Jeanette is the narrator of the novel, its heroine, and its primary star. She is a kind, questioning girl who has approached the world with sincere seriousness from a young age. As a child, she deeply believes in her church. At school, she decorates her arts and crafts with biblical texts. Her church family makes her feel happy and warm inside. The strong ideas advocated by her mother initially form Jeanette's own ideology. As she is exposed to more of the world, however, Jeanette begins to develop her own ideas. In time, her own intellect offers different interpretations from what she has been taught. In the end, Jeanette will even go so far as to embrace her lesbianism, which is a characteristic completely disdained by her society. Jeanette's relative fearlessness in embracing her true self shows her to be a heroine of considerable bravery. Her behavior also is compassionate and kind. Although her church already has tortured her by starving her for thirty-six hours, Jeanette still takes pains to comfort some of its members in their distress. When the congregation fights with men in Blackpool, it is only Jeanette who has the ability to calmly defuse the situation. When women in the society cry because they have been kicked out of the Salvation Army band, Jeanette supports and cheers them. Jeanette's unwavering love for these members of her church makes her highly sympathetic. Although the church rejects her out of hand, Jeanette's behavior never comes reactionary or angry. Because Jeanette is such a compassionate and thoughtful character, it is easy to take her side and believe that her lesbianism is not wrong. The church group and Jeanette's mother, on the other hand, appear to be thoughtless, and simply follow regulations with no thoughts of their own. Jeanette stands, in contrast, as a symbol of spirit and life.
Jeanette's mother is a woman characterized by hypocrisy. She is one of the most devout members of her congregation, but a close examination of her actions shows that her religiousness does not parallel her sincere goodwill to others. Most obviously the lack of charity in her heart can be seen in the way that she treats Jeanette. Jeanette's mother adopted her because she wanted to have Jeanette fight with her against the evil of the world. She plans to make her daughter a servant of God, his missionary. During the opening chapters, Jeanette's mother does appear to love her daughter, but this love is conditional upon the way that Jeanette fills her mother's expectations. When Jeanette fails to be the servant of God that her mother envisions, Jeanette's mother loves her less. For example, Jeanette's mother feels elated when she thinks that Jeanette is in a state of rapture at the age of seven. However, when it turns out that Jeanette has actually gone deaf, Jeanette's mother ignores her and tends to church affairs. A true believer in the teachings of Jesus likely would spend more time comforting her sick than tending to bureaucratic matters. Jeanette's mother lacks the compassion characteristic of a truly religious person.
In the opening chapter, Jeanette says that her mother is Old Testament through and through. The combative and even vengeful nature of Jeanette's mother follows the harsher God characteristic of that time. Jeanette's mother actively seeks out combat with others. She feels delighted when she is able to sing hymns to irritate the next-door neighbors. She spends much of her day tracking the missionary activities of Pastor Spratt, almost as if she is the map keeper during a war. While Jeanette's mother relishes religious fighting, other indication of her hypocrisy stand out in the novel. She keeps a wine glass in her house although she deplores drinking. She has a picture of a woman on her "Old Flames" page, although she deplores lesbianism. Symbolically, Jeanette's mother represents the negative unbending aspects of Jeanette's congregation. Jeanette's mother lives blindly professing to follow something that she does not keep in her heart and her rigidity ultimately will lead to her full rejection of her daughter.
Elsie Norris is one of the few characters in the novel, aside from Jeanette, whom Winterson regards favorably. Elsie supports Jeanette during all phases of her life, even after it is clear that Jeanette is a lesbian. Elsie probably is the kindest character within the novel. She also is one of the rare church members who truly seems to hold a pure form of religion in her heart. Goodness and compassion motivate Elsie's actions. Elsie becomes close friends with Jeanette when Jeanette is sick in the hospital. Perhaps since Jeanette's mother neglected her, Elsie took pains to visit the hospital every single day. The tales that Elsie told from literature and her own life expose Jeanette to an imaginative realm Jeanette had never seen. Elsie is a respected and fervent member of the church, but she is quite different from the congregation. Elsie is a character who knows her true self. In other words, she represents what Jeanette will spend the novel trying to become—a realized being. Elsie also teaches Jeanette the tools that will help Jeanette on her quest, those found in the imagination. Elsie guides Jeanette onto the right path and unlike Jeanette's mother is a true helper. Even when Jeanette quits the church, Elsie meets with her and does not shun her. Elsie even suggests that it is best for Jeanette to go off and make her own way in the world and that her identity is not necessarily wrong. Unfortunately, Elsie is frequently sick during the novel and dies at its end. Her sickness may be a commentary upon the difficulty of this forceful woman to remain in such a deadened congregation and world. When she dies at the end of the book, Jeanette feels deeply saddened because she has lost her kindly surrogate mother and friend. Elsie Norris stands out as one of the few truly noble characters in the novel.