Monday, 23 April 2012

I was so fascinated by Jeanette Winterson's memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? that over the weekend I simply had to watch again the wonderful BBC adaptation of her novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. I knew that this was life transmuted into fiction, but not the gospel truth.
In fact, real life was much bleaker and more terrifying.

I am often asked, in a tick-box kind of way, what is true and what is not true, in Oranges. Did I work in a funeral parlour? Did I drive an ice-cream van? Did we have a Gospel Tent? Did Mrs Winterson build her own CB radio? Did she really stun tomcats with a catapult?
I can't answer these questions. I can say that there is a character in Oranges called Testifying Elsie who looks after the little Jeanette and acts as a soft wall against the hurt(ling) force of Mother. 
I wrote her in because I couldn't bear to leave her out. I wrote her in because I really wished it had been that way ...
There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that.

Oranges was written when Jeanette Winterson was only 25. Now she must be over 50, and Mrs Winterson is long dead; her barking mad, Pentecostalist mother-by-adoption, whom she always refers to as Mrs Winterson or Mrs W and never as mum. Oranges, so Jeanette Winterson says, is 'for anyone who is interested in what happens at the frontiers of common sense.'
Mrs W lived on the edge, waiting for Armageddon, with her funeral money sewn into the curtains and two pairs of false teeth, matt for everyday and pearlised for best. She burned books, but could extemporise a more religiously-satisfying version of Jane Eyre.
She was terrifying, dangerous, and undoubtedly wreaked lasting damage upon her daughter who nevertheless comes to realise that, 'She was a monster but she was my monster.'

For all the havoc and pain she wreaked, there is a grandeur to Mrs W and I can't really understand how Jeanette Winterson walked out the door, never to lay eyes on her again.

And I know that I'd love to sit down with the monster and say, 'Now tell me the story from your side ....'

(Nothing to do with the book, but I didn't know that Jeanette Winterson has a food shop in Spitalfields. Having read this, I realise that I've been in there many a time admiring the chocolates.)


Vintage Reading said...

Enjoyed Oranges and I've heard some interesting extracts from this memoir on the radio ... just something a teensy bit irritating about Winterson that has stopped me purchasing it!

mary said...

There is something annoying about her, Nicola. I'm fine with her writing when she's being northern and down-to-earth, but when she gets intellectual and/or victim-y, I get bored with her. And I'm not at all sure how much of it I believe ... that's why I'd really love to sit down with Mrs W. I'm sure she must have been approached by journalists but I suppose she'd have chucked Bibles at them!
But why don't you get it out of the library? That's what I did.

Darlene said...

I remember listening to Jeanette Winterson on a podcast a couple of years ago, the title stayed with me but oh it does sound grim. You're a stronger woman than I am, Mary.

mary said...

Oranges is very funny, Darlene. It's not misery-lit, which I loathe.