Daring to Speak its Name: Goodbye, My Rose Garden and the queer historical romance

By: Dee December 10, 20210 Comments
Alice in hakama, holding a book, and Alice in a Victorian dress and hat stand beside yellow roses, watching a sunset on the sea. Both have pensive expressions on their faces.

Content Warning: Discussions of homophobia and sexism.

Spoilers for the entirety of Goodbye, My Rose Garden.

Author’s Note: This article discusses concepts and attitudes related to gender and sexuality in late 1800s England. Because a modern language of queer identity was only just being developed at the time, quotes and references to historical records tend to use the word “homosexual” to describe anyone who wasn’t cisheterosexual. To help clarify this broad umbrella for a modern audience, I have chosen to “translate” the word “homosexual” to the contemporary “queer” whenever I’m not quoting directly from a source.

Set in 1900 England, Goodbye, My Rose Garden tells the story of the young noblewoman Alice and her maid Hanako as the two connect over their shared passion for fiction and eventually fall in love. Steeped in references to the history and literature of the Victorian era, the series draws on turn-of-the-century reality and fantasy alike to highlight the intersectional struggles of queer women of the period.

Utilizing the narrative devices of early feminist and women-loving-women (wlw) literature, Rose Garden encourages its audience to expect a melancholy love story. However, it swerves in its finale to offer an unambiguously romantic, happy ending, arguing against “inevitable” heteronormativity and providing a shining example of how to write nuanced, happy historical queer fiction for a modern audience.

Alice and Jane face each other. Jane smiles and says "We are not the delicate obedient flowers that people expect us to be."

Rose Garden in Context

The end of the Victorian period was a time of significant cultural turbulence, leading to both progressive movements and corresponding backlashes. Nationalism, colonialism, classism, homophobia, and sexism all wove together to form the dominant (conservative) narrative of the day: the image of manly white gentlemen bringing reason and order to the world while their subservient wives acted as “the angel in the house,” overseeing domestic affairs. 

This ideal was, of course, more myth than truth, especially if you weren’t upper-class, but it informed legal codes, social mores, and economic opportunities for everyone. It also led to marginalized groups pushing back, poking holes in this so-called ideal and fighting to break free of it.

Hanako says "Don't you find it ridiculous? Why should who he loves be anyone else's business? Love is free. To me, being shackled by expectations is what's truly unnatural." Alice watches her with surprise.

Two of the greatest perceived domestic “threats” to the social order in the late 1800s were “the dandy” or “decadant” and “the New Woman”—or, to put it in modern terms, the queer man and the financially independent, often unmarried woman. Linda Dowling notes that conservatives saw these communities as “twin apostles of social apocalypse,” often lumped together because they both wished to redefine gender roles and sexual relationships. As Lyn Pykett summarizes:

The concurrent struggles of women and self-identified male homosexuals [came about because] the same antithetical categorization that labels homosexuals ‘abnormal’ also entails the subordination of women in strongly differentiated roles within the family. […These groups] posed a challenge to male prerogatives and to the appropriation of women’s bodies for purposes of social production.

The dominant image of masculinity was being challenged from two directions, and the ruling class pushed back accordingly. In the wake of a number of high-profile “scandals” involving queer men (most notably the Cleveland Street Scandal and the trials of Oscar Wilde), sodomy was criminalized and “sexologists” began to label “individuals who resisted conventional gender expectations… as abnormal, neurotic, or even perverse” (Pykett).

Alice sits at a desk and says "No... it is a sin. You heard how Oscar Wilde spent his final days. And it did not solely impact him. What of his family?" Hanako stands nearby, looking away.

These “perverse” individuals also included New Women. Because authority figures of the time often saw gender role/presentation, gender identity, and sexuality as a single concept, the New Woman’s desire to step outside of the domestic sphere made her equally “unnatural” to the ruling class. The concept of the independent, unmarried woman was sometimes even used interchangeably with the relatively new concept of the lesbian woman, as Pykett explains:

[Sexologist Havelock Ellis] threatened to stigmatize these women as ‘lesbians’ by defining the word not in terms of sexual preference but in terms of gender inversion; in other words, women became ‘lesbians’ by invading public (male) space, by living with each other and apart from men, and by working and earning in new ways. Ellis’s definition counted women’s struggle for emotional, professional, and economic autonomy by defining being-in-the-place-of-a-man as sexually perverse.

It was within this fluctuating, hostile world that popular New Woman and self-identified queer male artists attempted to gain a foothold of visibility and challenge social norms, often through art and writing. Both faced censure and erasure, if not outright prosecution. Queer men had to keep their sexuality discrete and a number of women wrote under male pen names because, as Victorian author Katherine Bradley justified, “The report of lady authorship will dwarf and enfeeble our work at every turn.”

Hanako angrily declares "Don't write me off because of my gender! I was sure things here would be different than in Japan! And yet it seems I've crossed the seas to be mocked!"

There were, of course, queer women among these writers as well, but society’s normalization of “passionate female friendships” rendered them often (though not always) invisible to the public eye. Still, regardless of how they might identify if they lived in the present, many English-speaking New Women writers of the late 1800s (including Kate Chopin and Sarah Orne Jewett, referenced in Rose Garden) seemed to simultaneously engage with themes of female agency and queer desire in a society that was only just beginning to acknowledge the existence of both.

As a result of these writers’ similar social positions, much of fin de siecle (turn-of-the-19th-century) “New Woman” and “homoerotic” literature shared broad common threads: coming-of-age tales about artists (kunstlerroman); protagonists seeking self-actualization, independence, and sexual liberation from existing social norms; and a frustrated, often-tragic undercurrent that these characters were doomed to fail because the dominant structures in place wouldn’t allow them to exist. If the protagonist didn’t die or have a mental breakdown, then they generally succumbed to social and economic pressures, trading risky freedom for unfulfilling security.

An image of the Douglas manor, followed by Alice sitting at a window with her head in her hand, looking miserable. Speech bubbles read "Alice's happiness lies not in shaming herself, but in being my wife. The wife of an earl. Mother to a respectable lineage. Even if she does not love me, once she has children, she will realize true happiness."

While fin de siecle narratives about women’s social positions often had the subtlety of a sledgehammer, “reputable” queer literature (including wlw literature) relied heavily on coding and subtext. This was partly because the authors were personally trying to create a new language to “communicate—both to themselves and others—the experience of homoerotic desire” as well as because, perhaps obviously, they were “writing within a culture that not only denied but actively prosecuted such embodiments” (Ed Cohen).

The result is a shared secret language: words like “artistic,” “temperament,” and “personality” to describe queer characters or “affection,” “passion,” “friends,” and “comradeship” to describe same-gender romance or eroticism. Intensely sensual and emotional passages peppered the prose, and two women might speak of their “love” or even share a “kiss,” but the narrative maintained plausible deniability through socially acceptable acts related to “passionate friendships.”

These stories were also, whether by editorial mandate or authorial despair, filled with either untimely deaths or separation through marriage. While we know that happy queer couples could and did exist, their stories were so few and far between that the fiction of the time seemed largely resigned to the inescapable pull of cultural norms. If the women were very lucky, as in Jewett’s “Martha’s Lady,” they might reunite and live together after their husbands’ deaths.

Alice takes Hanako's hands. Text reads "Then, even as we endure our own loneliness, we can do so together."

Rose Garden in Practice

It is into this historical and literary landscape that Goodbye, My Rose Garden drops its characters. Alice and Hanako, as an unmarried lesbian couple pursuing work outside of the home (Alice a writer, Hanako a teacher and then maid), exist at the intersection of multiple prominent marginalized identities—not just as queer New Women, but as queer women of different nationalities and social standings. These historical tensions permeate Rose Garden’s narrative, whether it’s the casual racism and classism Hanako faces or the more pointed homophobia and sexism they both navigate.

Rather than use 1900 England (and, briefly, Japan) as just an aesthetic backdrop, Rose Garden embeds itself in the history of the period through direct real-world references and allusions. Alice writes under a male pen name “like Emily Bronte” in order to “avoid prejudice because of her gender”; Alice and her sister share their thoughts on the women’s suffrage movement and shifting relationships between social classes; and, most prominently, characters discuss the “scandalous” life and death of writer Oscar Wilde.

Wilde is, in fact, the reason a young Alice is able to understand her romantic feelings for her governess, as she hears about his “love that dare not speak its name” and realizes she knows what he means. His trials and later death form a through-line in the story, both revelation and warning for a fellow queer artist. 

A young, blushing Alice stands beside her governess. Her parents are in the background, talking quietly. Text reads "Wilde called it 'the love that dare not speak its name.' I never realized that my fascination with his scandal caused concern to those around me. I naively proclaimed my infatuation with this 'love that dare not speak its name.'"

As writers and avid readers, Alice and Hanako also engage directly with the literature of the period. Wilde’s works make an appearance, of course, but Rose Garden is also rife with references to female authors, from Alice’s pen name “Victor Franks” (a nod to early feminist Mary Shelley and her ostracized “monster”) to the American New Woman writers Kate Chopin and Sarah Orne Jewett, whom Hanako’s bookseller ally recommends when discussing “books about romantic female friendships.”

Much like Wilde’s trial, Jewett’s short story “Martha’s Lady” serves as a thematic touchstone. A story about a maid who falls in love with her mistress, it’s an obvious parallel to Rose Garden’s own narrative. It also seems like unhappy foreshadowing, given that the mistress moves away to get married while the maid remains quietly, distantly devoted to her.

“Martha’s Lady” follows the more optimistic pattern of the period’s wlw literature: the two women reunite and share a kiss in old age after the mistress’s husband has died. While bookseller Marie calls it a “happy ending,” her partner Suzanne (who’s heavily implied to have left an identical situation in France) sees it as “a cruel tale, in which [Martha] is expected to endure decades of pain for love.” This sense of “impossible love” fills both the literature discussed and Rose Garden’s own narrative, but that doesn’t mean the characters (nor the writers) were happy about it.

Hanako and Suzanne look out a window. Hanako says "If she'll have me, then I want to return to her." Suzanne looks down and sadly replies, "I see... If that's what you've decided, I'm sure it's for the best. However, you must know that only pain awaits when you fantasize over a happily ever after that can never be."

As if the real-world references weren’t enough, Rose Garden’s own story is packed with wlw fin de siecle tropes, many of which modern manga readers would recognize since they also became mainstays of Class S and yuri fiction during the 1900s (a cross-cultural connection that’s worth exploring but is outside the scope of this article).

Some of the major tropes at play include: artistic, independent heroines seeking self-fulfillment only to be tethered by expectations of marriage and children; Alice’s one-sided infatuation with her governess hearkening to the age-gap relationships so common in historical queer-coded fiction; conflicts brought about by class divides and master-servant bonds; the intrusion of heterosexual love interests; and of course the intentionally vague language of “friendship” that everyone tap-dances around for two-thirds of the series.

Edward, his face in shadow, doffs his hat and says "What a beautiful friendship, forged by a mutual love of reading." Hanako looks pensive in the background.

Perhaps most notable, though, is the rose garden itself. For hundreds of years, the garden has served as a metaphor (both in English and Japanese literature) for individuality and intimacy. Existing between uncaring nature and demanding society, the garden hides its visitors from the public eye and serves as a private, idyllic haven hidden from rules and expectations.

From The Tale of Genji to Romeo and Juliet and on into the modern age, these “images of enclosure” have long been the site of romantic trysts. Gardens in English literature have also routinely possessed an erotic and feminine quality, a coding Victorian readers would have been familiar with given that, as Ruth Vanita notes, “famous English catalogues of flowers… identify them with women’s erotic and emotional life.”

Through a shared language of coding and imagery (most notably roses, lilies and violets), writers of all genders explored spaces free from the dominating forces of traditional masculinity and, by extension, heteronormativity. Small wonder, then, that so many queer poets wrote of meeting a non-gendered “beloved” in these cloistered spaces, or that gardens became a classic meeting place in Japanese yuri series.

Hanako brings food to Alice in a gazebo within a rose garden. Alice says "It is a cocoon of roses, to block out the rest of the world. Here I can simply lose myself in the story. I don't have to worry about society's expectations."

The trouble with the garden, though, is that nobody can stay forever. Like Alice’s suitor Edward intruding upon her roses with his polite criticisms and matter-of-fact menace, the “threat to feminine Eden [comes from] a world constructed on the masculine principle of divisiveness” (Vanita). Whether you leave the garden willingly or somebody drags you out of it, eventually you do have to leave, returning to society and all its many restrictions. 

In this historical and literary landscape, then, to bid “goodbye, my rose garden” seems like a declaration of defeat—a wistful understanding that Alice and Hanako must eventually leave their “cocoon” and become the “good wives and mothers” their societies expect of them. Just as the queer and New Woman fin de siecle writers battered against the cages of social norms even as they despaired of ever breaking them, Rose Garden seems resigned to a similar fate, unable to quite imagine a “happy ending” for its young couple trapped within the bounds of historical literature.

And this is exactly what makes the story’s conclusion so triumphant.

Alice dips Hanako as the two kiss passionately. As they part, Alice says with tears in her eyes, "Friends do not do that."

Rose Garden in Conversation

In its final volume, Rose Garden begins to shed its archetypal Victorian narrative. Hanako confesses her love and the two share a passionate kiss, with Alice explicitly noting that “friends do not do that.” The subtext has become text, and the two must now navigate a relationship outside the safety of socially accepted norms.

Yet even with the aid of allies (a fellow lesbian couple and Alice’s suffragette sister Jane), it seems the two are still destined for an unfulfilled love story. Alice insists they keep their relationship a secret to protect her family’s reputation, which ultimately culminates in her accepting a proposal from her suitor, Edward, and Hanako agreeing to leave the manor lest Edward expose their romance to the world. 

Alice and Hanako stand before a gravestone. Alice says "I was wrong.  I was a food to think I could escape the role I was meant to play. The perfect daughter of a nobleman."

Class divides and cultural norms seem inescapable, and all Hanako can do is promise to love Alice from afar, the two separated by distance but connected by love. It’s “Martha’s Lady” all over again… except that it isn’t.

At the last moment, as Alice walks up the aisle and Hanako prepares to leave, Alice chooses her own happiness over societal expectations. She “destroys the mask” of herself by coming out in front of the entire congregation, declaring her love for Hanako and fleeing the church. The two reunite in the rose garden and Alice gives up her noble title, leaving her “cocoon of roses” so the two can live together. 

Alice in her wedding dress, framed from behind, facing a startled congregation. She says, "I am here to declare before you all... that I have destroyed that mask of myself."

It’s an unapologetically romantic finale that accomplishes a lot more than just warm fuzzies (although it certainly does that, too). First, it provides a much-needed alternate take on history. Queerness is not new and happy queer couples did exist, even during times of significant oppression. Not all historical queer relationships ended in tragedy, so it’s valuable for historical fiction to acknowledge that.

Secondly, by using the story beats of a typical Victorian queer-coded narrative and then undoing it in the final pages, Rose Garden offers a contemporary twist on traditional tales. Not only does the series make the romantic subtext explicit, it also offers modern adjustments to the tale, most notably by addressing and remedying the power imbalances so common in historical queer fiction and reality. 

Alice and Suzanne exit a bookstore. Suzanne says "I understand this is impudent of me, but I must give you a warning. Have you considered the pain you will cause her so long as you live as a noblewoman?"

In the early-modern era, when queer communities weren’t as accessible, having an older and/or well-to-do “kindred spirit” take you under their wing and help you express your identity was both the fantasy and often the reality. While it wasn’t always healthy (in the same way that power imbalances between heterosexual couples aren’t always healthy), it was understandable—and, for many young queer people, desirable—that it happened this way.

For a contemporary audience, though, these unbalanced tales can bring up questions of uneven power dynamics and potential abuses. Rose Garden addresses this by first having Alice’s childhood crush on her governess go completely unreciprocated. Instead, her governess (possibly intentionally) plays matchmaker by sending Hanako to England, allowing Alice to connect with someone nearer in age.

Then, after consistently acknowledging the power gap that exists between Alice as a noblewoman and Hanako as a maid, the series doesn’t allow them to officially get together until Hanako quits her job and Alice leaves her home, beginning their relationship more-or-less as equals.

Alice and Hanako squeeze each other's hands. Alice faces Hanako in her wedding dress and says. "We should go. It is finally time to leave my beloved rose garden."

By turning the traditional narrative on its head, the series also offers an alternate take on the garden metaphor. Unlike in much of historical literature, where leaving the garden means sadly returning to the world and its rules, Rose Garden argues the opposite.

Alice’s “cocoon of roses” shielded her in the same way that Edward wished to shield her: by confining her to the narrow view of a well-to-do daughter, wife, and eventually mother. It may have protected her from censure, but it also denied her self-fulfillment. After all, the garden exists on the manor grounds, making it part of social norms and heteronormative expectations. Using it as a haven is exactly what’s expected of her by the ruling power structures.

When Alice bids “goodbye, my rose garden,” she does so with the understanding that she’s finally going to live as herself. It’s not a sad moment, but a triumphant one, as she and Hanako strike out for freedom beyond the constraints of societal and fictional norms, ready to begin their life together.

Hanako in hakama and Alice in a wedding dress walk away, holding hands and smiling widely. There are roses in the foreground. Text reads "Goodbye...my rose garden."

Finally, Rose Garden serves as an idyllic, normalizing love story for its readers, many of whom may be queer themselves. As the wealthy aristocrat abandons her arranged marriage for a love match with a commoner, this “impossible” queer love story becomes possible in a way that loudly mirrors popular heterosexual romance narratives. Alice and Hanako’s relationship may have more prejudices to navigate, but it’s essentially the same story of freedom and companionship that’s been told for centuries.

And, given that heteronormative and sexist pressures are still prevalent across the world today (England and Japan included), the story’s optimistic outlook can also serve as balm and inspiration for its 21st-century audience. Rose Garden promises readers that happy endings are attainable, even if they didn’t (and don’t) always seem that way.

Alice in a wedding dress and Hanako in hakama stand together in the rose garden. Alice cups Hanako's cheeks and says "Forever. Let's leave together... and weave a story all our own."

With its window to the past and its door the future, Goodbye, My Rose Garden is a masterclass in writing queer historical romance. It acknowledges its influences without feeling shackled to them, mixes and merges story beats both classic and contemporary, and offers its readers tension, heartache, and a well-earned happy ending. Would that more historical fiction could thread the needle between reality and fantasy half as well as this one does.

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