I am not adopted and have no experience of the care system – my mother raised me and my two siblings – but she worked in a factory from the moment that she left school at 16, and often walked with holes in her shoes so she could look after us all. Many of our neighbours and the wider community worked by her side; jobs created from mills and factories provided hard and honest work, which fed me for many years and still feeds many today.
Each chapter is named after a book of the Old Testament. She covers her childhood in the ultra-evangelist Pentecostal Church, and how a diet of home-schooling and her mother’s obsession with righteousness led to almost complete social isolation from her peers when she eventually attended the local state school. Thus, her time there was entirely dominated by her obsession with the fire-and-brimstone narrative told at her church. I cannot claim to have been raised in an environment so extreme on the religious front, but as the novel progresses and Winterson becomes aware of her attraction to women, I begin to feel a greater camaraderie.
“I have a theory that every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.”
Here in Oxford, I live a very different life to what I have in front of my family. I have never been able to be so free and expressive, even when I split my life into two and decided to come out at school. At home, I am a good – if only headstrong – straight girl with a long-term boyfriend. Without this dual life, I believe I would still very much be the miserable 14-year-old who spent hours alone and crying after arguing with my stepdad about why being gay was not unnatural. He has not changed his mind, nor has he clicked as to the reason why I felt so strongly about this debate. Her feelings of guilt and the desire to escape are contrastingly a painful reminder of this time in my life and a gentle whisper from a friend at 1am that tells me I’m not alone anymore.
Perhaps the most disquieting part of reading ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ and delving into the life and works of Jeanette Winterson is discovering her parents were far more brutal than she puts into this book. Indeed, when her mother kicked her out after discovering Jeanette had been having a fling with a schoolmate, she asked her: “why be happy when you could be normal?”. I know why she would choose happiness – I am here to find my own.