Katherine Mansfield (14 October 1888 – 9 January 1923)

Having forgotten earlier to write about Bernard Shaw, I suppose it was not surprising that I had forgotten too about Katherine Mansfield. Her principal claim to fame is that she was the first exponent of the short story alone, and she certainly brought the genre much more critical acclaim than it had received previously.

Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand, but spent some years in her teens in England, during which she also traveled on the continent. New Zealand obviously proved dull after that, for she came back to England when she was 20, and spent the next and last 15 years of her life there. She married twice and had lots of affairs with people of both sexes, while writing prolifically in spite of much illness that culminated in the tuberculosis from which she died in 1923.

She discovered Anton Chekhov while she was dealing with an unwanted pregnancy in Germany and, influenced by his sharp eyed observation of the extraordinary vulnerability of the ordinary, she developed into a masterful writer. To all intents and purposes the tone of her work, that of pervasive melancholia, scarcely changed, but her subject matter was varied and usually very moving.

I first came across her work in a collection which was prescribed for study for I think the Ordinary Level, forty or more years ago. It was a difficult enough book then, and I was surprised to find some of the stories recurring more than a decade later, for example Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ and even Conrad’s phenomenally difficult ‘Secret Sharer’. Thankfully Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ was not, I think, regurgitated, for it would have been much too subtle for students in the eighties to have appreciated.

It was about two sisters living with their father and in fact sacrificing their lives for his whims. They only come to life really when their nephew comes to see them, but the reader is made painfully if delicately aware that he does not really return their affection, and is more interested in what benefits he can derive from his visits. On occasion the sisters seem inclined to break through the blanket in which they have allowed themselves to be enwrapped, but tentative suggestions always fall by the wayside.

A more direct, and I think much more successful, development of this theme occurs in ‘Miss Brill’, my own favourite, about a teacher of English in a small foreign town, whose one pleasure is a day out in the park on Sundays. She loves watching the people promenade or interact, and there is a particularly brilliant episode when she admires a lady trying to revive acquaintance with an old gentleman, though the reader suddenly realizes that she is actually trying to pick him up, moving on to another potential customer when she is brushed away.

Light comedy turns darker however at the end, when she is moved by two youngsters sitting on the same bench, who then mutter about her patent interest in them when they want to be left alone to flirt. The boy comments rudely about her old fox fur, which she thought still as fashionable as when she had acquired it many years ago. When she leaves the scene after that, she feels broken, unable to enjoy the treat of a slice of cake that she permitted herself when her excursion had been fun. The story ends with her putting the fur away, and feeling that the sound of crying could be heard, from the bruised creature.

The same tone with a very different subject is found in ‘An Ideal Family’, about an old man who realizes that he has nothing in common with his family. His son will clearly ruin the business he had so carefully built up, and the family that had enjoyed the prosperity he had brought them care little for him now. However tired he is, he is expected to fall in with their social programmes and ambitions, aware that they despise his lack of interest in such matters.

Mansfield was however capable of the occasional happy ending, though perhaps her essential view of the melancholy nature of human existence was not materially altered by her presentation of happiness. ‘The Singing Lesson’ is about a singing teacher who was ecstatic when the young man she had been seeing proposes marriage to her, but then he writes to break of the engagement. The gloom that envelopes her is extended to her students, who have to sing sad songs, while her favourite is crushed when she presents the teacher with a flower, usually received with thanks and praise.

The lesson is interrupted by a summons to the office of the headmistress. There a telegram awaits her, and she opens it in trepidation, to find that the young man has cancelled the breaking off of the engagement. Ecstasy returns, to the evident disapproval of the headmistress, who thinks telegrams should interrupt a class only in the event of a bereavement. The teachers goes back to sing summery songs and lights up again the world of her favourite. The reader however is left feeling that perhaps the young man was not what is termed the marrying type, and he had decided to go ahead only because, as a schoolmaster, he needed to settle down.

Perhaps the longest short story Katherine Mansfield wrote was ‘The Garden Party’, about the annual party that a well off party gave at their country home. The occasion is seen through the eyes of one of the daughters, who is full of enthusiasm, but then learns that someone in the village has died. Her view that the party should be cancelled is over-ruled by the rest of the family, and the party goes on, and a good time is had by all, though the young lady feels a slight discomfort.

The family help her to assuage her conscience by suggesting she visit the bereaved after the party, and she does so with her kind but much less sensitive brother. The depiction of the contrast between the poor part of the village, and the extravagance of the party, the contrast between the family which has suffered death and the rich youngsters, are sharply drawn, with no forced attention to any social message, which makes the reader’s awareness of the differences all the more intense.

Sadly, Katherine Mansfield, though still read much by the literary in most parts of the world, is hardly prescribed here. I suspect she suffered by being associated with the world of Bloomsbury, after she had fallen out with D H Lawrence during the First World War. With the literary tastes of Leavis prominent at Sri Lankan universities for many decades, before being replaced by post-colonial fashions, Mansfield has been largely ignored. This is a pity because her techniques are well worth studying, while her themes are easily understood and appreciated, given how often each of us realizes we are essentially alone, even in the midst of the crowds in which we sometimes succeed in losing ourselves.

Source: Island Online 26 August 2010 http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=5206

A public domain audio book version of  Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield

A public domain audio book version of The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield

A public domain audio book version of An Ideal Family by Katherine Mansfield