Looking back on her childhood, an older Jeanette writes that “like most people,” she lived with her mother and father for a long time. Her father enjoyed watching wrestling, and her mother was, Jeanette says (metaphorically), a wrestler—no matter what Jeanette’s mother was up against she was “in the white corner,” or, in other words, always felt that she was right.
Jeanette begins her narrative by setting up her mother as the novel’s adversary—her mother is combative, but always believes she is in the right. This energy will propel Jeanette and her mother’s tumultuous relationship throughout the entire book.
Jeanette’s mother had a clear list of friends and enemies. Enemies included the Devil, sex, the family next door, and garden slugs. Friends were God, the family dog, Charlotte Brontë novels, and the poisoning gardening pellets used to kill slugs. Jeanette says that she herself was also on her mother’s list of friends “at first,” after having been adopted into the family “to join [mother] in a tag match against the Rest of the World.”
Jeanette reveals that she was brought into the family to be her mother’s friend and ally. Because Jeanette’s mother adopted Jeanette in order to make her own life easier rather than to make Jeanette’s life better, their relationship is, from its very beginning, off-balance and completely oriented towards Jeanette’s mother’s comfort and pleasure.
It wasn’t that Jeanette’s mother was unable to bear children, but rather that she didn’t want to, and so she adopted Jeanette. As a child, Jeanette was always told that she was special, and that this specialness derived from her mother’s evangelical beliefs. On Sundays, “the most vigorous day of the whole week,” Jeanette and her mother sat and listened to the BBC World Service news broadcast on the radio to record the progress of their church’s missionaries who had gone out into the world.
Religion is introduced as the means by which Jeanette’s mother controls her. This works in several ways. There is the practical matter of the frequency, rigidity, and routine of prayer, which requires Jeanette to remain close by her mother at all times. Then there is the emotional component, in which Jeanette’s mother tells Jeanette that adherence to religion brings her into the fold of “specialness” and separates her from everyone else.
On Sundays, Jeanette’s mother prayed alone and standing up in the parlor until ten in the morning. Of her mother’s unusual prayer stance, Jeanette says that she believes her mother’s relationship with God “had a lot to do with positioning.” Jeanette’s mother was Old Testament “through and through,” and her approach to religion reflected the scorched-earth, unforgiving nature of the Old Testament God; Jeanette’s mother ended each Sunday morning prayer by calling upon God to smite her enemies.
Jeanette’s mother is painted early on as a fierce woman with real vitriol for her enemies and a desire to see justice meted out at every turn. Jeanette’s mother’s rage, unpredictability, and severe moral beliefs makes her similar to the God of the Old Testament, who Jeanette’s mother both seeks to worship and to best.
Jeanette often sat in the kitchen while her mother prayed in the next room, and Jeanette knew when her mother began praying for vengeance that it was time to boil tea and get ready to turn on the radio. Jeanette’s mother would frequently quiz her on facts about the Bible to prepare her for the Bible quizzes that took place in church, and Jeanette’s mother would grow angry if she did not know the answers to her questions.
Jeanette’s mother is grooming her to be an exceptional member of their congregation from an early age, and Jeanette has fallen into—and even seems to enjoy and anticipate—the strict and slightly absurd routines her mother has instilled in her. They’re the only way of life she’s ever known.
During the World Service on the radio, Jeanette was tasked with writing down notes for her mother, who was the Missionary Secretary at their church. According to Jeanette, if the Missionary Report on any given Sunday was good, her mother would cook a delicious meal for lunch. If the news was bad, and the church’s missionaries were struggling or dying out in the world, Jeanette’s mother would spend the rest of the day listening to the radio, making only boiled eggs for lunch. Jeanette writes that her father was “depressed” by the paltry meals served when the news wasn’t good, but that he wasn’t allowed to cook, as Jeanette’s mother believed she was the only person in the house who knew her way around the kitchen, and would not be told otherwise.
Jeanette, nervously taking notes on her mother’s behalf, hopes to improve her mother’s mood, which directly affects how things will go for Jeanette on any given day. Jeanette knows that her mother controls every aspect of her life, and knows too that that control can become vindictive and violent based on things that are out of Jeanette’s own control. Jeanette, who does not control anything, seeks to influence her mother’s moods in small ways, as a way of deflecting the emotional and physical ramifications of her mother’s fickle attitudes.
In the afternoons, after prayers and lunch, Jeanette and her mother would take the dog for a walk. While passing the house next door, Jeanette’s mother would denigrate their neighbors, calling them drunks and insulting the fact that they shopped for their clothes at Maxi Ball’s, a warehouse full of cheaply-made clothes.
Jeanette’s mother considers the neighbors next door to be her enemies, and one of the reasons why is the lack of order and control she observes in their lives, as evidenced by their shoddy dressing and their careless use of alcohol.
Jeanette’s town was “a huddled place full of chimneys and back-to-back houses with no gardens,” surrounded by rolling hills. The town was a “fat blot” on the landscape, and Jeanette’s family’s house sat on the top of a sloping hill, which enabled her to look down on the rest of the village “like Jesus on the pinnacle.”
Even Jeanette’s house is positioned in a way that allows her mother to feel superior and judgmental, as if she has been positioned high above the rest of the people who live around her.
Jeanette recalls travelling to a viaduct behind a tenement building to purchase black peas from the “gypsies” who’d set up shop there. On one such trip, a gypsy woman grabbed Jeanette’s hand, looked at her palm, and foretold that Jeanette would never marry and would never be able to stay still. Jeanette ran home without paying for the peas, unable to understand what the gypsy woman had meant; she’d never even thought about marriage before.
This fateful meeting with the woman gives voice to many of the hesitations and confusions Jeanette will experience as she grows older and begins thinking about love, marriage, and sexuality. The prediction from the woman seems, at first, to be a kind of curse; as Jeanette grows older, however, it will become a blessing.
Jeanette knew only two women in town who didn’t have husbands. They ran a paper shop and often gave Jeanette sweets with her purchases, and once invited her to go to the seaside with them. When Jeanette told her mother about the women’s offer, Jeanette’s mother firmly told her no, but would not explain why. Jeanette was not allowed to return to the shop again, and, weeks after the incident, Jeanette overheard her mother telling a woman from church, Mrs. White, that the women at the paper shop “dealt in Unnatural Passions.” Jeanette, hearing this but not understanding what her mother meant, wondered if the women had put chemicals in the sweets they sold.
The obviously lesbian couple who run the paper shop are an anomaly in their town, and their kindness to Jeanette is met only with prejudice from Jeanette’s mother, who wants to keep her daughter from anything “unnatural”—or, for that matter, anything having to do with “passion.” The lesbian couple represent, early on, an alternate vision of womanhood—but Jeanette is too young and too sheltered to understand the freedom they possess.
On their Sunday walks, when Jeanette and her mother got to the top of a hill on the outskirts of town, Jeanette’s mother would begin telling Jeanette stories of God’s wrath, as well as stories of sinners’ miraculous conversions. Often Jeanette’s mother told Jeanette the story of her own conversion, a story which Jeanette considered deeply romantic.
Storytelling is a major part of Jeanette and her mother’s relationship. Jeanette is being reared on stories, both Biblical and personal. Jeanette finds herself entranced by stories of any kind, and her mother’s stories—due to her mother’s larger-than-life presence, total control over Jeanette, and urging of the importance of learning through stories—are especially “romantic” and exciting.
One night, by mistake, Jeanette’s mother had walked into Pastor Spratt’s Glory Crusade, which had been set up in a revival tent. Mesmerized by the handsome Pastor Spratt’s tales and demonstrations of healing miracles, Jeanette’s mother joined his flock, and soon recruited her husband to join the congregation as well. For the remainder of the tent revival, Pastor Spratt had stayed with Jeanette’s parents, and had extolled the glories of missionary work to Jeanette’s mother. Jeanette suspects that her mother was propelled toward religion by “all the things she couldn’t be,” and the fear of not knowing what else to do with her life.
Jeanette’s mother quite literally stumbled into her religious life, but has not looked back since. Jeanette’s speculation that her mother devoted herself so deeply to evangelical Christianity because she was afraid of failure and stasis will never be proved or disproved, as Jeanette’s mother’s inner world and once-held fears, dreams, and beliefs will remain esoteric to Jeanette even in her adulthood.
The narrative switches over to a story of Jeanette’s invention. She tells of a princess who was so sensitive that even the deaths of insects left her despondent for weeks. One day, wandering in the woods, the princess came upon a hunchback, who warned the princess that she was in danger of being “burned by [her] own flame.” The old hunchback woman, skilled in magic, confessed to the princess that she was old and wished to die, but could not because she still had so many responsibilities on earth. The hunchback asked the princess if the princess would take over her duties caring for the people of a nearby village. The princess, forgetting all about her life in the palace and the sorrow she once knew, agreed to take over the hunchback’s duties. The old hunchback thanked the princess and then, at once, died.
This fairy-tale-esque story, the first of many Jeanette will tell throughout the course of the novel, can be interpreted in different ways. The princess can be seen as Jeanette, coming to her mother to become the steward of her religion and the heir to all her tasks with the church. Another reading positions the princess figure as Jeanette’s mother, forgetting the sorrows of her own life and investing herself completely in the duties of her newfound religion.
Jeanette imagines her mother out walking one night after attending the Glory Crusade, and devising a plan to get a child and dedicate it to the Lord. Sometime later, Jeanette speculates, she was adopted, and become her mother’s “vision.”
Though she is young, Jeanette knows that her purpose in life is to serve her mother’s vision for her—not to pursue any vision of her own.
One night, Jeanette and her parents go to church. There is a visiting speaker, Pastor Finch, who delivers a “terrifying” sermon about how easy it is to become possessed by a demon. The sermon leaves all of the congregants “uneasy.” After the church service there is a banquet. Pastor Finch asks Jeanette how old she is, and she tells him she is seven. Pastor Finch tells her and her mother that seven is a blessed number—but also a cursed one. The best can become the worst, the pastor says, and a demon can return “sevenfold.” He warns Jeanette’s mother—and all the congregants gathered around her—that her “little lily could herself be a house of demons.”
Pastor Finch’s fearmongering rhetoric of possession and corruption will come to drive a deep wedge between Jeanette and her religious community. Here, in their very first meeting, Pastor Finch lays the foundation for Jeanette’s mother’s distrust of her daughter—and Jeanette’s distrust of herself as well. The idea of Jeanette as a corruptible commodity frightens her mother, who hopes to keep her on a straight and narrow path through careful grooming and control, and perhaps has not considered that her pious daughter could grow up to be anything but perfect.
Jeanette, feeling awkward, retreats to the Sunday School Room to play with the children her age. She begins making a piece of felt art inspired by the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, and soon Pastor Finch comes back to the room to check on Jeanette. He notes that in her felt art, the lions are eating Daniel, when in the true story Daniel escaped. Jeanette insists she merely got mixed up, and Pastor Finch helps her to rearrange the felt. Jeanette leaves the room, and when she returns to the banquet hall a member of the congregation, Miss Jewsbury, asks where Pastor Finch is. Jeanette tells her that he is with the children playing with felt, but Miss Jewsbury tells her that she’s being “fanciful.”
Jeanette and Pastor Finch are adversaries from the start, and this scene in which he attempts to intrude upon her creative life and storytelling foreshadows the ways in which the church will, over the course of Jeanette’s adolescence, continually intervene and keep her from ever truly expressing herself. Additionally, Jeanette’s fanciful nature is shown to be common knowledge, as Miss Jewsbury writes Jeanette’s (true) words off as mere invention.
Jeanette and her mother leave the banquet with Jeanette’s mother’s friends Alice and May. Jeanette thinks of how horrible Pastor Finch is, and feels badly for his wife. She remembers the gypsy woman’s words—“you’ll never marry”—and thinks that perhaps that won’t be so bad.
Jeanette is already beginning to question the relationships that seem predestined for her, and feels grateful to have the gypsy woman’s prediction as a failsafe against having to submit to a man as awful as Pastor Finch.
As the women continue their stroll home through a bad neighborhood, Factory Bottoms, they pass an open pest control shop run by a woman named Mrs. Arkwright, who calls the women in to say hello. Mrs. Arkwright complains that business is bad, and hopes for a hot summer that’ll bring some vermin out so that she can have some customers again. Mrs. Arkwright gives Jeanette a few empty tins as a present, and then the women go along on their way.
This passage shows Jeanette to be a well-loved member of her community, often babied or given special treatment, even by those in other neighborhoods. By establishing Jeanette as a kind of religious prodigy and a sterling example of piousness, Winterson sets her readers up for Jeanette’s inevitable fall from grace.
Back at home, Jeanette heads to bed, but knows her mother will stay awake for hours—Jeanette’s mother never goes to bed until four in the morning. When Jeanette is up in the middle of the night needing water or having had a nightmare, she and her mother often sit in the kitchen reading the Bible together.
In this passage, readers see yet another example of Jeanette’s mother’s bizarre religious rituals, which are framed as a source of comfort and familiarity to the young Jeanette.
This, Jeanette says, is how her education began: with her mother teaching her to read from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible. Jeanette’s mother teaches her many things about the world that are plainly incorrect: that rain is caused when clouds collide with a tall building, and that everything in the natural world is a symbol of the struggle between good and evil; for instance, snakes can outrun a horse over a short distance, but will never stay ahead for long. Jeanette asks her mother to teach her French, but Jeanette’s mother refuses, stating only that French was nearly her downfall and that, one day, she will tell Jeanette the story of a man named Pierre.
Jeanette’s mother is controlling her through providing her with false information, and withholding the more useful, practical information that Jeanette wants to learn, such as how to speak French. Such total control not just over Jeanette’s physical world, or her emotional and spiritual worlds, but also over her intellectual life puts her mother in a position of tremendous power.
One day, Jeanette asks her mother why she isn’t allowed to go to school. Her mother often calls school a Breeding Ground, a term which, like Unnatural Passions, Jeanette does not understand. Her mother only tells her that school will lead her astray, and then refuses to say anything more. As her mother continues educating her, Jeanette helps her mother with the gardening and learns to interpret “signs and wonders”—a skill she will need, her mother tells her, when she becomes a missionary one day.
Jeanette’s mother wants to keep Jeanette out of school because she fears that the “real world” will corrupt her special and pious daughter. Instead of getting Jeanette excited about school, Jeanette’s mother instills in her the dream of becoming a missionary, and further devoting her life to God and to the church.
One morning, an envelope is dropped through the letter box. When Jeanette’s mother opens the envelope, she becomes upset. Jeanette asks her mother what the matter is, and her mother tells her that it is time for Jeanette to be sent to school. Jeanette, full of excitement, runs to the outhouse out back to be alone with her glee: she is going to the “Breeding Ground” at last.
At last, Jeanette’s mother’s control over Jeanette’s education—and entry into the “real world”—is legally terminated, as this is a letter from the government. Jeanette is excited by the prospect of school, eager to find out what exactly the Breeding Ground is all about.