‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield had to be on this list, there are so many short stories of hers I could list as favourites. Mansfield was a firm favourite of my grandmother, who was keen to point out many times that, like me, Mansfield moved from New Zealand to London in her twenties. Now that I’m 34 I hope the comparison ends there. ‘At the Bay’ was the story I initially thought of including, it is the first story in a treasured copy of The Garden Party and Other Stories that my mum gave me, which belonged to her, with her name and the year 1973 written on the title page. I own a handful of short story collections with Katherine Mansfield in them including Persephone’s beautiful The Montana Stories and not one of them has the story I ended up choosing. The thing is, ‘Bliss’ has been rattling around in my brain ever since I read it. Mansfield has captured longing perfectly as well as that first pinprick when one realises a betrayal. It is a sublime story, and like Virginia Woolf, I think Mansfield is the greatest modernist writer.

First published in the English Review, 1918, now in Selected Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2002, and other Mansfield collections, including Strange Bliss, 2021 Pushkin Press. Available to read online here

‘The Man Without Temperament’ by Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield is able to do things with pace that I’ve not experienced with any other writer. The best of her stories simmer along for a few pages and then a final few words will suddenly pull everything into a tight knot. 

As with much of her fiction, on the first page it’s not quite clear where you are or who is present, or there is some kind of presumption that you already know this place, you’ve been living there for years. A man is standing at a door “turning the ring, turning the heavy signet ring upon his little finger”, and then, amongst a placeless assortment of people, another hand enters the scene, “A hand, like a leaf, [falls] on his shoulder.” The dynamics of anxiousness and frailty, captured in a subtle series of gestures and perspectival shifts, carry through right to the cool aggression of the final line, and there we find a husband unable to reconcile memories of romance with caring for his now sick wife. 

First published as ‘The Man Without a Temperament’ in Art and Letters, vol.3, no.2, Spring 1920. Collected in Bliss and Other Stories, Constable, 1920Now widely available, including in the Selected Stories, Oxford World Classics, 2008

‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield

A story for May

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at–nothing–at nothing, simply.

The pure joy captured here in the beginning, and throughout the piece, is spellbinding, especially as later it’s replaced with a darker set of feelings.
 
At the heart of the story is “a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky.”  I love short stories that take an image and hold it up to the light, show it from different angles, and allow it to take on different meanings as the narrative progresses. The tree is initially a symbol of the springtime’s abundance, then of youth, of hidden desires, and finally of loss and the passage of time.

First published in the English Review (1918), now in Selected Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2002, and other Mansfield collections, available online here

‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield

Thirtysomethings…

What can you do if you are thirty…?

Bertha Young, the thirty-year old protagonist of ‘Bliss’, is someone who has settled down to raise a family. Indeed, on the face of it, she appears to have it all: 

“Really – really – she had everything. She was young. Harry and she were as much in love as ever […] She had an adorable baby. They didn’t have to worry about money. They had this absolutely satisfactory house and garden. And friends – modern, thrilling friends, writers and painters and poets or people keen on social questions – just the kind of friends they wanted. And then there were books, and there was music, and she had found a wonderful little dressmaker, and they were going abroad in the summer, and their new cook made the most superb omelettes…” 

And yet, and yet… Bertha Young may well spend the story in a state of sustained bliss (playing with her little daughter, hosting a dinner party for her fashionable friends, teasing her husband, etc.) but there’s an unvoiced adage lurking behind that single word title. And when, in the final passages of the story, Bertha’s reality is made brutally clear to her, that adage takes shape to remind us all that ignorance is bliss, and that bliss is ignorance. 

First published in the English Review 1918. Collected in Bliss and Other Stories, Alfred A. Knopf, 1920 and The Collected Stories, Constable, 1945. Available to read on the Katherine Mansfield Society webpage

‘Miss Brill’ by Katherine Mansfield

Overall, I am not a huge fan of Katherine Mansfield. I recognise the quality of her work but it doesn’t quite speak to me. This is doubtless my failing rather than hers. But this is a story I do remember. The lonely woman in the park. Her investment in the lives of others. Her belief that she is important, appreciated, valued. Then the nasty realisation that she is not. It is a bleak little story and I found it shocking. But it spoke to me when I was young as I myself felt endlessly peripheral, awkward, an outsider. A brilliant and painful read. 

First published in the Athenaeum on 26 November 1920, and later reprinted in The Garden Party and Other Stories, Constable, 1922, which is currently available as a Penguin Modern Classic; also collected in the Selected Stories, Oxford World Classics,  2007. Available to read online here)

‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield

This story begs the question: is ignorance sometimes best?

A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after. The sight of them, so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver.

First published in the English Review, 1918. Reprinted in Bliss and Other Stories, 1920. Widely collected, including in the Selected Stories, OUP, 2008. Available online thanks to the Katherine Mansfield Society

‘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

‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield

For most of high school, I hated short stories. It might have been the kind of stories we were taught—at an all-boys school, a certain kind of masculine New Zealand short story was favoured—but in class we always approached the form as a kind of puzzle, an allegory where, if you worked out the right symbolism, the story would spit out the ‘correct’ answer. Then, in my final year, I had a brilliant teacher who gave us the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Reading ‘The Garden Party’ for the first time, I realised stories could be like poetry—emotionally and syntactically complex—and at the same time, do all the storytelling work of a novel… just in a smaller, denser, more powerful package.

Mansfield remains a touchstone for me, both as an Aotearoa New Zealand writer whose professional life was centred in the UK, and as an example of the way the best stories gesture outwards, refusing a simple, allegorical answer.

First published in Saturday Westminster Gazette, February 1922. Collected in, amongst others, The Collected Stories, Penguin 2007. Read it online here)

‘At the Bay’ by Katherine Mansfield

Another story which has changed since I read it as a young woman. I still admire the deftness with which Mansfield shows us the interior lives of a family group on holiday. But what I recalled is lightness, sunshine, her awareness of the preoccupations of children. Now there appear to be a number of shadowy narrative strands, some trouble in Paradise. If the Bay is Eden, then it is one that is more idyllic once Adam has gone away.(“Oh the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house.”) And in the story’s final scene a serpent – “You are vile, vile” – rears its ugly head.

First published in the London Mercury,1922. Collected in The Garden Party, Constable, 1922 and widely since then

‘The Modern Soul’ by Katherine Mansfield

In addition to hymning The New, the Modernist ‘little magazines’ of the early 20th Century were proselytisers for a wafty and pretentious mishmash of the ancient, the other and the generically ‘spiritual’. In 1911, their rarefied sensibilities were the subject of a story by one of their most enthusiastic contributors, Katherine Mansfield. At one point the titular character “absorbed my outward and visible form with an inward and spiritual glance and then repeated the magnificent gesture for my benefit.” Later, having discussed Heine, Sappho and her own “tragedy” she announced she was going to faint and then “indicated the exact spot and dropped quite beautifully”. The story appeared in an issue of The New Age; shortly after, a head-dressed Mansfield was photographed stretched out on a sofa covered by a Bedouin-style drape, having clearly had a very hard day. Can any story before or since have been so wittily self-aware, so caustically self-deprecating?

First published in The New Age, 1911. Collected in In a German Pension, Stephen Swift, 1911. Read it online here

‘The Young Girl’ by Katherine Mansfield

From Maupassant I hopped via Penguin Classics to Chekhov then Katherine Mansfield. Oh, I could fill this tiny letter with Katherine Mansfield, but I’ve picked ‘The Young Girl’ because I nearly know it by heart. The narrator, who seems to be an older man, has the care of a teenage girl thrust at him by her mother, desperate to go back to the gambling halls in what seems to be Monaco. Nothing bad happens: just a dreamlike narrative with carriages and wonderful ice creams. The girl is very angry, but the story ends on a transformative image:

“Please,” she stammered, in a warm, eager voice. “I like it. I love waiting! Really really I do! I’m always waiting – in all kinds of places.”

Her dark coat fell open, and her white throat – all her soft young body in the blue dress – was like a flower that is just emerging from its dark bud.’

First published in The Athaneum, 1920. Collected in The Garden Party (1922) Available online here

‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield

Rich and strange, heart-breaking and cruelly funny, this is one of my favourite Mansfield stories among many. Mansfield, like Chekhov, can conjure unalloyed joy. Bertha Young’s excitement – albeit about a dinner party – is infectious, yet we see from the start how it renders her vulnerable. She hides it from Harry, her husband – ‘she couldn’t absurdly cry: “Hasn’t it been a divine day!”’ – and instead delights over her beautiful bowl of fruit, and the anticipation of welcoming the enigmatic Pearl Fulton. Bertha ‘fell in love’ with Pearl Fulton the first time she saw her. We wonder later how to take this; is it just a turn of phrase? Central to the story is a beautiful pear tree in Bertha’s garden, in full and perfect blossom, ‘a symbol of her own life.’ The dinner guests – Pearl Fulton excepted – are hilariously dreadful, yet Bertha maintains her unbearable bliss, becoming ‘ardent’ (such a laden word) before inevitably, this being Mansfield, a shadow is cast. Each time I read this story the pleasure only increases, laced as it is with pain. Early on, Bertha ‘seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree’, and so it is for the reader, left wondering at Bertha’s capacity for joy in her stifling, unsympathetic world.

First published in the English Review (1918), now in Selected Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2002, and other Mansfield collections, available online here

‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ by Katherine Mansfield

When I first read this on my MA I couldn’t understand why our tutor (the poet, Michael Hulse) thought it was so good. As with all Katherine Mansfield’s stories, this is about subtle human interplay rather than dramatic events, although, in fact, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ has more plot than many of her others. It took several re-readings to realise this story’s subtle brilliance. Two unmarried sisters contemplate the past, future and immediate present in the aftermath of their domineering father’s death and almost, but don’t quite, admit to themselves and each other how much they have missed out on in life. A quietly tragic story about the stifling grip of convention and timidity but with flashes of humour. I now press this story on my own students and they generally fail to understand its brilliance.

(from The Garden Party, Penguin Modern Classics, 1977, first published 1922 or it can be read here)

‘The Doll’s House’ by Katherine Mansfield

Another story I’ve read countless times and yet cannot seem to get to the bottom of; it changes, or seems to, each time I read it. The characters are lodged in my brain — Kezia, of course, our Else, and, most of all, the remarkable Aunt Beryl, who despite appearing only twice, briefly, at the beginning and end of the story, nonetheless rises to the status of unforgettable. Nor does the story need any rehashing; its all there, clear as a bell — the divisive dolls house, all oily and green; that bloody lamp; the vicious clamouring of girls at school; the endnote with the Kelveys in the field with the patient cows. If I could paint, Id be able to paint it without looking once at the source text. And yet, and yet… what is it, actually? Is it a story of the power of goodness to bring hope for the future, to bring about change? Or is it a story of stasis, of the futility of goodness, a recognition that nothing ever changes, that there is no hope and that we will all always be like those two girls, sitting in fields, staring mutely at cows and musing over symbols that promise much but deliver little?

In The Collected Stories (Penguin, 2007), and available online here