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Queer Reflections on Childhood, Boarding School, and the Nation in Rosemary Manning's The Chinese Garden.

This article considers the relations among queer sexuality, the temporality of childhood, and the idea of the nation as imagined in girls' English boarding school narratives, with a particular focus on Rosemary Manning's The Chinese Garden (1962). Specifically, it analyzes how the space of the boarding school seeks to reflect the ideals of good citizenship while simultaneously subverting those ideals through the covert circulation of queer sexuality, and of what Madhavi Menon (2008: 3) calls "the haphazard time of desire." The girls' boarding school genre has tended to remain on the margins of sustained scholarly attention, even as it consistently engages with questions of sexuality and nation building. As Louis Althusser (1971) has shown, school education has always formed part of the School-Family couple, the school and family together shaping children in their most impressionable years. Combining both elements of this couple in a single structure, boarding schools educate the child to become an ideologically compliant citizen and to take on the role and functions normally assigned by the family. For Erving Goffman (1961: 12), the boarding school also functions as a closed system, what he calls a "total institution," constituting "a social hybrid" that is "part residential community, part formal organization." A closed community, the boarding school nonetheless reflects the aims and aspirations of the nation-state.

To an important degree, this makes the world of the boarding school fertile ground for fiction. While boys' boarding school narratives have largely determined the genre, stories of girls in school have also circulated since the eighteenth century, from Sarah Fielding's The Governess (1749) to Nayana Currimbhoy's Miss Timmins' School for Girls (2011). These narratives can be divided into those targeting adult readerships and those aimed at children. Broadly speaking, the latter feature adventure, daring female protagonists, and strong female friendships, as in series such as Elsie J. Oxenham's Abbey books (1920s--1950s). Rosemary Auchmuty (1992: 4) suggests that such works can be read either as elitist and conformist, perpetuating gender models that have supported imperialism and nation building, or as "a refuge and an alternative to the real world of patriarchal relations." In both cases, boarding school narratives for girls are responding to questions about belonging and citizenship, and about what the role of the female citizen might be. In contrast to boys' schools, girls' boarding schools function in a more indirect way in how they shape the female citizen. In the post--World War I period when The Chinese Garden is set, for example, Britain was suffering from anxiety over its hold on its vast empire, and was pushing the idea of "bourgeois women as mothers of the nation" (Cohler 2010: xii). Girls were to be trained to produce male citizens for the nation-state rather than to become agentic actors within it. As Deborah Cohler argues, "maternity rested at the core of ideologies of femininity, and reproduction defined representations of female sexuality. The nation, in other words, constituted gendered ideologies" (xii).

Because of the same-sex organization of the boarding school context, however, this gendering of the national narrative could produce unintended and unpredictable realignments--like the queering of social relations. While more scholarly attention has been paid to sexuality, as well as to its queering, in sociological accounts and fictional narratives of boys' boarding schools, in girls' boarding school fiction aimed at adults, intense schoolgirl friendships often fail to give way to heteronormativity and to a restoration of the social order. Such narratives tend to be defined by melancholia, a sense of what Heather Love (2007) has described as a "feeling backward." Frequently, moreover, they turn out to be disguised autobiographies, written by adult narrators looking back on their own school days, thereby complicating the relationship between memoir and fiction, knowledge and innocence, and the role of the female citizen and the nation.

Sexuality is the unspoken and unspeakable taboo that hovers over the boarding school story. Even as girls are being trained up for heterosexuality in the form of marriage and reproduction, they are also to be kept unaware or "innocent" of the very idea of sexuality. As Philippe Aries (1962) has argued, the idea of the innocent child is itself a social construction dating back to the seventeenth century, a period when, as a result of increased literacy and changing legal paradigms, the idea of childhood was developed as distinct from that of adulthood. More recently, Lee Edelman (2004) has shown how the figure of the child has become the political ground on which the discourse of the future is built, the future being held in the name of the "innocent" child. Reproductive futurism--premised on the idea of an endlessly reproducible innocence--becomes the site on which the narrative of the nation is founded.

At the same time, however, Kathryn Bond Stockton (2004: 297) has shown how this historical development toward innocence also renders the child as queer, to the extent that children "all share estrangement from what they approach: the adulthood against which they must be defined." For Stockton, children have a "queer" relationship to adulthood because they are "not-yet-straight" (283), and we can see this queerness being alluded to in the boarding school context. Occupying the liminal space between "innocence" (a lack of knowledge of sexuality) and "experience" (a queering of social relations), the boarding school narrative both produces and skews models of idealized productive citizenship. In girls' narratives in particular, gender as well as sexuality get thrown off course in the very attempt to create a heteronormative citizenry.

A concentration of girls' boarding school narratives for adults appears in the two decades after World War II, among them Rosemary Manning's The Chinese Garden (1962), as well as Eveline Mahyere's I Will Not Serve (1960) and Olivia's [Dorothy Strachey Bussy's] Olivia (1949). In each of these works, queer sexuality operates as both the figure and ground through which social relations are experienced. Importantly, the 1950s to the 1960s--before the Stonewall Riots and the gay and lesbian liberation movements of the late 1960s and 1970s--today register as profoundly homophobic and closeted. As Love has argued, though, looking back is a crucial political gesture. Evoking the image of Lot's wife, turned into a pillar of salt for gazing at her home of Sodom one last time, Love (2007: 148) posits that in looking back Lot's wife "refuses the imperative of the law and responds instead to the call of what the law has destroyed." Christopher Nealon (2001: 19) has also argued for the importance of focusing on what he calls pre-Stonewall "foundling texts" in order to show how the mythologies they produce can be read as a form of historical intervention. We can perhaps count boarding school narratives among such texts, even if they often resist the very queerness their narratives deploy, caught as they are between modeling the good citizen and empathetically foregrounding the institutional rebel.

The Chinese Garden, published in 1962 and set in the 1920s, the period of Manning's own childhood, reflects this need to look backward as a way of confronting both the allure and the damage of the past, as well as its troubled relationship to the present. Although it was much praised when it was published by Jonathan Cape in 1962--in cover blurbs, E. D. O'Brien "unhesitatingly" ranked it "as a great novel," and Anthony Burgess described it as "a very intelligent, sensitive and compelling book"--it has since fallen almost entirely under the critical radar. Brilliance Books, a gay and lesbian press, published a new edition in 1984 with an introduction by Alison Hennegan, and in 2000 the book was reissued by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York with a substantial afterword by Patricia Juliana Smith. Beyond these, the only full-length scholarly study I have found is by Gabriele Griffin (1991: 115), who critiques the novel for its evasion of any explicit representation of lesbian sexuality, calling The Chinese Garden a "cautionary" rather than an "exemplary tale."

The Chinese Garden is the second of six novels by Manning, who also wrote a number of children's books--the popular Dragon Series--and two autobiographies. Over a period of thirty-five years she worked as a schoolteacher and then as a headmistress, running a girls' boarding school jointly with her friend and business partner, Andrea, yet in her second autobiography, A Corridor of Mirrors (1987), she writes that teaching was never her chosen path. Working as a teacher contributed to her spending much of her adult life in the closet, experiencing "the fear of being found out, an aspect of the deep-seated shame of being different that dogged most so-called 'deviants' in the first half of [the twentieth] century" (CM 108). Closeted, Manning found herself outside of available narratives of proper citizenship and national belonging.

While in A Corridor of Mirrors Manning positions herself as an out lesbian, her first autobiography, A Time and a Time (1971), describing her attempted suicide after a failed romance, received mixed reviews from the lesbian press of the period. In the latter, Barbara Grier (1976: 282-83) from The Ladder wrote: "It is boring, it is in bad taste, it isn't necessary.... [Manning] is self-centered to the point of having mental myopia." To some extent, this hostile review reflects Manning's ongoing resistance to social movements and her general "disdain for lesbian subcultures" (Smith 2000: 187). And yet Manning's fascination with her boarding school world, fictionalized in The Chinese Garden and the subject of a whole chapter in A Corridor of Mirrors, suggests a profound attraction to the alternative spaces created by same-sex communities. It may also have been the ambivalent legacy of her boarding school experience that made Manning wary of further attachments to the new sociopolitical spaces being forged by second-wave feminism.

The Chinese Garden both anchors and haunts the "official" autobiography in a way that reverses the presumed relationship between memoir and fiction, Manning presenting the novel as "the most truthful book I have ever written about myself" (CM 55). Repeatedly Manning refers to her experiences at Bampfield School--the school of The Chinese Garden--as formative and defining, as both what "made [her] a writer" and what "damaged" (145) her. To an important degree, the fiction that is The Chinese Garden underwrites the reality effect of A Corridor of Mirrors, generically destabilizing both texts.

This generic instability, in turn, is present in The Chinese Gardens representation of the school itself; in its claims to normativity that are repeatedly undermined; in its espousal of codes of masculinity within an all-female context; and in its troubled relationship to sexuality. Through the protagonist's first-person narration, the novel reveals how institutions destabilize their own frameworks by producing a form of excess or residual resistance that tantalizingly accompanies the official narrative. Yet the official narrative--focused on strict codes of behavior and a rigorous pedagogy--also forges a bond that cannot easily be broken. Set in 1928, the year of the publication of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, a key text within the novel, The Chinese Garden is narrated in the double voice of Rachel Curgenven as a sixteen-year-old and as an adult looking back on her boarding school experience. The story begins on Rachel's sixteenth birthday, and the action unfolds over the course of that school year. Rachel refers to the school as a "regime" (CG 15) to which both students and staff are enthralled.

Goffman argues that "total institutions" function in terms of deindividualization, focusing on homogenization rather than on privileging difference. In contrast, in The Chinese Garden, conformity is cloaked with a sense of individualism, so that the regime operates as much on a model of seduction as on one of institutional constraint: "We were told by Chief [our headmistress] over and over again that it was 'our' school, and we really believed it" (53). To this extent the institutional aspect of the school, its "mortifying regime of cold water, draughts, outdoor drill and bad food" (7), while oppressive, is also critical to the construction of a narrative of belonging, especially as rules are often randomly suspended as a marker of privilege.

As "total institutions," boarding schools are to some degree cut off from social and political life. They constitute a separate world and, perhaps more importantly, a separate kind of family. As one of the chapters' epigraphs, Manning offers a section from Charles Lamb's school memoirs: "'Boy!' I remember Bowyer saying to me once ... the school is your father! Boy! the school is your mother! Boy! the school is your brother! the school is your sister! the school is your first cousin ... and all the rest of your relations! Let's have no more crying" (64). Not simply replacing the family, the school incorporates and psychically reinvents it, effectively displacing the original family structure as the boy's affective and emotional ties are permanently transferred to this new context. In the same way, Rachel Curgenven, the narrator of The Chinese Garden, experiences Bampfield School in terms of absolute belonging: "I can remember having this strong feeling of possession quite consciously; of saying to myself as I stood alone on the grass; I belong here. This is my place. This is where my roots are" (41). Rachel here echoes imperialist constructions of national narratives of belonging, which, as Anne McClintock (1997: 90) shows, are also "frequently figured through the iconography of familial and domestic space." In terms of figuring the nation, the trope of the family justifies and naturalizes relations of power and establishes patriarchal dominance, though in the boarding school even as patriarchal power is affirmed it is also displaced, on account of the homosocial context in which these relations operate. In other words, the familial, domestic model itself becomes queered in the absence of gender difference on which such iconography is founded.

Most obviously, boarding schools attempt to reproduce heterosexual values within a homosocial context. Consistent with the Althusserian model, bourgeois female students are expected to get a sound education but with the ultimate goal of reinvesting in the heteronormative family by eventually creating one of their own. Yet as we have seen, the model of the family itself becomes reconfigured through intense social and affective connections that are predicated on homosocial bonding rather than kinship ties. Indeed, the sense of belonging created by boarding schools is in fact made possible only through a turning away from the traditional heteronormative family. In The Chinese Garden, Rachel's family has become a largely irrelevant shadow that only occasionally interrupts the intensity of boarding school life. To this extent, the reproduction of heteronormativity within the boarding school context is repeatedly set up for failure even as the boarding school claims to reproduce the terms of the school-family couple.

This failure becomes explicit in terms of the managing of sexuality. From the early nineteenth century onward school administrators spent much of their energy monitoring deviant sexual practices (Hickson 1995), though of course the single-sex model played no small role in encouraging queer sexual intimacy. While this was considerably more pronounced in boys' schools than in girls', the premise of sexual innocence or ignorance constituted a pedagogical and institutional imperative for both sexes. Boarding schools participate in the broader culture's contradictory conception of childhood, namely that "children are (and should stay) innocent of sexual desires and intentions," even as they are "also officially, tacitly, assumed to be heterosexual" (Bruhm and Hurley 2004: ix). This paradoxical premise produces both blindness to and anxiety about the possibility of queer sexual expression.

Alisdare Hickson (1995) has noted how during the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century it became increasingly important for the space of the school to be constructed as presexual. While heterosexuality could to some degree be acknowledged by deferring its practice into the future, homosexuality was definable only as a sexualized category, and therefore as a perversion of childhood. In a boarding school context, the functioning of the homosocial depended on expunging the homosexual. At the same time, the homosocial could not itself be fully legible as normative, for it had in some way to "stand in" for the heterosexual. This slippage raises the question of what it means for single-sex students and teachers to function as "mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, first cousins, etc." How does such recontextualizing affect the heterosexual hierarchy of kinship relations in both its social and sexual manifestations? And how are those subjects who reproduce these hierarchies within a homosocial context themselves transformed?

In Manning's text, Bampfield School is presented from the start as entirely corrupt, although the source of the corruption is initially opaque. The school's general atmosphere evokes a decaying English aristocracy, with brilliant spinster teachers, combining squalid living quarters with poor personal hygiene, a squalor reflected also in the servants' quarters, "little airless garrets" (CG 57), as Rachel describes them, which in her account housed "the most piggish squalor I had ever seen." The hierarchical relation between servants and teachers is thus subtly eroded, both groups refusing the ideal of bourgeois cleanliness, which in turn gestures toward other kinds of refusal.

Rachel's favorite teacher, the classics mistress, Miss Burnett, is "world-weary, bored with life ... irremediably corrupt" (16), and although "she washed her hands of the system," she was also "deeply imbued with it." Dominated by the headmistress, Delia Faulkner, nicknamed Chief, the school appears to cast a net over its members such that no one can quite bring herself to leave. The corruption thus emerges from complex socioaffective relations rather than from institutional misconduct as such. These relations have roots in the school's being founded by "a group of friends who had met and worked together in VAD [Voluntary Aid Detachment] hospitals during the Great War" (49). Established in 1909 by the Red Cross, made up of two-thirds women and girls, the VAD created a sense of community that many women found difficult to give up once the Great War was over (Doan 2013; Gould 1987).

During this period, gender conventions in Britain had been largely suspended, so that women could take on the role of men as needed, which contributed in no insignificant way to the formation of early British lesbian subcultures. As Cohler (2010: ix) argues, however, not only did "the nationalist transformations of WWI" contribute directly to "discourses of lesbian identity," it also meant this identity was "complicit with and produced through discourses of imperialist nationalism" (xii). The fact that Bampfield School is a direct descendant of these wartime women-centered patriotic communities thus aligns the boarding school directly with the nationalist narrative. Chief's goal is to maintain the VAD female community--though it was already lost, and was itself a temporary disruption of the status quo. This produces a school culture that is both embedded in the nationalist narrative and profoundly ambivalent about the legibility of lesbian desire.

As a result, in Bampfield the masculinization of culture continues unabated. The school is run according to a gender-bending pedagogy modeled on the boys' public school system that involves a concerted effort to erase all markers of the feminine: "We wore a severe uniform which never varied, winter and summer, and which, without being actually masculine in style, succeeded in reducing our femininity to unnoticeable proportions" (CG 50). Most of the teaching staff emulate masculine dress and hairstyles, and Chief herself "wore her hair severely cropped like a man's. Her face was of a masculine cast, the nose slightly aquiline, the forehead smooth and high, the chin firm and finely moulded" (50), so that "she gave one the impression of ineluctable masculinity" (51). As an adult narrator, Rachel finds the turn to masculinity repellent, "a twentieth century refinement of the primitive habit of exposing girl children to perish in earthenware jars." As she dryly observes that parents "accepted with equanimity the statement that their daughters were to be brought up as public school boys," she highlights the parents' complicity with the gender-bending regime of the Bampfield School. They become gender-blind, seeing only the institution itself, not what transpires within it, and appear happy to surrender their parenting responsibilities so that the school once again assumes the place of the family.

Tradition--what Rachel describes as "an amalgam of Sparta, Rugby and Cheltenham Ladies' College" (49)--and masculinity are thus metonymically connected, as the tie to the past is structured by a masculinized imaginary, and while Rachel critiques this turn to masculinity, she makes no attempt to explain it. Modeled by Chief, masculinity represents intellectual and physical rigor, strength of character, and, above all, personal willpower, qualities Chief seeks to inculcate in her students. But while this model of masculine valor, itself grounded in the nationalist template of wartime heroism, determines the culture of Bampfield School, with female masculinity no longer bolstered by the imperative needs of the nation, the school has fallen out of line with the postwar call to restore proper gender roles, refusing to embrace the feminine, constituting what Elizabeth Freeman (2010: xv) has described as living "out of synch with state-sponsored narratives of belonging and becoming." In this sense, Bampfield occupies the queer time of adolescence, performing a temporal "drag," both a refusal to "keep up" and an enactment of nonnormative gender. This form of drag, as Freeman describes it, offers "a productive obstacle to progress, a usefully distorting pull backward, and a necessary pressure on the present tense" (64).

Refusing to "follow the times," to join in the postwar return to conventional gender roles, Bampfield thus refuses what Freeman calls "chrononormativity" (3). As female masculinity and queer temporality become mutually determining ways of resisting the nation's call for a return to gender conformity, they are also a turning away from productive futurity. Chief performs what Judith Butler ([1997] 2004) has termed "gender melancholia," in Chief's case expressed as an unfinished grieving for a time and place in which it was possible to offer public service to the nation while performing masculinity. Once the Great War is over, Chief can only reproduce the conditions of public service through the closed world of the boarding school, a world of backward emotions, even as it functions to groom future generations.

Bampfield's melancholic nostalgia saturates the narrative, from its Georgian architecture to its desolate and overgrown grounds to its pedagogical focus on the classics. As narrator, Rachel is quick to mock the utopic, child-oriented boarding school genre the younger students read--"novels which told of midnight feasts, adorable games mistresses and unbelievable escapades out of school bounds" (CG 20)--and her embrace of realism over utopian fantasy suggests how Bampfield is grounded in the losses of war, and how a same-sex community produced by wartime conditions to some degree becomes unintelligible during a time of peace. In contrast to "innocent" boarding school narratives, Bampfield can come into being, it seems, only as a corrupt version of the idealized VAD. And Manning's own looking backward, from the 1960s, itself perhaps traces the nostalgic impossibility of the past fulfilling its promise to the future.

In the context of this temporal lag, masculinity becomes a performance that both invokes and masks lesbian desire. The only hint we are ever given of Chief's active lesbianism is choreographed as a ghostly scene. Out of bounds at night in the school's front hall, Rachel spies Chief and Miss Burnett, the classics mistress, with "Chief's arm ... round the other's shoulders" (31); Chief drops her arm when another teacher, Miss Murrill, appears, and then we are told that "Chief turned and looked at Miss Burnett, slowly, very deliberately, replaced her arm round her shoulders and they went on up the stairs, out of sight." Rachel "heard their footsteps go along the gallery to Chief's own suite of rooms at the far end." Chief and Miss Burnett are literally and symbolically walking away from Rachel into another world that she can only partially apprehend. This scene is alluded to later when Miss Burnett, translating Catullus's "Odi et amo" with Rachel, furiously interrupts the lesson: "I hate ... I love! ... How can you possibly understand those words?" (120). Surrounded by "lesbian" clues throughout the novel, Rachel nonetheless fails to decode them, forestalling sexual awakening. For her, lesbianism remains in the realm of queer spectrality, what Carla Freccero (2006: 78) terms "a ghost effect." At the same time, Rachel's disavowal is the condition of her remaining at the school: when her friend Margaret has an affair with a fellow pupil, Rena, she is expelled as a result.

It is largely through texts that Rachel approaches her world and, significantly, where Margaret is drawn to Romanticism, Rachel is a classicist. Margaret, with her "Byronic gloom" (CG 23), is obsessed with Dante's Inferno, and brings The Well of Loneliness into the school grounds. Rachel reads widely but is most invested in Latin authors, both as reader and as a translator. And Rachel also excels at parody, which she unleashes against both teachers and students--though we are told that while she "mocked incessantly at Bampfield, secretly she loved it." Arguably, Rachel's parody functions like drag: an imitation that both distances itself from its original and expresses desire.

Recognizing her tendency toward imitation rather than creation, Chief tells Rachel, "It's your own imagination you must explore, not Virgil's" (88). But because unleashing her imagination would also move her toward sexual knowledge, Rachel maintains reading practices that always bring her back to the school, to the approval of her Latin mistress or of Chief. In contrast, Margaret's reading takes her far beyond school boundaries--though closer to what is actually occurring on school grounds. Rachel's only act of rebellion is to begin writing a play based on Clytemnestra as a way of attacking the institution of marriage, the closest she comes to an active critique of heterosexuality (86). Yet while Rachel engages in intellectual debate and argues that "the essence of love is that it should be free," it is Margaret who concretely attempts to "be free to live | her] own life without society interfering" (98). Of course, loving freely is an impossibility--both for Chief and for Margaret--and also for Manning at the time of the novel's publication. (1) The narrative foregrounds this tension even if it ultimately leaves it unresolved.

In that sense The Chinese Garden is an exploration of how the queer inhabits the institutional. Even as it sells itself to parents as a respected girls' educational institution, very little about Bampfield is "normal." As we have seen, it takes the traditional and queers it to create its own traditions. Queer references saturate the narrative--from Madchen in Uniform, to Clemence Dane, to The Well of Loneliness, to Christabel--each functioning in a particular way. Looking back as an adult narrator, Rachel refers to the 1958 film Madchen in Uniform, for example, signaling her own adult immersion in the very countercultural references to which she remained oblivious during her boarding school years. (2) Belatedly, she thus emerges as a queer voice defined by a queer canon, bringing the narrative into the political present.

In a different yet equally intriguing way, Chief hails Clemence Dane's play Will Shakespeare (1921) as one of her favorite works. During one of her sermons, Chief quotes a lengthy passage from Dane that dwells on Christ's manly courage and forbearance on the cross (112). Reinforcing her cult of masculinity, Chief is also obliquely praising the words of a lesbian author and ensuring these words become part of the school's cultural, even religious, practices. Such countercultural references hold the past, present, and future together within a queer imaginary, each obliquely disrupting normative concepts of what constitutes tradition. As a novel, The Chinese Garden in this way becomes both the ground and the figure for an alternative literary canon.

The Well of Loneliness and Christabel, in turn, bring explicit lesbian desire into dangerous proximity to the space of the boarding school. A hint of The Well's presence occurs early in the novel, when Margaret is described as lying in bed, "her book in its brown paper cover now tucked beneath her pillow" (26-27). Later, she produces the Times review of The Well and asks Rachel if she has read the novel. (3) While Rachel "wanted to get away from a conversation, the implications of which were vague and disturbing" (96), Margaret shows a clear understanding of The Well's political message: "How damned unfair it is ... the way you can't live with someone you want, without everyone interfering and making your life hell" (97). As Rachel repeatedly tries to turn away from The Well, Margaret keeps pushing her toward it. On one of their encounters in the Chinese garden, Margaret holds out the novel to Rachel, telling her, "You ought to read it. It's a marvellous book" (136). Rachel's response is to "not go to the garden again that summer term."

While Margaret appreciates The Well and is considerably more worldly than Rachel, she also misreads school politics through her unwavering faith in Chief, to whom she attributes heroic status: "What cowards women are. All except Chief" (27). For all her sophistication, Margaret mistakenly sees Chief as a figure who, like Stephen Gordon, challenges the institution, forgetting that Chief in fact is the institution. (4) Yet while Stephen Gordon is an outcast and Chief the headmistress of a school, both emerge as lesbian subjects through what Cohler (2010: 153) calls "the terms of imperialism," having been fashioned through "the patriotic ideal of a masculine England." While Stephen assumes this patriotic identity as a form of romantic exceptionalism, Chief deploys it as a way of controlling her small fiefdom. Margaret will be expelled precisely in order to preserve the system Chief has created, one that survives only by maintaining a fragile and often problematic balance between the queer and the normal. For as soon as the "queer" nature of the school risks being exposed, any of its queer members will be sacrificed to the broader demands of "the good of the school."

The novel's anxiety around queerness is informed by a larger national anxiety concerning the new legibility of lesbian desire. The gender-bending aftereffects of the Great War and the concerns to which they were giving rise appear most notably in a proposed change in 1921 to the 1885 Labouchere Amendment's criminalizing of male homosexuality. The new clause would have included adding female homosexual acts to the 1885 Amendment, and although the clause was rejected by the House of Lords, it effectively meant, as Cohler argues, that '"lesbian love' was now a concern for the nation's governing body" (143). To this extent, Bampfield School is presented as being far from immune to the broader national conversation around female homosexuality, and as participating in the nation's desire to keep lesbianism as invisible as possible.

While Rachel won't share Margaret's engagement with The Well, Christabel (1816), quoted at length within the novel, does generate a scene of shared reading between the two friends. Perceived as one of Coleridge's queerer works, the unfinished poem tells the tale of Christabel, who discovers Geraldine, a damsel-in-distress moaning outside her father's castle, and who invites Geraldine in to share her bed. The poem strongly hints that Geraldine is a lamia, a demonic vampire-like serpent-woman (see Smith 2000: 167), beginning a nineteenth-century fascination with the potentially destructive power of lesbian sexuality that will include Charles de Baudelaire's Femmes damnees (1857) and Sheridan Le Fanu's Camilla (1892), among others.

The section of Christabel Rachel and Margaret read together is that of the prophetic dream of Bracy the Bard, in which a white dove has "a bright green snake / Coiled around its wings and neck" (CG 127). If, as Smith (2000: 167) suggests, "the symbolism of chastity ruined by temptation is obvious," Margaret deallegorizes the poem and brings it into the here and now: "It could have happened here, couldn't it? ... I found a grass snake here in the autumn, just like the one in the poem. Why do they look so evil? They're beautiful, yet they're evil.... Rachel, tell me why the most beautiful things are often evil?" (CG 129). Margaret here invokes both nature--an actual snake--and Genesis, an act of reading informed by the fact that it occurs in the Chinese garden, once an Edenic landscape, now overgrown and in ruins. As a figure of temptation, however, the snake remains ambiguous: it could represent the beautiful Rena, with whom Margaret falls in love, leading to the expulsion of both girls; or the bringing onto the school grounds of The Well of Loneliness, with its corrupting queer content, a work that will be officially censored by the courts; (5) or the corruption of the institution of Bampfield itself, implicitly fostering queer modes of being even while disavowing them.

Ultimately, their response to the snake divides Margaret and Rachel. Where Margaret finally reads it as metaphorical, Rachel refuses its symbolism and concomitantly the reality of the queer affect that surrounds her. When Rachel asserts that "a snake isn't really evil" (130), that a snake is just a snake, her rejection of Judeo-Christian beliefs means, as Smith (2000: 165) suggests, that "she fails to comprehend the erotic temptation, as well as the potential for sin and damnation, rife in the little Eden that Margaret has discovered." Yet it is also possible that Rachel comprehends the erotic possibility and is thus unwilling to let it become intelligible in the way Margaret asks of her. As the scene ends with Rachel feeling that "something was threatening the garden. She was no longer at ease there. It became an urgent matter to get out" (CG 131), the snake has become the scene of reading itself, luring Rachel away from ignorance into knowledge and destroying the innocence of the garden she has made her own. Later, Rachel learns that Margaret also keeps her copy of The Well in the garden, "in the pagoda, in a box" (135), further contaminating Rachel's secluded space and forcing these various objects into a pattern, "incomprehensible as yet--the fern-strewn boat, the book in the pagoda, the picture of Cleopatra, the green snake." The pattern will only become fully intelligible through the violence of Margaret's expulsion and the interrogation Rachel will undergo at Chief's hands.

At the same time, the narrative also resists such patterning, as Rachel experiences the school primarily through a palimpsest of decay and loss. What once were patterns are no longer, so that the school inhabits a past that has been stripped of legibility, from the nameless "portraits of the noble family who had once owned the house" (25) to the ruined old stables, with a clock that "had lost its hands long before, and [whose] timeless dial gazed fatuously up the decrepit lime avenue" (65). Nameless, unlocatable, a "timeless dial," the past has no anchor or referent, though it does allude to Britain's eroding empire, its decadent upper class, and its increasingly uncertain national identity. An old Georgian Mansion that still contains relics of its aristocratic heritage, as with its entrance hall full of "Georgian splendour" and "graceful Ionic pillars supporting the gallery above" (29), Bampfield School is literally a place of ruined past glory.

According to the national and heteronormative script, the images of ruin that saturate the narrative suggest the school's moral corruption. At the same time, though, these images become the narrative's most seductive elements, queering the culturally prevailing "chrononormativity" (Freeman 2010: 3). Like Rachel, a reader may well take pleasure in the ruined past and enjoy spending time there, putting into play a queer temporality that resists what Freeman calls "the sped-up and hyperregulated" (7) time of modernity. Just as for Freeman "the stubborn lingering of pastness ... is a hallmark of queer affect" (8), Heather Love (2007: 7) locates queer temporality in the celebration of backwardness, "in explorations of haunting and memory, and in stubborn attachments to lost objects." While the novel explicitly condemns Bampfield School and has us look toward a brighter future where figures such as Chief have become obsolete, its narrative effect is thus one of "temporal ambivalence" toward the future. There is in the text a distinct appeal to dwelling in the past and in the melancholia it generates, for like the garden in Coleridge's Kubla Khan, which Rachel also reads, Bampfield is part snake, part paradise.

Bampfield's paradisiacal qualities, in fact, are inextricable from its ruined buildings and surrounding landscape. From the novel's opening pages, landscapes and gardens dominate, as Rachel looks out of her dormitory window onto Bampfield's "great desolate park," which appears to her "wholly beautiful" (CG 9-10). She describes her relationship to Bampfield as "very much that of a lover. I felt possessive and was possessed" (10), and while her desire is oriented toward landscapes rather than individuals, those beloved landscapes have in some sense both been used up and carry the weight of human affect.

Rachel is thus identified with the school's own nostalgic relationship to the past, just as Manning is herself invested in her alter ego's backward gaze. The past becomes as much a form of desire as a time and a place, an engagement with affect as much as with history. Indeed, Manning offers us a vision of childhood in which childhood itself is already lost and always being mourned. Even in her state of unknowing, Rachel senses that neither she nor her school is innocent--precisely the effect of queerness.

The paradox of innocence emerges most clearly in the narrative's focus on the image of the garden, a space both natural and human made, to which Rachel is repeatedly drawn. There is Chief's garden, inaccessible to students and marking her aesthetic sensibility: "The green turf, the flower-beds a blaze of color, and the dark yew hedges bordering its brightness" (57). There is also a "derelict rose garden" frequented by the students, which hides another garden known only to Rachel: "But only 1 knew of the little iris garden that lay beyond [the rose garden], hidden in the laurels, the path to it now completely overgrown" (42). As with Georgia O'Keefe's flowers, the hidden and receding structure of these gardens alludes to the female genitals, and they are also places where Rachel likes to hide: "I was aware only of a private delight in and need for the secret places, a delight which was different from the child's pleasure in secrets, and a need greater than the mere desire to escape from school" (42-43). For Rachel, the space of the garden, associated with secrecy, also appears to conjure and to hide the queer sexuality she both courts and resists.

Rachel's attraction to these womb-like spaces also suggests a way of going back in time. Yet, suggesting the moment of origin, these gardens are also very old and have become secluded only because of the passing of time. The gardens thus mark the intersection not only between past and present but also between nature and artifice, and none more so than the eponymous Chinese garden. With this title, Manning invokes a children's tradition of secret garden narratives, especially Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911), and Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden (1958), published only four years before The Chinese Garden. In Pearce's novel, the boy's 1950s city landscape gets transformed at midnight into a beautiful Victorian garden, and Rachel also describes herself as living "perpetually in the land of the midnight sun" (CG 39), so that the night is metonymically connected to the past. Both real and fantastical, the Chinese garden represents a return to the possibilities of childhood, even as Manning critiques the terms under which that childhood was experienced. As a location it remains magical even as it signals the ultimate corruption of Bampfield as an institution.

Margaret is the first to discover the Chinese garden, and Rachel follows suit a few weeks later. That the garden is hard to reach, barred by "a thicket of overgrown shrubs, azalea, and rhododendron ... their tough twisted trunks meshed in bramble and nettle" (CG 77), echoes both Medieval quest narratives and the fairy-tale genre, as does Rachel's emergence "into a strange, secret world, a clear blue sky above, willows, a lake, a coloured pagoda, and a tiny bridge--the world of a willow-pattern plate." As with Tom's Midnight Garden, Rachel steps from one world into another, a transformation of time and space that recalls Rachel's glimpse of Chief and Miss Burnett slipping off together. Gabriele Griffin (1991: 141) also reads the garden as a highly sexualized space, drawing "a parallel between female genitals and the parkscape surrounding the school," and Rachel's exploration of the Chinese garden as "symbolizing] the exploration of her body." Smith (2000:165), in turn, suggests that the architecture of the Chinese garden alludes to "the familiar Blue Willow tableware" representing "lovers who are metamorphosed into birds and escape the parents who forbid their love," and thus, she elaborates, these pleasure grounds, even as they celebrate love, suggest its impossibility in human form.

The Chinese garden participates in a long-standing Orientalist tradition that incorporated exotic motifs into British material culture, from landscaping to the cult of chinoiserie. (6) In the context of the novel, the Chinese garden also foregrounds the imperialist claim that nonheteronormative sexualities existed only beyond the bounds of the British Isles. In the Woods/Pirie trial of 1811 (Katz 1975: 2.73), when two Scottish schoolteachers took the grandmother of an Indian biracial pupil to court for libel after the pupil accused them of lewd acts together, one of the judges argued that such "unnatural commerce ... in this part of the world is a thing unheard of, a thing perhaps impossible." Although this claim to impossibility had less purchase by the 1920s, the Chinese garden nonetheless functions as an anachronistic reminder of the imperialist imagining of boundaries between acceptable British sexual practices and decadent Eastern ones.

England had, moreover, recently witnessed the scandal of the 1921 Maud Allan trial, in which the dancer in Oscar Wilde's Salome sued a member of parliament, Noel Pemberton Billing, for claiming she was part of "The Cult of the Clitoris." (7) The implicit link made between Wilde's Orientalist play and Maud Allan's "questionable" sexuality reveals the extent to which the imperialist narrative tying queer sexualities to "exotic" cultural landscapes still had significant purchase. In Manning's novel, the Chinese garden thus signals both the end of empire--through its decayed state--and the possibility of queer sexuality. As with the imperialist mapping of sexualities, the Chinese garden is both inside and outside school boundaries, both colonized and expurgated as an abandoned site. It functions as the queer, exotic space of desire that underwrites the school's raison d'etre, as well as the space that must be disavowed, or at least left to continue to decay.

Margaret and Rachel invest in the garden in different ways, but for each of them it queers temporality, reversing reality and fantasy, so that "in this compelling reality, Bampfield seemed no more than a dream" (127). It is no coincidence that Margaret hides The Well of Loneliness--containing the "sympathetic nationalist lesbian protagonist" (Cohler 2010: 153)--in the garden's Chinese pagoda, combining exotic otherness with queer patriotism. The garden, however, is also forbidden, and once the students' trespassing has been discovered, it will be razed to the ground.

For Rachel, the Chinese garden becomes a world of "pure poetry":
   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. (CG 78)

Appealing to the girls for its ambiguity, the way it merges the natural and the artificial, revealing nature to be both wholesome and rotting, the garden is also simultaneously a discovery and an old place, and it is this conflation that seduces Rachel: "Its dereliction did not distress her. She was used to decay and ruin. The Chinese garden still offered, in its broken bridges and peeling cupola, the symbols of a precise pattern, a perfection greater than itself." Like poetry, however, the pattern also has to be interpreted, and the garden's past "perfection" is both present and absent--like the desire for innocence that haunts Rachel throughout the narrative.

The Chinese garden will continue to leave a strong imprint on Manning's personal mythology. "Here I am seeing the garden as a symbol," she writes in A Corridor of Minors, "which sank deep into my mind to become the central and secret font of my inspiration to write" (CM 147). As a lost domain, like childhood itself, the garden frames Manning's identity as a writer, though in a sense the garden has always been a literary construction, partaking as much of the realm of the imagination as of the real. Both full and also an empty space of fantasy and projection, it generates meaning for Manning in response to the constraints of a suffocating heteronormative world. Open and full of potential, the garden becomes a queer space, irreducible to the framework of the school to which it nevertheless belongs.

Representing the inability to restore the past as a site of wonder, the Chinese garden also is constituted as a space of loss. Spanning the 1950s, the ten years over which Manning composed her novel, changing her title from The Bampfield Papers to The Chinese Garden (CM 151), was also a period of considerable political repression for gays and lesbians, a condition Manning experienced firsthand as a closeted headmistress in a lesbian relationship. Two months before The Chinese Garden was published in 1962 "to a spate of eulogistic reviews" (139), Manning had attempted suicide in response to the end of her romance, and she writes that the novel's success "did nothing to console [her] for having failed to kill [her]self." In this sense, the publication of a novel about childhood coincides with a troubled and difficult present, a double loss, of an unrecoverable past and of an imaginable future. Indeed, both Manning's attempted suicide and her turn to the past appear to be directly related to the sociopolitical conditions of queer shame and abjection of the 1950s. Each marks the withdrawal from an abject present.

Within the novel itself, the Chinese garden also stages an interrogation of the price of sexual knowledge. Evoking Genesis, the fate of the school hangs on this question. After the scene of shared reading, Rachel divulges her discovery of the garden to her housemistress, Georgie Murrill, who then betrays her to Chief. As Rachel realizes, "she had voluntarily let a stranger in" (CG 143). Soon afterward, Margaret and Rena are discovered in bed together, and The Well of Loneliness is also discovered. Abruptly and violently, the school community then lurches from a homosocial world to a homosexual one. Suddenly the sexual clues become proofs, and the earlier unspoken barrier between homosociality and homosexuality now becomes dangerously porous: "This nameless vice of which they were guilty was, apparently, infectious. We were told that as prefects we had a grave responsibility. It was up to us to keep our eyes open to see if the disease was spreading" (144). Here the text echoes the panic about contagion with which the tabloid press met the publication of The Well of Loneliness, as in James Douglas's (1928) now infamous review from the Sunday Express: "We must protect our children.... I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a vial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul" (quoted in Cline 1997: 243). Protecting the children thus encodes anxiety about the "toxic" visibility of queer desire--a code that circulates between journalistic opinion pieces and the closed world of the boarding school--all in a concerted effort to preserve the health of the nation. (8)

Enacting such "protection," Chief interrogates Rachel to see whether she has read The Well and if she knew what Margaret and Rena were up to. She is given three days--another Biblical time frame--to think over her answer. While Rachel can feel secure in her claim to innocence concerning The Well, the novel's very presence forces the larger, national discussion on homosexuality and inversion into the space of the boarding school, a discussion Chief--a lesbian herself--is intent on avoiding. Yet while Chief and her staff are eager to stop the circulation of The Well, and to duplicate the ban being put in place by the courts, (9) Margaret and Rachel are in fact already having the conversation The Well is seeking to promote, not only about the freedom to love who one pleases, but also about the question of innocence, a question to which Chief and Rachel have very different answers.

For even without having read The Well, Rachel is on the side of Hall. While Hall evoked the theories of inversion developed by the sexologists, she rejected the language of pathology in favor of that of nature. Stephen Gordon is portrayed above all as a natural subject and therefore as an entirely innocent one, a portrayal that will be taken up by Hall's defense counsel, James Melville, during the trial: "The book accepts inversion as a fact in life, as a fact of nature, more, as a fact of God's own creation." (10)

Chief, too, is invested in the question of innocence and moral health. Her ethos involves a division between public service and private life, even as her sexuality and her gender performance together determine the shape of that public life. Because the logic of the closet requires an understanding of innocence as disavowal, Chief will choose to believe Rachel when Rachel denies all knowledge: "I was proclaimed innocent. I was once more part of the body of Bampfield, which like myself was declared innocent, uncorrupted" (CG 158). Yet it is by means of this impossible return to innocence that Chief forces unwanted knowledge onto Rachel. For it is Chief, not Margaret, who provides a language for the girls' queer sexuality, calling it "their filthy practices" (148), rendering it both visible and abject.

Chief's language in fact echoes the terms Judge Biron uses in his judgment against The Well, referring to homosexuality as a set of "horrible practices" and as "unnatural and disgusting obscenity" (quoted in Cline 1997: 262). Rachel thus comes to knowledge of homosexuality through the language of shame, the language of the courts, rather than through the language of innocence, that of The Well. Rachel's loss of innocence is therefore less about supporting her friend Margaret's right to love whomever she pleases as about Chief's failure to protect her childhood. By demanding Rachel's innocence, Chief not only forces knowledge on her but also requires the condemnation of queer sexuality, a condemnation Rachel has managed to avoid through her willed ignorance. But Rachel does not want Chief's knowledge and has no desire to condemn Margaret.

There continue to be echoes between the unfolding of Hall's public trial for obscenity, and Rachel's private trial at Bampfield. Many prominent figures, including Havelock Ellis, the sexologist who wrote the preface for the original edition of The Well, found excuses not to serve as witnesses for the defense (see Cline 1997: 254). In parallel fashion, Rachel, a respected prefect, does not stand up for Margaret, even though Margaret sees her as "the only human and decent individual at Bampfield" (CG 146). Like the prominent writers and intellectuals who supported Hall in private but failed to do so in public, Rachel cannot surrender her ties to the institution, and therefore participates in its politics of disavowal.

Rather than being sealed off from history, Bampfield School in fact reenacts the script--almost word for word--of the nation. Dividing the personal from the political, Chief makes possible a form of autonomy, as long as the open secret of queer sexuality remains just that, yet the presence of The Well forces a collision of Chief's separate spheres. The school is a product of the censorship and repression of 1920s Britain, so that when the moment of crisis arrives, Chief knows only how to protect national interests--echoing her years of public service during the war--at the expense of her individual students.

In being accepted back into Bampfield School, Rachel thus experiences a form of brokenness, imaged by the loss of the Chinese garden: "To myself, I was not innocent. I was corrupted with knowledge. Nothing I read, nothing I witnessed, nothing I experienced, would ever again have for me the radiance, the purity, the perfection which the Chinese garden had symbolized for me" (CG 158). But while Rachel feels corrupted by her new knowledge, it is Margaret and Rena, the guilty parties, who remain innocent, echoing the unsullied status of Stephen Gordon. Sexuality can be understood as innocence, insofar as it is experienced not within the epistemological category of knowledge but within that of affect. Margaret and Rena act on their desires, outside of social conventions and institutional constraints--beyond recognized categories of knowability. For them the innocence/knowledge binary does not apply, and although they suffer separation--which produces "a terrible crying and lamenting" (145)--and expulsion, they are less constrained than either Chief or Rachel, who are forced to maintain the fiction of the institution's innocence.

If Manning's novel can be read as addressing her own involvement in the regime that sustained her boarding school, with Rachel as her alter ego, it is also a complicated mourning for the imperfections of an all-female community trying to survive a heteronormative world. Moreover, while Manning is Rachel, she is also Chief, and like Chief not only dwells in the past but also harvests its ambivalence as a way of resisting politicized community building. In one way, past social configurations supplement present ones, so that, as Kathryn Kent (2004: 175) has argued in terms of the American institution of the Girl Scouts, these early same-sex communities "enable the formation of oppositional horizons of experience even as [they] perform some of the most rigidly imperialistic and antifeminist narratives of subject formation." Kent also raises the difficult question of whether, in the drive toward visibility and transparency, we have "lost the ability to imagine alternative, closeted spaces as sometimes just as powerfully subject forming and sustaining" (181). At the same time, these closeted spaces may also preclude possible alternative futures. Arguably, Manning is never able to leave her boarding school narrative and can only reproduce its mode of repression. As Manning's younger self, Rachel is both formed and undone by her school, and her sense of loss is for what Bampfield could have been, with its brilliant, nonconformist teachers and its haunting landscape. This points to the novel's central paradox: the closet both fashions the school and corrupts it, leaving profound ambivalence in its wake.

The novel's final image is that of Bampfield School turned to ashes, but with the Chinese garden "[arising] again, like a phoenix" (CG 159), a vision of regeneration gesturing toward both the utopic and nostalgic possibilities of new worlds that fuel fantasies of empire and foreclose them, from exotic sexualities to colonized lands. For the space of empire demands to be conquered and offers an escape from Britishness in equal measure. As the space of exotic otherness is contained within, yet exceeds, Bampfield School, the Chinese garden figures this complex relationship between Britain and its empire. In its microreflection of nationalist concerns, Bampfield generates hidden spaces, secrets, and closets--from the teachers' closeted lives to the girls' secret hiding places--and the Chinese garden epitomizes these sociospatial arrangements.

If the Chinese garden reveals how it is through secret locations or moments that temporary autonomy, freedoms, and imagination are made possible, these secret spaces also expose the exploitative logic of empire building. Rachel's invocation of the phoenix places Bampfield in opposition to the Chinese garden, but in fact they determine each other, so that, finally, Bampfield School is queered by the very queerness it represses.

DOI 10.1215/0041462X-7995623

Chris Roulston is professor in French studies and women's studies and feminist research at the University of Western Ontario. She has published two monographs, Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos (1998) and Narrating Marriage in Eighteenth-Century England and France (2010), as well as articles in various journals, including most recently, Literature Compass, Journal of Lesbian Studies, Studies in English Literature, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, and The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation.


(1.) Although there was no law in Britain against female homosexuality, in the 1960s it remained a powerful social taboo. Male homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967.

(2.) Madchen in Uniform first appeared as a film in 1931, and was followed by a remake in 1958. Christa Winsloe, who contributed to the original film script, initially wrote the story of her school years as a play, and then published it in novella form as The Child Manuela (1933).

(3.) This mention of a Times review of The Well of Loneliness probably refers to a review in the Sunday Times of August 5, by Ida Wylie (1928), a friend of Radclyffe Hall, who praises the novel for its "lively sense of characterisation." Manning is either misremembering or deliberately changing the review's source.

(4.) In her afterword, Patricia Juliana Smith (2000: 178) notes that Chief and Stephen Gordon share many traits, including a similar background in the VAD.

(5.) The Well of Loneliness was published in the United Kingdom on July 27, 1928, so that Margaret would have had access to it for the beginning of school in September. On November 16, 1928, Judge Biron judged the novel obscene and ordered it destroyed, ordering the defendants to pay the court costs. Although they were never called to testify, the obscenity trial had forty witnesses in support of the novel, including Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster.

(6.) For an analysis of chinoiserie, see Sloboda 2014.

(7.) For analysis of the Maud Allan trial, see Cohler 2010 and Doan 2001.

(8.) In Fashioning Sapphism (2001), Laura Doan argues that the moral panic around The Well of Loneliness has been exaggerated, and that many opinion pieces were sympathetic to Radclyffe Hall's cause. However, the boarding school context would have formed an exception to these expressions of sympathy.

(9.) On the details of The Well's trial, see Cline 1997: 225-67.

(10.) For the transcript of shorthand notes of James Melville's speech made by Barnett, Lenton, and Co. on November 9, 1928, see Cline 1997: 262.

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Date:Dec 1, 2019
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