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
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
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
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)
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; it’s all there, clear as a bell — the divisive doll’s 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, I’d 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
I first read Katherine Mansfield as a child. I still have my dad’s copy of In a German Pension sitting on my desk, but my favourite, rather unwieldy story has become ‘At the Bay’, It forms a kind of trilogy with ‘Prelude’ and ‘The Doll’s House’. Time moves strangely here, expanding wherever Mansfield chooses to breathe into it. There’s a sense of a world enchanted, filled with creatures of portent and potential. Visually the whole thing is preoccupied with what we can’t see and what hasn’t yet appeared and the narrator is at no pains to explain — the unknowing is part of the magic. I also love this story for its children. Little Lottie’s inability to pronounce the word ‘emerald’ became the title for my story ‘Nemeral’.
First published in the London Mercury, 1922. Widely collected and anthologised. Read Online