After we have introduced to the gang of four girls, the eponymous Roses, we meet the beautiful and nice but sad and lonely Binah. So why won’t the Roses invite Binah around for a cup of tea is she’s wonderful? Because they were a little bit jealous: “Well, maybe more than a little. haven’t you ever been green with envy? Or felt like you were about to explode if you didn’t get what somebody else had? If you say, “No”, you are telling a big fat fib and I am going to tell your mother. Now, stop interrupting me.”
The Roses’ Damascene moment comes when they are whisked off in the night by their fairy godmother, another splendidly no-nonsense character with a penchant for pumpernickel, and taken to Binah’s home incognito. There they discover the girl that they envied so much working like Cinderella in the kitchen, while upstairs in her frugal bedroom, next to her bed, there is a photograph of her beautiful mother who died long ago, The story, of course, has a happy ending and makes clear that it is definitely uncool to be unkind.
The death of your mother, so young, is likely to cast a long shadow over your whole life. On Ray of Light, the lyrics of Mer Girl could hardly express this more plainly: “I ran from my house… from my mother who haunts me / Even though she’s gone… I ran to the cemetery / And held my breath / And thought about your death… And I smelt her burning flesh / Her rotting bones / Her Decay / I ran and I ran / I’m still running today.”
One can see how writing stories for children might reconnect you to the time when your own mother read stories to you; perhaps it signals the completing of another circle in Madonna’s life. When she played Evita, Madonna tells me that she inevitably drew on the connection between her character’s early death through cancer and her mother’s. As for the parallels between Binah’s motherlessness, down to the photograph the singer keeps on her bedside table, and her own: “Well, yes, I did put that in because that’s my own personal experience and I needed to come up with things for her character where kids would stop and go, ‘Wow! What would that be like?'” It was reading at bedtime for her own daughter – her impatience with the traditional “princess” stories, the lack of spiritual instruction in most contemporary children’s fiction – that galvanized Madonna into doing it for herself.
“You know, the women in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White are really passive. They don’t move the plot along at all. They just show up, they’re beautiful, they get snapped by the prices, the princes tell them they want to marry them and then they go off and live happily ever after. And I thought, ‘Well, what’s a girl supposed to get out of this? That’s such a load of crap,'” Madonna harrumphs magnificently. “I’d read to the end and I’d say to Lola, ‘Wait a minute, nobody asked her what she wanted!’ and ‘Don’t you think it’s silly that she doesn’t say she loves him?’ And Lola would say (child humoring parent voice), “Yeah, Mum, that’s really silly.’ You know, it was always, ‘If you’re pretty, you get this; if you’re pretty, you get that.'”
Madonna says that Lola played a large part in this first book, in particular. The English Roses actually exist and are, in fact, named after Lola’s English friends and classmates – Nicole, Amy, Charlotte and Grace – at her French-speaking London school, the Lycee. It was Lola’s teacher who referred to the four girls thus (although the story, it should perhaps be stressed, is not about them): “And I though, ‘The English Roses,’ that’s funny. And I was already writing some of the other stories and I really wanted to write one about girls for girls about jealousy and envy and always wishing that you had something that somebody else had.
“But my daughter is also, to a certain extent, a little bit of Binah as well because in school often children can be quite mean and ostracize her because I’m her mother. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes, you know, everyone thinks, ‘She’s got everything, so we won’t pay attention to her.'” And then again, “She can think that people like her, that they only talk to her because she’s… so sometimes I feel like she needs to be bigger than she is. That she needs to be really fabulous so that she can get the same kind of attention she sees from people when they respond to me.”
Most children of the mega-famous face that conundrum, I suggest, taking the example of Paloma Picasso and the struggle she had defining herself as her own person: “Well, I certainly don’t intend to ignore my children in the way Pablo did.”
It’s not the press – Hallelujah! – which worries Madonna vis-a-vis the emotional well-being other children, so much as their classmates’ parents. “Whatever it’s here in Los Angeles or in London, the kids are constantly bringing in magazines like OK! or Heat and coming up to my daughter and saying, ‘Look, Lola! There’s a picture of your mum! And there’s a picture of you! and I just… I just don’t know why people let their kids go to school with that crap. I don’t understand it, and I don’t want her to be thinking about it.”
When Madonna had mentioned that she had been isolated and friendless at school it did strike me as odd. Possibly because if I think of how I’ve admired her, it’s closer to the feeling I last had at school – nothing so obvious as a crush – but the way in which when you’ve just entered your teens, there are certain girls in the sixth form who dazzle with their difference, their rebelliousness, and they are nearly always leaders of the pack, rather than packless.
It’s always surprising, even given the sadness of loosing your mother, to hear that her home life in Bay City, Michigan, was not a happy one. She describes scenes of her father, Tony Ciccone, sitting in the hallway telling stories about talking vegetables while all her older and younger brothers and sisters drifted off to sleep… which sounds positively Waltonsesque in its tribal cosines. But she has also written, rather less cosily, about her stepmother regularly presenting her with a wooden spoon with which she would later be spanked.