gardens in Patrick White's The Aunt's Story

I have just finished reading The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White. In his poetic prose he describes two gardens. This novel tells the story of a woman, Theo, who never quite fitted in, who never quite felt at home in her body, her family or her social world. The gardens seem to be characterized by a sense of uneasiness, by instability, like Theo herself. They seem to have been deliberately put there for negative reasons, like exercising power, or imposing order.

The garden in her family home was a rose garden. It was made because Theo’s mother wanted it. But it did not grow naturally. The roses were “carted specially from a very great distance” and the only satisfaction Mrs Goodman derived from the garden was a momentary feeling of power when it was first established.

Theo basked in the roselight and felt close to the roses. Theo never could work out where she ended and other entities began. “The roses drowsed and drifted under her skin.” Some of the roses had pale grubs curled in their hearts. Theo’s sister, who was as pretty as a rose, had no difficulty in hating the grubs. But Theo could not condemn the grubs, even though they appeared to spoil the roses.

Roses are not native to Australia, and were brought to the English colony by the white settlers. The grubs presumably were native, and strove uncomfortably for some kind of co-existence. They were feared and hated by the powerful mainstream. They were the ‘other’- like Theo.

The garden in the French hotel where Theo stayed during her travels was called a jardin exotique. In fact every attempt was made to expunge the exotic, the dirty, the unexpected. Control was all-important. “Preserve me from the swish of dead leaves and urns full of torn letters” said one of the other guests. Theo didn’t have a chance. The jardin exotique could not contain her feelings of desperation. It merely provided temporary sanctuary for Theo on her spiralling towards madness.

I find it interesting how different writers use gardens as metaphors for different things. I think of these two gardens as malignant, which I guess gardens can be, when they are designed to colonize, suppress, supplant and control. You can see Theo as intrinsically damaged, or else you can see her as merely unusual or eccentric in a hostile unforgiving environment.