“And those that build them again are gay”: Lesbian Subcultural Creation in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical first novel, can be summarized by two lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem “Lapis Lazuli,” which make an appearance in the text –
“All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.”
More finely put and to foreground the text, Oranges, which is set in the marginal space of industrial northern England in a Pentecostal community in the 1960s, tracks the coming of age of the young Jeanette as a woman, a preacher, and a lesbian – or, as Jeanette’s mother terms it, someone who “deals in unnatural passions.” Jeanette’s lesbianism in particular sets up a conflict between herself and her mother Louie, and Louie’s aim of dedicating Jeanette’s life to the Lord by raising her to be a missionary (Winterson 10). When the revelation of her sexuality marks that life path as untenable – this can be understood as the fall described by Yeats – Jeanette turns to a set of radical and unexpected queer relationships for support. This paper will focus on the particular relationship triad between Jeanette and two members of her church community, Mrs. Jewsbury, and Elsie Norris, also known as Testifying Elsie, and will examine how this relationship is one of radical interdependence, and is part of a world-making project rooted in dissent.
Interdependence as I deploy it here comes from the language of disability rights activism and is a characteristic of the imagined world of the popular disability rights slogan “another world is possible.” Robert McRuer in his 2006 text Crip Theory, rewrites this to say that “an accessible world is possible” (McRuer 71), but both versions call for an acknowledgment of multiplicity, innate human value, and the varied skills found within any diverse community. Accessibility here is writ large, embracing not just the most formal physical realms, but also cultural and affective worlds. As such, it insists on everyone’s right to love, to participate in the process of making community, and to object to community standards or limitations that exclude or exploit their identities. Radical interdependence and accessible world-making work in direct contradiction to neoliberal capitalism and imperialist projects of assimilation and for Jeanette, Mrs. Jewsbury, and Elsie Norris, these projects – interdependence and accessible world-making – take public the undercurrents of lesbian community that exist within their church, insisting that the reality of this community be reckoned with while simultaneously providing a means of retreat from the church, a space that in some respects comes to be inaccessible to them.
In keeping with the two lines of Yeats that I claim as a general gloss of Oranges, I will look here at two major incidents in Jeanette’s life – one from the chapter entitled Exodus, which introduces the relationships between Jeanette, Mrs. Jewsbury, and Elsie, and in which the text from Yeats is cited, and the other from the chapter entitled Joshua, which writes Jeanette’s battle with the church over the story of the Battle of Jericho, and which demonstrates the depth of the lesbian social network within the novel and its ability to rebuild Jeanette’s collapsing world.
First, turning to Exodus: In Exodus Jeanette falls ill with a condition that causes her to go temporarily deaf and requires surgery to restore her hearing. Ignoring medical explanations, her mother treats this as a gift, a sort of rapture and tells everyone at church not to talk to Jeanette, who is in a very holy state. Mrs. Jewsbury has been away, however, and upon meeting Jeanette on the street, insists that she go to the hospital for treatment. The hospital is a significant location in establishing the relationship triad between Jeanette, Mrs. Jewsbury, and Elsie Norris – Mrs. Jewsbury brings her there after an absence from church and Elsie visits during Jeanette’s hospitalization, setting up the relationship between the three as one that is sustained and has meaning outside of the church, a site which is otherwise central in Jeanette’s life. Elsie Norris visits Jeanette every day while she is in the hospital, talking to her about poetry and telling her stories. In particular, it is during these visits that Elsie reads “Lapis Lazuli” to Jeanette, and the child is struck by the lines I quoted earlier. During her hospitalization, Jeanette has been building an igloo from orange peels and it keeps collapsing – all walls fall, remember – but she has persisted in the process of building it again, an act with Gemma Lopez interprets as resistance to power. Elsie hints that it is this perseverance that makes life interesting and worthwhile, and that such persistence will serve Jeanette well in the future. Such intimations on Elsie’s behalf correspond well with Lopez’s argument that during Jeanette’s hospitalization, Elsie’s habit of storytelling teaches Jeanette about the value of multiplicity – a key aspect of interdependence – and the value of imagination in the world – Lopez considers these to be tools offered for Jeanette’s survival (Lopez 201). In one case, Elsie reads to Jeanette from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” a reference that inserts queerness into the narrative, and like the Yeats, hints at a knowledge that will be useful to Jeanette later. By reading her “Goblin Market,” Elsie is making the literature of shared lesbian culture available to Jeanette, offering up a way of entry into that subculture and away from what we will see to be the inaccessible dominant culture of the church. This act of reading also inextricably marks Elsie as a source of mature queer knowledge, and as someone to turn to later in the novel when Jeanette comes to realize that “Goblin Market,” in all of its lesbian potentiality, is also about herself.
The central tension in Oranges takes the shape of a highly public battle over Jeanette’s sexuality and her role as a preacher within the church. Taking place in the chapter entitled “Joshua,” Winterson plays on the story of the Battle of Jericho and how the walls of the city fell when Joshua, following the word of God, marched around them playing his trumpet. In an obvious allusion to this, Jeanette remarks here that “Walls protect and walls limit. It is in the nature of walls that they should fall. That walls should fall is the consequence of blowing your own trumpet” (Winterson 112). It is, in other words, Jeanette’s refusal to be silent on the topic of her sexuality that results in such significant social and religious tensions. Gemma Lopez interprets Jeanette’s disclosure as a symptom of her intense faith and in particular of her love for Melanie, which she believes is related to her love of God in that it is pure and right – the two read the Bible together and see their communion as a gift from God. In contrast, within the church Jeanette’s confession raises concerns that to let her preach is to allow Jeanette to usurp a man’s role – her mother also refers to lesbianism as aping men – and that granting her that sort of religious power is the same as encouraging her sexuality, which is of course regarded as deeply sinful by the church community. For her family and congregation, it is unfathomable that Jeanette might be both queer and a believer. In addition to revoking her right to preach, then, other church members suggest that demonic possession might be at fault for Jeanette’s sexuality and an exorcism is held. But Jeanette plans to hold on to her demon, and she will need help to do so.
Help comes, of course, from Elsie Norris and Mrs. Jewsbury. When Jeanette is first outed within the church, she and her girlfriend Melanie go to Mrs. Jewsbury’s house to come up with a plan as to how to handle things. Mrs. Jewsbury immediately invokes the Joshua narrative in blaming Jeanette for her own troubles, saying that if only Jeanette hadn’t tried to explain her sexuality to her mother, hadn’t blown her own trumpet, per say, everything would have been fine. At first, Jeanette doesn’t understand how Mrs. Jewsbury knows so much about the situation at home, and Jeanette asks for the source of her information. The person in question is, of course, Elsie Norris, who has told Mrs. Jewsbury about Jeanette’s sexuality so that someone else could keep an eye on her. Lesbianism, Mrs. Jewsbury confesses, is her problem too, and at this moment it becomes clear that Jeanette, Elsie, and Mrs. Jewsbury are all bound up together in trying to create an accessible affective and cultural realm, a space where queer sexuality is validated, unlike in their church community. The church is an older, inaccessible world, and in issuing her dissent, in refusing to give up her sexuality, Jeanette is excluded from that space. Her insistence on speaking herself stands in contrast to Elsie and Mrs. Jewsbury – women who have not blown their own trumpets, and who have kept their alternate world a secret, but who have created a subcultural space nonetheless.
I would like to suggest that this moment in the text in which Jeanette becomes privy to the interactions between Elsie and Mrs. Jewsbury, in addition to serving as part of the world-building process by informing Jeanette that she is not alone, but a member of a particular community, also allows for the merging of Elsie and Mrs. Jewsbury into a singular figure. As mentors and guardians, the two women fulfill very similar roles for Jeanette, and the distinction between them is only made, I would suggest, to demonstrate two different relationships to the church – one, in the form of Elsie, that is demonstrative – Elsie is passionate and understood as deeply faithful and embedded in the church, and the other in the form of Mrs. Jewsbury, who is more marginal and more of an outcast – she is sometimes referred to as “not holy,” but is still a nominal member of the church community because that is simply the thing to do in their small town. Despite these differences, for Jeanette, the fact remains that the two women mark a single version of life outside of the congregation, a version that contains lesbianism as a possibility, not just a sin. In fact, going beyond this collapsing of Elsie and Mrs. Jewsbury, I would suggest that the entire notion of queerness in Oranges, while superficially tripartite in its inclusion of the three figures, can be understood as unitary. In the first merging, Mrs. Jewsbury and Elsie both serve as older queer mentors to Jeanette, and Elsie’s handing off of Jeanette into Mrs. Jewsbury’s care marks their roles as essentially interchangeable, at least within subcultural spaces. Secondly, at the end of the scene described earlier, wherein Jeanette comes to Mrs. Jewsbury for help, the two women have sex. “We made love,” Jeanette says, “and I hated it and hated it, but would not stop.” (104) Here I would argue that stopping is impossible as the sex act serves to create a final merger of Jeanette into the already joined figures of Mrs. Jewsbury and Elsie. The three together all stand in for another possibility, another affective world that is separate from that formed by the church. Another world, an accessible world, is possible, and Jeanette accesses it through the body of Mrs. Jewsbury, which is also the body of Elsie Norris.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit presents a narrative of lesbian identity and cultural formation that is as much about construction as collapse in a way that makes the two concepts mutually constitutive. Queer life becomes accessible to Jeanette – is constructed and made visible – in the same moments that lesbianism collapses in upon itself by functionally merging the lesbian characters. If all walls fall – if all queers suffer a kind of exclusion and casting out – it is the act of building again that is redeeming. Elsie and Mrs. Jewsbury cannot change the nature of the church community, but along with Jeanette they can provide a different kind of community and manner of coming together, of building again. Because in the end, those that build the walls again are gay and interdependent and engaging with new ways of being, with new worlds and subcultures and affective patterns unheard of by those on the outside of the walls.