The Chinese Garden
by Rosemary Manning
Published by The Feminist Press, $12.95 (pback).
Published in 2000 (first pub’d in 1962). Reviewed by Alia Levine
Set in the U.K., 1920s, this is a quietly provocative story of Sapphic desire and restraint in a girls’ boarding school. While - disappointingly for some - there is no ‘action,’ every aspect of this book is loaded with heady metaphors of adolescent sexual tension.
Told in the first and second person narrative from the perspective of schoolgirl Rachel Curgenven, we witness the manifestations of desire through her friends, her teachers, the headmistresses, and lastly – and most latently – her own.
The book reaches its climax right before its close, when two girls are discovered in bed together and are expelled, despite the headmistresses indulgence in those same ‘sins.’ The thinly veiled implications of the primary characters are hot; at their most provocative when they are at their most sinister – like the mannish headmistress known as “Chief,” and her sadistic counterpart, Miss Lucas, the gleeful disciplinarian.
One of the catalysts within the drama is the secret circulation of Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness, reconfiguring and honoring this groundbreaking work. The heroine of The Chinese Garden, Rachel, astutely identifies the hypocrisy of her headmistresses, as the affair (with its subsequent scandal) concludes this tale of boarding school homoeroticism.
The imagery within the text teems with alternately disturbing and innocent sexual metaphors. Take the garden of the book’s title (come on girls, where are our ‘secret gardens’?), for example. A sanctuary for Rachel, and a clandestine meeting place for her friends Margaret and Rena (the later expelled ‘deviants’), the garden is a sensual, lush place of “secrecy and strangeness,” an “exotic world,” inhabited by serpents. The final metaphor surfaces when the garden is exposed as Margaret and Rena’s rendezvous; the garden is flayedand razed to the ground, marking the end of innocence for Margaret, Rena, and Rachel.
A feminist angle? Sexualizing women is big business, and the issues in this book tenaciously connect sexuality with (dis)empowerment. Isolated from society, the characters exist in a matriarchal environment, liberated in many ways from the prescribed limitations of their gender, yet also stiflingly entangled in draconian rules of conduct.
Manning exposes rather than exploits damaging notions of girlhood sexuality. While containing all the trappings of a girl’s boarding school fantasy, the book is saved from being just another trashy, tawdry tale, by virtue of Manning’s careful eloquence, as she tells a story of ethics, integrity, and the (beautifully portrayed) covert longings of adolescence.
Astaunch lesbian/feminist/antipodean, Alia Levine moved from Aotearoa/New Zealand to her family's native New York in 1997. A Women's Studies/English Literature graduate from Victoria University, NZ, Alia worked in New York in the fields of publishing, education, and women's human rights. In 2003, after five fabulous years living in Brooklyn, New York, Alia realized that it was time to go home. As of March 2004, you'll find her back in the Southern Hemisphere's peaceful, green gateway to the world, plotting her vegetable garden and figuring out how to get around without the New York City subway.