In her monthly column Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
In April 1962, after a day of sailing in Dorset, the fifty-year-old English writer and teacher Rosemary Manning got into her car and drove inland, up a long river valley and into the chalk country of the South Downs. She stopped briefly, to eat some biscuits and two bananas and to post a letter to a solicitor acquaintance in London, after which she continued up a deserted track. Parking her car under some trees, she took a short walk in the moonlight before burning a stash of personal letters. Manning then climbed back into her car, locked the doors and poured herself a whisky, which she washed down with over seventy sleeping tablets. Waiting for the drugs to take effect, she began to read T. H. White’s The Goshawk, but after about twenty minutes she became worried that the car’s interior light shining in the otherwise pitch-black night might attract unwanted attention. She switched it off and settled back in her seat, and, “with the suddenness of a tropical night, blackness overwhelmed me.”
Manning was discovered the following morning—she would later describe the story of her rescue as “shot through with a positively Hardyesque irony”—and rushed to the hospital, where her stomach was pumped. All this is recounted in frank and straightforward detail in A Time and a Time (1971), the autobiography she wrote in the aftermath of these events—she began it two years later, in 1964, and finished it in 1966. It’s not the complete story of Manning’s life—this would come later, in her second memoir, A Corridor of Mirrors (1987), published just a year before her death at the age of seventy-six. A Time is an attempt to “come to terms with living.” Manning recounts the events that led up to her suicide attempt: the breakdown of her relationship with her lover, Elizabeth, which Manning believed was proof of her inability to find “a woman with whom I could live a full life, sexually and in companionship,” and her failure to achieve success as a writer. Most poignantly, though, it’s an uninhibited examination of the unanticipated road that now lay in front of her.
A Time and a Time is not, perhaps, Manning’s best book. That’s an accolade most would bestow on her novel A Chinese Garden (1962)—published, incidentally, only two months after this suicide attempt—a coming-of-age story about love and betrayal set in a claustrophobic, sexually charged but guarded English girls’ boarding school in the twenties. For it, Manning drew heavily on her own teenage experience—“the most truthful book I have ever written,” is how she describes it in A Corridor of Mirrors, which is saying something given she admits that all her work is autobiographical: “That is the type of writer I am. I quarry myself.” It’s also the only book that Manning wrote for adults that is still in print today, from the Feminist Press, which describes it as a “long-lost lesbian classic of adolescent rebellion and sexual awakening.” Her two memoirs and five other novels are all out of print. But though it might not be her best, A Time and a Time is by far the most intriguing and original of Manning’s books. It’s not a story of the virtues of second chances, and Manning expresses no relief or thanks that she was afforded one.
The book is blisteringly honest. As Manning herself observes a decade after its publication, in an essay she wrote for Gay News in 1982, it’s a book that “illumines two not very well explored areas of experience: what it is like to plan and carry out an attempt on one’s life, and how lesbians—and there must have been many like me—were forced to live in hiding in the decades before the seventies.” Sadly, though, its greatest strength was also its greatest weakness. Manning was a headmistress in a private girls’ school in Hampstead, North London, which she co-owned and ran with another woman (“thirty-five years’ imprisonment” is how she looks back on her teaching career in A Corridor ofMirrors). Because of the bigotry of the era, she was unable to publish the volume under her own name. When it was first published, in 1971, it was under the pseudonym Sarah Davys, and it wasn’t until 1982, a year after Manning had officially come out, that the book appeared under her real name. Thus, although it garnered good reviews, A Time and a Time failed to make much of an impact. As Manning herself later acknowledged, “There was not that element of scandal that there might have been had I been already well known as a writer.” That A Time and a Time has been forgotten today—out of print since a second edition (revised on account of a new introduction by Manning) was published in 1986—is the result, in no small part, of the book’s convoluted publication history. Both A Time and a Time and A Corridor of Mirrors warrant rediscovery; aside from Manning’s obvious literary gifts, they’re fascinating first-person accounts of what it was like to be a lesbian in a world that insisted on classifying one as at worst a “deviant” and at best an “outsider,” someone to be “sneered at and derided.”
Manning’s attempt on her life wasn’t the result of a lone moment of desperation but rather a logical and long-meditated response to life’s disappointments. In the early fifties, about to turn forty, Manning reasoned that she would give herself another ten years. If by the time she turned fifty she hadn’t found either the recognition she sought as a writer or a meaningful relationship with another woman, she would kill herself. When, in the early months of 1962, her five-year relationship with Elizabeth fell apart, Manning decided that enough was enough. “To me there seems to be only one rational motive for ending’s one life,” she explains quite calmly in A Time and a Time, “that it holds for you no further possibilities, that you have concluded all that you can usefully do and realise the futility of going on merely because you still have the ability to breathe.”
She describes waking from the four-day coma following her overdose as “more frightful than any other experience I have ever had.” The bluntness with which she discusses all aspects of suicide, including her thoughts of when and how one should go about the task, will undoubtedly sit uncomfortably with some readers. Although unusually candid, she couldn’t be accused of idealizing or encouraging self-harm. Indeed, in her introduction to the reissue, she expresses her hope that this account of her experiences—what she describes as “a painful climb over peculiarly taxing and unagreeable country”—will give “some support and help” to readers struggling with their own suicidal impulses. “Living,” she wisely acknowledges, “is really more difficult than dying.”
That A Time and a Time allows us to see Manning struggling with this, in real time, is what makes the book so extraordinary, and so powerful. “I have now lived for two years,” she declares on the opening page of the book’s First Movement (its structure mimics the four movements of Schubert’s G Major quartet). “I regard them as an endurance test. I have no feeling of having been ‘given another chance’ or ‘making a fresh start.’ I do not believe that my life has been preserved by any divine intervention or for any supramundane scheme. I do not think, even, that I have changed radically by reason of this momentous break in my life, but I have learned a great deal.” Even though by the end of the book’s Fourth Movement she’s found happiness with a new partner, Manning has no interest in twisting their story into a conventional happily ever after. “How I detest this book for its revealing softness at the edges; its lack of violence; its dishonest; its foolish little lapses into what might be taken for hope,” she lambasts herself on the closing page. “But I leave it as it is, all the same—a monument to my own defects. I have never hated a book so much. But it had to be written, and whether or not I write again, at least the ground is cleared for writing.”
So what became of Manning after A Time and a Time? Had she been able to publish the volume under her own name, and had it appeared in 1967 or 1968, as it should have done, it would have continued the autobiographical project she’d begun in the three novels she published earlier that decade. Look, Stranger (1960) “describes the irrational fear and hatred felt by many people towards the ‘outsider,’ the one who is different,” in this case an epileptic woman living in a small island community, but the essence of the book was drawn from Manning’s own experiences of feeling isolated in her lesbianism. It was followed by The Chinese Garden (1962) and Man on a Tower (1965). This last novel, written in tandem with A Time and a Time, was a thinly veiled account of the breakdown of her relationship with Elizabeth and her professional disappointments. Instead, of course, her readers wouldn’t see another novel written by Rosemary Manning until 1983, when she published what would be her final novel, Open the Door. By that time, she was “bitterly conscious that my first three books were out of print and that as far as the public and the reviewers were concerned, I had been silent for just on twenty years.”
Though she was creatively less prolific, the late sixties and the seventies did bring significant changes to Manning’s life. Her professional partner died in 1971, which allowed Manning to sell their school and finally abandon the occupation she’d had a “love-hate relationship” with ever since she entered it at the age of twenty-eight. She also brought a house in Dorset, not far from where she’d tried to kill herself; found new lovers (she later tenderly wrote that her Kay, with whom she was in a relationship by the time she was writing the final part of A Time and a Time, “released in me a sexuality that I hardly knew I possessed”); and forged important, lasting friendships. But by far the most radical shift in her life came in the early eighties, after Manning officially came out, on British TV of all places. “To come out at the age of seventy,” reads the opening line of A Corridor of Mirrors, “to come out of what, I ask myself? A cave? Old prejudices? An outworn carapace? Perhaps that is the best word for it.” Not only was Manning now finally able to write openly about her sexuality, she also found herself “accepted, brought into the warmth of the gay world and the feminist world.” After a lifetime of feeling “like a lone patrol in no man’s land, creeping across a mine-strewn battlefield,” she finally found “the courage to stand up under the searchlight.” In the final years of her life she became an advocate for gay rights. In the essay she wrote for Gay News, she describes the “urgency” she felt to write truthfully about homosexuality, thus challenging the damaging lies still being peddled by some psychiatrists. Manning, sadly, was familiar with this at first hand: after she sought help following a nervous breakdown in her mid-twenties, the doctor declared her a “sexual deviant.” She also underwent a radical feminist awakening.
Reading Andrea Dworkin helped her realize just how “deep-rooted” the “masculine attitudes and values inculcated in me during my childhood and youth” had been, she explains in A Corridor of Mirrors. “I am one of the privileged few,” she writes. “I am white, middle class, and university educated. On the other hand these advantages have been weighed down and conditioned by that very privileged upbringing and education to accept for far too long patriarchal attitudes and values which intelligence and a different range of books on my shelves might have made me question.” As part of this newfound awareness, she wonders whether she might have been a better writer had she not had to hide her sexuality. “I don’t think this is necessarily so,” she concludes, “though my own experience over A Time and a Time shows clearly enough the damage that an enforced secrecy can do to a writer and her/his career. Economic necessity and the grinding exigencies of motherhood, wifehood, eating up time and energy have silenced more women, I believe, than their sexual predilections.” I don’t doubt she’s right, but there’s no question that Manning suffered greatly from what she described in the early eighties as her “long years of humiliating secrecy.” As Patricia Juliana Smith writes in her afterword to The Chinese Garden, Manning “spent a lifetime waiting for both women’s and gay liberation to happen.”
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times,The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.