Today’s recording of BBC’s Bookclub was revealing. Firstly we learned that novelists are usually shorter than we expect them to be. Jeanette Winterson told us how, when she found her microphone set at the lowest possible level, she is often ‘accused’ of being short as if this is conscious decision she has made purely to inconvenience others. We then learned from Jim Naughtie then politicians tend to be taller than we expect them to be, Tony Blair being a prime example at 6 foot 2, and William Hague being another (sadly precise measurements were not available). This could have been a show in itself. However, what was on the agenda was a discussion of Jeanette’s coming-of-age-northern-fundamentalist-religion-lesbian novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. (It is difficult to imagine that Oranges would be taken on board by a sympathetic editor in the current market, but Jeanette was paid £1000 for the manuscript, it won the Whitbread Prize for best first novel in 1985, and it entered the realms of cult fiction.) This was the excuse I needed to brush the cobwebs off my yellow-paged and dog-eared(but now, signed) copy. It was altogether funnier and stranger than I remembered. This, we were told, is a Northern thing. Most authors face questions about whether their work is autobiographical. Not many take the bold step of giving the main character in their novel their first name. Jeanette Winterson believes that there is hope to be found in seeing life as a work of fiction, because the end of the story can be changed, and this gives us hope. Writing has been her salvation: she wrote herself out of her hometown of Accrington; she wrote her way to Oxford and, in her twenties; she wrote her way out of a London bedsit. The chapters of Oranges are named after the first eight books of the Bible because the novel is Jeanette’s Bible. It is a work of fiction, but it is also deeply rooted in truths. Jeanette Winterson was brought up by parents who wanted her to be a missionary. She was writing sermons at the age of eight. Ironically, it was probably the idea that her parents instilled in her that she was different that gave her the courage to leave home and live with a woman at the age of sixteen. Given that so much was revealed, there were some strange ‘no go’ areas as far as questions were concerned. Jeanette Winterson was not prepared to comment on whether the sampler that the fictional Jeanette sewed at school was an invention. This was her line and she refused to cross it. I was left with the distinct impression that a straightforward biography would be more interesting than this blurring of fact and fiction. The introduction added to the book in 1991 leaves me crying out for more, whereas I felt less than certain at the end of Oranges, with its lack of a conclusion and all of its uncertainties. Jeanette Winterson advised that there are only three endings to a story: revenge, tragedy or forgiveness and that forgiveness leaves the most scope for growth. Although we see the fictional Jeanette return to her hometown at the end of Oranges, I was not convinced that there was forgiveness. I thought that it was more the case that the family did what all good families do and avoided confronting the issues that had brought them to that point. In the same way, we, the audience, avoided asking the question that we all wanted to know: why did Jeanette refer to her mother rather pointedly as Mrs Winterson, while her father was always ‘my father?’ However, one bright spark did think to ask if Jeanette Winterson still loves oranges so I am able to reveal that these days it is bananas.
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