The Chinese Garden
By Rosemary Manning
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner
Memoir, fictional or otherwise, necessarily concerns itself with the relationship between the integrity of the past and the nature of truth. The contemporary world of "creative nonfiction" handles this issue by asserting that the past is intrinsically mutable, and that people therefore adapt it freely to their present emotional and intellectual needs. Good memoirists, according to this perspective, embrace the ironic truth of the relativity of the past and are purposely creative with it.
This blurring of past and present is no surprise from an historical perspective. As Sidney Alexander has pointed out, until the Renaissance Orpheus was depicted as a medieval bard. The humanist enterprise to see classical Greeks as people living in a certain historical time and place forcefully separated the past and present, rescuing intellectual enterprise from a kind of temporal miasma. It is precisely this miasma, this unadulterated interpenetration of past and present, from which creative memoirists have no desire to be rescued.
Not everyone is willing to consign their relationship with the past to a borderless fog. Rosemary Manning brought her formidable intellect squarely to bear on this issue in The Chinese Garden. Originally published in 1962, and newly reprinted by The Feminist Press, The Chinese Garden is suffused with an irrevocable sense of loss emanating from a past laid bare, stripped of the protective sentiment that had initially stood over it like a bereaved lover pleading the executioner's ax away long after the stroke has fallen.
The Chinese Garden is written as the memoir of the sixteenth and seventeenth years in the life of Rachel Curgenven, a precocious, budding classicist whose nature is both stimulated and appalled by the harsh and eclectic girls boarding school which is her home. Manning noted the obvious when she later acknowledged that the novel, "was autobiographical."
The integrity of the past, its footsteps in the present, the inescapable reverberations of the retrospective awakening of truth, haunt The Chinese Garden throughout. "I would have called myself happy at Bampfield, yet looking back on it over the span of many years, I can only regret that I was not miserable during my time there. It would have been more creditable in me, for my happiness came from tainted sources....the regime acted upon at least some of us like one of those powerful selective weed killers - certain facets of the personality were destroyed or driven under, while others were allowed to swell to monstrous almost grotesque proportions."
The Chinese Garden succeeds in establishing the architecture of an increasingly precarious innocence, a creative inspiration fueled by a genuine appreciation of beauty and knowledge, along with the obscurely sensed threat of expanding perceptions, a powerful young mind banging against a wall that it mistakenly feels safe in bludgeoning, the corruption of its underlying strength revealed only in the aftermath of its destruction.
The remarkable clarity of Manning's presentation of this shattered world is achieved precisely because of the one constant in her narrator's perspective over time, a stalwart adherence to the principal of integrity.