‘A Cup of Tea’ by Katherine Mansfield

Rosemary Fell, fabulously wealthy and dreamily vague, is approached on the street by a pale, thin woman who asks her for the price of a cup of tea. Rosemary decides to take the young woman, who gives her name as Miss Smith, home with her, pushing the dazed, starving “creature,” as Rosemary puts it, into her upholstered car. Rosemary ignores Miss Smith’s protestations—she is, in a peerless phrase, “longing to begin to be generous”—preferring to remain lost in unfinished, perhaps unfinishable thoughts about the lesson she will impart to a woman she already thinks of as her protégé: “She was going to prove to this girl… that women were sisters.” But a cream tea and cigarette so revives Miss Smith that Rosemary’s husband remarks on her astonishing beauty. That’s enough for the older woman to send the younger packing. Students love this story about the paradoxes of charity and the difficulty of affirming what we today would call intersectionality.
 
I learned of “A Cup of Tea” from David Trotter’s The English Novel in History: 1895 – 1920, which features a brilliant close reading of the seemingly unremarkable line “The discreet door shut with a click.” (Rosemary is leaving her favourite antique shop.) Why, asks Trotter, does Mansfield speak of “discreet door” instead of saying “The door shut with a discreet click”? Wouldn’t the latter make more sense? We can imagine how a click could be discreet—it could, for example, refer to the sound of the door closing. But to call the door itself discreet, what could that mean? Trotter emphasizes the—sometimes mild but always consequential—disturbances of ordinary syntax and good sense that characterizes modernist writing.

I emphasize to my students that the very language used to describe the world of the story, which seems neutral or omniscient, is in fact imbued by the preferences of Rosemary and her milieu. If you’re rich enough, everything is discreet. And yet not every rich person is equally privileged. As Rosemary learns at the end of the story, as a woman she is forced to live by rules designed by and for someone other than herself. The discreet door, then, might be a metaphor for the way even someone like herself, who “would go to Paris just as you and I would go to Bond street,” is in her own way an outsider. Too bad the patriarchy makes it impossible for her to realize she’s as much at the mercy of the world as Miss Smith. 

First published in The Story-Teller, May 1922 and The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories, Constable & Co., 1923Collected, among other places, in Selected Stories, edited by Angela Smith, Oxford UP, 2002. Read the story here

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