An engraving depicting Marianne North (1830-1890), painting flowers in South Africa. (Photo by World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

Weeds in the garden

A brilliant new work walks the thorny path of motherhood

Artillery Row Books

“As it stands, motherhood is a sort of wilderness through which each woman hacks her way, part martyr, part pioneer; a turn of events from which some women derive feelings of heroism, while others experience a sense of exile from the world they knew.” So wrote Rachel Cusk over twenty years ago in her brilliant (but much contested) memoir of early motherhood, A Life’s Work. Since then, motherhood has continued to be a rich literary seam — a seam so rich you don’t even have to be a mother to write about it, as per Sheila Heti’s much feted work of ambivalence toward the state of even becoming a mother, Motherhood. In The Ballast Seed, Sunday Times journalist Rosie Kinchen takes up the popular mantle of maternity memoir, weaving, as is now fashionable, her own history around that of the nineteenth-century painter, adventuress, botanist and aristocrat Marianne North.

The Ballast Seed, Rosie Kinchen
(Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £18.99)

From the start, there is much wilderness. Unexpectedly pregnant for the second time, shortly after the birth of her first son, Kinchen finds herself plunged into deep depression, lost in a landscape of total desolation. After a difficult pregnancy she gives birth to a child who will not feed, a child with whom she exists “in a biologically arranged marriage” amidst the “natural disaster taking place in her own home”. A trip to Kew Gardens with a screaming infant strapped to her — parents bow their heads in knowing sympathy — leads her to stumble upon Marianne North’s botanical gallery. Curious, Kinchen tentatively embarks upon a journey of horticulture and therapeutic healing with Marianne as her guide.

The Ballast Seed works best when it pursues its central metaphor, namely, the careful work of tending to plants and humans, what Kinchen calls “independence through managed neglect”. And she is right. So much of the painstaking work of tending to a newborn — the patting, burping, carrying, rocking — is in the delicate touch of the hands versed in the optimism of what is to bloom, in the impossible dance of teaching independence through trial and error. But there is a darker undertow to the metaphor too, in the lonely frustration of tending to a creature who cannot speak, whose whims are subject to the unpredictable movements of the light and environment. 

Some of the finest prose in the book emerges from Kinchen’s willingness to expose this darkness, roots and all: “There was nothing gentle about it. It was like turning on the ignition in a car only to realise it was the cockpit of an aeroplane.” With some fluidity, the plant as baby trope manages to work in both directions: finding dock leaf run riot in an urban flowerbed, she discovers that plants are “sinister”, their roots so entrenched in the belly of the city as to be unnerving, just as the roots of a child are in the identity of its mother: “There was something unsettling about opening up the bowels of the city and finding that there was another world down there, which other organisms had claimed as their own”. 

The garden of maternity grows chaotically and surprisingly

Dock leaves, Kinchen reminds us, are unruly. In the community garden where she pursues her horticultural therapy there are plants that run amok, resistant to the gardener’s hands. In the garden of her book, Marianne North is one such plant. To begin with, the narrative of Marianne’s travels appears to function well, a leitmotif of travel in both directions: while Marianne travels to the furthest points of the globe to find the most obscure plants, Kinchen journeys around London, seeking out the exoticism of the everyday in her urban surroundings. At a certain point however, Marianne ceases to be such fertile territory. She becomes a child “playing a tedious game”, an embodiment of the colonial project with all the “self-belief that allowed not just the British but all the colonial powers to go out into the world and take what they wanted at whatever price”.

There is, for me, much in this reading of Marianne North that is also tedious. Kinchen holds her up to the sensibilities of twenty-first century readers and finds her wanting like a plant that must be pruned, if not ripped out altogether, before we can look upon it. This “presentism” seems a shame and undoes much of the careful writing that precedes it wherein both women look to horticulture as a delicate and fragile re-casting of the struggles of their sex across two wholly different epochs.  

The ballast of a ship, often sand or rubble, contained stowaway seeds from far-off lands. When the ship docked, it would drop its ballast in heaps outside busy ports while amateur botanists gathered to observe the exotic curiosities that gathered there. Kinchen gestures to her second son as one such ballast seed. A seed that quietly (or not) took hold and changed the landscape of his mother’s life, an unexpected traveller in her story. There is much to admire in this memoir that joins the burgeoning corpus of chronicles of motherhood, in particular its willingness to give voice to the uneven ground of pregnancy and motherhood. In the end, we learn that the garden of maternity grows chaotically and surprisingly, its appeal bound up in the thistles as much as the roses. 

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