The novel's narrator. Jeanette retells her life from when she is seven years old to an unspecified time after her teenage years. Jeanette is a sincerely devout child who earnestly believes in God and love. As Jeanette grows into her teenage years, she falls in love with another girl. Eventually, she realizes that her same sex love is part of her nature that cannot be denied. Although others categorize Jeanette as evil, Jeanette maintains an impression of goodness and even sacrifice. Jeanette is the novel's mythic heroine. Her quest is for her true self. In her community of religious hypocrisy, Jeanette represents truth and spirit.
Read an in-depth analysis of Jeanette.
A fundamentalist Christian woman. Jeanette's mother adopted Jeanette because she wanted to train her daughter to be a servant of God. Jeanette's mother is combative and controlling. Jeanette's mother often appears to be hypocritical. She keeps a wine glass in her house for "medicinal purposes," yet criticizes the "Heathens" for drinking. She professes to be very religious, but often acts in uncharitable ways. Jeanette's mother represents the rigid unbending establishment of the church. Jeanette's mother also represents the hypocrisy inherent in members of the church.
A member of the church, Elsie Norris is energetic, outgoing, and entertaining. Elsie is a very devout member of the church who testifies daily. Despite her genuine religiousness, she is also quite eccentric. Her past has involved traveling outside of England to such places as Saudi Arabia. She appears to be another live soul amid the congregation that is full of unthinking, spiritless practitioners. Elsie Norris represents the possibility of the imagination and the world outside of Jeanette's small circle. Elsie also serves as a loving mother figure to Jeanette when Jeanette's own mother is neglectful.
A member of Jeanette's church who plays the oboe. Miss Jewsbury represents the closeted lesbian that Jeanette refuses to become. Miss Jewsbury's character is awkward, slightly unfriendly, and generally disdained by others who deem her unholy, because of her latent sexual desires. Still, Miss Jewsbury's inability to choose either her lesbianism or her religion leaves her as a character torn between two contradictory worlds. She can never live with a full identity. After Jeanette has liberated herself by choosing her sexuality over her community, she declines to visit Miss Jewsbury who lacked the courage to make a similar choice.
Jeanette's first lover. Jeanette meets Melanie at a fish stand. Melanie's character is sweet, docile, and not too smart. Initially, Melanie tells Jeanette that she got her name because her head resembled a melon— a wry comment also upon Melanie's limited intellectual capacity. Melanie's docility leads her to later marry, have children, and deny that she ever had a lesbian love. Melanie represents another weak soul who refuses to follow her true desires and venture outside of the role society has placed upon her, unlike Jeanette. Her weak characters helps to highlight the strength of Jeanette's.
Jeanette's second long term lover. Katy's character is confident, open, and unashamed. Katy's obviously sexual invitation to Jeanette demonstrates to Jeanette a new confidence about same sex relations. Katy contrasts with the character of Melanie in that Katy understands what she is doing with Jeanette, but lacks any shame about her behavior. Not surprisingly, their confidence and happiness leads to their being caught. Still while they are caught, the capture differs greatly from the time that Melanie and Jeanette were found out. Katy has helped to instill Jeanette with confidence in her self and her sexuality.
Married to Jeanette's mother. Jeanette's father almost is never mentioned in the novel. He works in a factory and leaves for work at five in the morning. He and Jeanette's mother do not have sex. Jeanette father plays a non- existent role in governing the household and dealing with Jeanette. His absence in the household is the most important thing about him. It demonstrates that Jeanette grew up in a primarily matriarchal household.
A very religious member of Jeanette's church. As her name indicates, Mrs. White appears to be of the utmost purity. With Jeanette's mother, she represents one of the church members who holds very unbending ideas about sin and goodness. The narrator frequently uses Mrs. White's allegedly purity for comic effect. While Mrs. White is supposedly devout, she grabs a wine glass to better eavesdrop on the fornication at the next-door neighbors, an act of a gossip rather than a saint. Further, Mrs. White's eventual difficulty in breathing because of her proximity to a lesbian seems ludicrous.
One of the lesbian women who owns the paper shop. Ida presence foreshadows Jeanette's eventual sexual identity. Ida also acts as one of the few people in the narrative who follows her own inclinations. Her presence helps Jeanette's latent feelings come to light. Significantly, Ida is present on the day that Jeanette meets Melanie.
The pastor who converted Jeanette's mother and whom she idolizes. Jeanette and her mother frequently discuss his crusades in the tropics. Pastor Spratt infrequently acts in the narrative, but his presence pervades Jeanette's mother's life. He symbolizes the extreme elements in the church.
Ex-lover of Jeanette's mother with whom she had sexual relations. His name evokes the passion that Jeanette's mother once had, but since has lost. References to him frequently dot the text whenever the themes of romance or sin appear.
Visiting minister to Jeanette's church. His name suggests that he is resembles a songbird who simply repeats the tunes taught to him. Pastor Finch is a comic character who unleashes a fiery sermon about the dangers of being seven to Jeanette. The seriousness of his sermon compared to Jeanette's innocence of age renders him ridiculous.
Owns a shop for ridding vermin in Jeanette's town. Tells Jeanette that Jeanette's mother is crazy. Buys Jeanette a drink after Jeanette revisits her home as a grown-up.
Called "Auntie May" by Jeanette, she is also a member of Jeanette's church. Auntie May is generally seen as a kindly friend to Jeanette and her mother.
Near deaf member of Jeanette's church who almost drowns in Blackpool. She is a comic character who interrupts fiery sermons because she cannot hear and who waved good-bye to the congregation when she was drowning instead of crying for help.
Called "Auntie Alice" by Jeanette, she is a member of the church.
Head of Jeanette's school. Sends a note home about Jeanette's religiosity.
Jeanette's sewing teacher who does not like Jeanette's work.