The Chinese Garden (1962) centres on Rachel Curgenven, a bookish sixteen-year-old student at Bampfield, a British girls’ boarding school whose “ideal was designed to turn us into English gentlemen, sans peur et sans reproche”, “reducing our femininity to unnoticeable proportions.”
We are in the late 1920’s, and the living conditions at the school are hard: food is scarce and tasteless, the rooms are cold, the regime is spartan. In Bampfield, “cruelty dwelt under the guise of discipline, and corruption beneath a mask of beauty and moral tone”.
The atmosphere is decadent, claustrophobic, and pervaded by a latent homoeroticism: the place is run by a woman who revers militarism and shuns any sign of what was then coded as ‘feminine’; the teachers play with the attraction their students develop for them; and the students are forced to endure masochistic punishments. You hint at late-night intimate encounters between members of the all-female staff, as well as at their false moralism, misogyny, and hypocrisy.
When Rachel finds her way into a secret garden of her own, the “iron bands” the school had fixed “around her spirit” begin to crumble. The girl finds solace and freedom in sneaking away to the ruins of a Chinese garden surrounding the school: “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.”
Rachel will find out that another girl shares her secret garden, and will be handed a volume of the by then scandalous novel The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall (1928). It won’t be long before two classmates are found naked in an improvised bed hidden in the garden, and harsh measures will be taken by the headmistress to avoid scandal.
The novel plays with references to famous sapphic boarding-school novels, such as Mädchen in Uniform by Christa Winsloe (1930), Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane (1917), and Olivia, by Dorothy Bussy (1949). Much is only implied and left to the reader’s imagination – to the point where the novel feels a bit underdeveloped or rushed.
I liked the way it portrays the protagonist’s inner struggle for longing to belong to an institution that condemns an essential part of her identity, as well as her moral conflict between the choice of telling the truth or saving someone through a lie – but I think these topics could have been explored or developed further.
The highlight of the book for me was the way you subverted the Christian image of the Garden of Eden as a place beyond (and even opposed to) the institution who claimed to have a key to it. The Chinese garden is a place kept hidden from the girls, and only the most adventurous ones find their way into it. It’s a place where the school’s strict regulations temporarily do not apply – and, once they do, the garden ceases to exist.
Its lush overgrown bushes contrast heavily with Bampfield’s physical and moral bareness: while the garden is a place of innocence, freedom, and truth, the school premises exude corruption, captivity, and hypocrisy.
Radclyffe Hall’s novel is the forbidden fruit that will unleash Rachel’s fall from grace – and here you also seem to read grace with a grain of salt: not as the corruption of some form of sexual innocence, but as the revelation of an institution’s deeply corrupted core. Rachel will be locked away from her secret garden and the place will eventually be destroyed, but she will make it her own by carrying it away with her from the inside out.
“They stood in silence. Neither knew what to say to the other. Both had come from an incommunicable experience. Both were trying to adjust themselves to the world of school, which was reasserting its dominion over them with every moment they stood there.” – Rosemary Manning, The Chinese Garden
About the book
- The Feminist Press, 1999, 208 p. Goodreads
- First published 1962
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- Projects: The Classics Club; Booktube Spin #1, hosted by Rick; Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen.