Our Mothers' Gardens: Doris Lessing's "Among the Roses."

Article excerpt

Doris Lessing has long demonstrated in her work a love-hate relationship with women's magazines, which he seems to regard as contemporary equivalents of conducts books: repressive, didactic works that stress conformity to tired gender roles and celebrate frivolity at the expense of thought. Ella, the fictional figure that Anna creates in The Golden Notebook, works for Home and Hearth; its parodically conventional name perhaps suggests a certain disdain on Anna's part, and quite possibly Lessing's. Lessing is more openly scornful in Play with a Tiger. When Harry taunts Tom with the prospect that his new job will entail "administering to the spiritual needs of the women of the nation through the |Ladies Own' [sic]" (13), Tom responds, "I'm only going to be on the business side. I won't be responsible for the rubbish key -" and "stops, annoyed with himself. Harry and Mary laugh at him" (13). Clearly, women's magazines epitomize the establishment, and writing for them amounts to selling out

Lessing modifies her stance slightly in The Diaries of Jane Somers, in which Janna edits a women's magazine named Lilith; here, Lessing recognizes the work that goes into such publications, although not exactly endorsing their contents. Nonetheless, the publication of a Lessing short story in the April 1989 issue of Ladies' Home Journal came as something of a surprise. Given the story's content, however, its publication there is not altogether inappropriate.(1)

As the magazine puts it, in "Among the Roses," "The renowned British writer examines the most complicated relationship of all: the one between a mother and her daughter" (96).(2) In the story, Myra, the mother, visits a rose garden in Regent's park and unexpectedly encounters her daughter, Shirley, whom she has not seen since they quarreled in Myra's garden three years earlier. Shirley had earlier made clear her disdain for her mothers's hobby: "Shirley not only hated plants and gardens, but the country as well. . . . [S]she thought people who gardened were stupid and boring. Yet here she was" (100/120).(3) Spotting her daughter, Myra things to herself. "What was she doing here? The last place! Flower gardens were not her style at all, let alone being by herself. Shirley was never alone, she hated it" (99/118). Myra watches her daughter take a cutting from one of the roses on display and marvels, "Shirley into gardening! Was it likely?" (99/188). Myra only gradually realizes why Shirley is there at all: "Suddenly it occurred to [Myra]: Perhaps she came here hoping to run into me? She knows I come here a lot" (103/121).(4) Myra's suspicions are confirmed when she moves away, only to hear Shirley's "noisy feet running after her" (103/121).

Every event in the story takes place in the context of one garden or another.(5) The imagery of roses, birds, and fountains suggests traditional Marian imagery, and Myra's name is an anagram of Mary; the garden is at one point identified as "Queen Mary's Rose Garden," in reference, of course, to the former Queen of England, but perhaps suggesting the Queen of Heaven as well (96/117). The ubiquity of gardens in the work further suggests the idyllic meadow of flowers from which the young Kore was abducted in the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, and the rebirth of vegetation when mythological mother and daughter were reunited in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the oldest known version of the myth. In the myth, Persephone or Kore is abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, seeks her in vain; grieved by her loss of her daughter, Demeter, goddess of vegetation, refuses to let seeds sprout or plants grow and thus causes a famine on earth. Zeus orders that Persephone be returned to her mother, but because she had eaten a pomegranate seed in the underworld, she must return to the underworld for a part of each year. When mother and daughter are reunited, Demeter restores fruitfulness to the planet (Athanassakis 1-15). …