Updated: Mar 19, 2021
In Penda’s Fen (1974), the garden is queeringly reflected as a site in which disciplinary action is unable to tame inner wildness. In this sense, both the setting and the dialogue it holds speak to the TV play’s wider concerns about unruly identity. One particular scene, which depicts a muddy Mrs Arne getting rid of unwanted plants, clearly portrays gardening as an act of vicious disciplining. Mrs Arne thrusts into the ground with her trowel, stabbing the soil with one hand and yanking out weeds with the other. There is an aggression and frustration to her actions, accentuated by curse words spoken not-quite-only to herself, which indicate that this is one moment of a wider battle against growth in her garden. Swearing “sod this bloody garden / and the people before us / who let it run wild,” Mrs Arne’s anger at the weeds suggests an almost ideological aversion to the ‘wild’ nature of the space.
In Wild Things, Jack Halberstam invokes the OED to define being wild as to “grow or develop without restraint” (3). In eradicating unwelcome weeds, in favour of preferred plants, Mrs Arne aims to stop the growth of wildness. Her gardening reinforces an assumed order of things: out with the wild weeds, in with the straight bamboo fence. Pivotally though, in seeking to remove the wild, Mrs Arne only reaffirms its existence to herself and the viewer. Listing undesirable elements, such as “this sow-thistle” or this “bloody speedwell”, Mrs Arne audibly confirms the presence of the wild around her. Furthermore, Mrs Arne’s immersion in greenery, which dominates the frame, reveals the impossibility of her ever truly taming the wild. In the shadow of Mrs Arne's disciplinary action, the scene instead finally emphasises the “disorder of things” (Halberstam 12). All this within the garden - a site in which nature is supposedly rendered safe and logical. Defying the discipline of Mrs Arne's gardening, the wild continues to exist and thrive around her.