Saturday, December 21, 2013

Garden as a character in Patrick White's 'The Aunt's Story'

 The Aunt's Story by Patrick White
1958 (2nd edition) Eyre and Spottiswoode, London
Cover design by Sidney Nolan
'Tis the season for reading Australian fiction and if the novel includes descriptions of plants and gardens it is always a bonus for those with a horticultural bent. When writers get their plant descriptions wrong however it can leave a jarring note. In Christos Tsiolkas' barracuda a character picks a bunch of blue Snapdragons. Nup! No such colour in 'Snappies' but I think he might have meant Penstemon which have a similar flower structure and come in a blue colour range. A piece of trivia you might say but in the poetic prose of Patrick White there are no such errors, as the gardens and the plants they contain reflect the mood of the characters and become an integral part of the story. 'Aunt' Theodora Goodman grows up in a country house set in a landscape of black volcanic hills and dead skeleton trees with a garden as grim and as unsettling as the personality of her mother. There is a 'solid majority of soughing pines' which are always 'stirring, murmuring and brooding with vague discontent' while on the south side of the house where Mrs Goodman wanted roses she had 'clay carted specially from a great distance' to create 'an artificial rose garden so untidy it looked indigenous'. The roses 'remain as a power and influence in themselves' over the life of 'Aunt Theo' for the rest of the novel. They follow her to the Cote d'Azur and on arrival in her room at the Hotel du Midi, maroon roses 'shouted through megaphones at the brass bed' and even 'retreating from the jaws of roses' into the jardin exotique of the Hotel where 'she hoped the garden would be the goal of her journey' she instead finds herself surrounded by cactus spines before resignedly taking a seat on a bench 'beneath a crimson elbowed thorn' indeed not unlike one found on the 'water shoot' of a growing rose bush.
The 'jardin exotique' is 'completely static, rigid, the equation of a garden' and 'it is all that a garden ought to be, neat and not native, resourcefully planned as opposed to dankly imaginative'. It wears the 'colourless expression of glass' and even the air is 'dry ,motionless and complacent' 'full of sad sounds of no distinguishable origin'.'On the trunk of a cactus flies had discovered a wound' and 'Theodora watched their invasion of the cactus sore.' There are no flowers here, 'sudden and scarlet like Spanish bombs' and even in the rooms of other guests she is confronted with a 'tangle of undergrowth, feathered, musky, tarnished, putting out tendrils of regret and hope, twitching at her skirt' while the indoor potted Monstera deliciosa has fruit 'eaten when black and almost putrid'. When the Hotel burns down Theodora is flashed back to her childhood garden as in the flames she sees 'the revival of roses' and 'how they glowed, glowing and blowing like great clusters of garnets on the live hedge'. Even after the fire the plant forms of the jardin exotique remained 'stiff and still, though on one edge, where they had pressed against the side of the Hotel, they were black and withered' as if 'their zinc had run into a fresh hatefulness'.
In the final chapter which is set in Taos, New Mexico, the dusty sombre pine trees return as does a black rose, a flattened fabric one pinned to her hat. As White explained "I gave Theodora the black rose because it was at the point where she had been finally reduced .....charred and purified" and decidedly unhinged.

'There were the evenings when red roses congealed in great scented clots, deepening in the undergrowth'.
"I see perfection in the rose, both of the flesh and of the spirit " Patrick White (1912-1990)


  1. Thanks for a great review. I recall from my school days that The Tree of Man also had a lot of plant references in it, including roses. Happy Christmas!

    1. Happy Christmas Dierdre and thanks for your comments as always