Remember when I went to Edinburgh last year and every review for months seemed to start with ‘this is another book I read in Edinburgh’? Well, the same thing might happen here – since I read six books during the week that I was in Ludlow. Let’s kick off with Rosemary Manning’s The Chinese Garden (1962). It’s a book I’ve had waiting on my shelves for about 15 years, I think, so it was about time.
Fans of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont may recall a moment in it where she refers to there being two novelists called Manning (and one character always gets them confused at the library). Olivia Manning is perhaps the more famous of those – but I’m assuming Rosemary Manning was the other. I don’t think I’ve heard of her anywhere else – but The Chinese Garden is an interesting idea for a novel, even if it never quite comes together.
It’s about a girl’s schooldays – she is sixteen, intelligent, bookish, and torn between a growing loathing of the strict rules of the school she will soon be leaving – and the love and respect she holds for certain teachers, not to mention uncertainty about what will happen after she graduates. Here’s how it begins:
I was at boarding school for my sixteenth birthday, for it falls at the beginning of November. I climbed out of bed very early that morning, wrapped my dressing-gown round me and went to the window. The other members of the dormitory were still sleeping under bright red blankets. The window, as always in our spartan establishment, was wide open top and bottom, but I could hardly have been conscious of the cold air streaming in, for the room was never filled with anything else and my lungs had been breathing deeply of it all night. After four years, the code of Bampfield had fixed its iron bands around my spirit, and my innate puritanism so welcomed it that I found a deliberate pleasure in a mortifying regime of cold water, draughts, outdoor drill and bad food. Although I now look back on that regime with repugnance, I can summon up my gratitude for the trained indifference to discomfort and cold which enabled me to sit almost naked at an open, November window, and watch the sun rise.
I never quite worked out who all the different teachers were, but there are some that Rachel feels a deep, sometimes slightly confusing affection for – and some that she sees as symbolic of the restraints she is hoping to be freed from. Most significant, and the most memorable, is the headteacher – a woman who insists on being referred to as ‘Chief’, calling her all-female student body ‘boys’, and wanting her school to be run as closely as possible on the lines of Eton or the like. And then there’s the little friendship trio Rachel is in – Margaret, the mysterious and secretive friend who doesn’t seem to value Rachel’s friendship in return, and Bisto, the clingy, slightly sad friend whom Rachel will tolerate when Margaret isn’t around.
Rather confusingly, the novel starts in the first person – the first few chapters are all from the viewpoint of Rachel, looking back to her schooldays – and then shifts to the third person, still about Rachel. After that, there are occasional moves back to the first person for a few paragraphs, then back to third… maybe it’s meant to be borrowing modern techniques, or playing with free indirect discourse, or something – but it’s a bit clumsy, and doesn’t really work.
What does work is the Chinese garden itself – though it takes a long time to turn up. In proper secret garden style, it’s a garden in the grounds, boarded up and seemingly inaccessible. Though Margaret and Rachel have independently found their way into it – and the description of the garden is rather lovely. She walks about its Chinese bridges and pools with enthralled wonder, and Manning is at her best when describing these scenes. Here’s a bit:
Rachel crossed a creaking, dilapidated bridge, and went into the tiny pagoda. Bells were still hanging under the painted eaves, their copper green with age, shrill and fragile when she touched them with her hand. It was inhabited only by spiders. The floorboards were rotten, and covered with bird droppings, and the once bright paint was blistered and faded. The quiet pools, greened over with weed, never-disturbed, the dense overgrown shrubbery which hedged it from the world without, the incongruous oriental appearance of the pagoda and its bridges, created an indescribable air of secrecy and strangeness. She entered an exotic world where she breathed pure poetry. It had the symmetry of Blake’s tiger. It was the green thought in a green shade.
If you have heard of The Chinese Garden, it’s probably in the context of its being considered a lesbian classic. There is an overt moment of lesbianism late in the book, and some more implicit moments in Rachel’s thoughts about her friends and teachers – but I rather suspect that the locked Chinese garden is a metaphor for much more than initially seems.
I suppose my problem with the novel – which I certainly did enjoy, and thought was well written, so please don’t think I disliked it – was that it never quite felt developed enough. I appreciate the delicacy of metaphor, and I don’t think Manning should have been any more heavy-handed, but perhaps the novel just needed to be longer – and the garden to come a bit earlier, and be explored a bit more. A rare case where I want a novel to be longer!