‘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