‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield

It is impossible for me to think about Mrs. Dalloway without also thinking of ‘The Garden Party’ which should be recommendation enough. Mansfield’s story, like Woolf’s novel, is about death in the middle of a party, but instead of Clarissa and her middle-aged memories and longings we have Mansfield’s child protagonist Laura hovering between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, innocence and knowledge, life and death, wealth and poverty, witness, and denial. Written in prose like dappled sunlight and deep shadow.

First published in 1922 as a three-part serial in the Westminster Gazette and later collected in The Garden Party and Other Stories, Alfred A Knopf, Inc and widely anthologized and available, including at Project Gutenberg

‘A Dill Pickle’ by Katherine Mansfield

This is a deliciously stop-start story that veers wildly between passion and indifference. I can smell the zest of the orange peel, clearly see the waft of the Russian cigarette smoke, and taste the titular dill pickle. Like a lot of my favourite short stories, it’s a portrait of disconnection, misconnection, and the potential for something more (whether really desirable or not) cut off or cut short. I applaud it for its an exquisitely enticing opening line: “And then, after six years, she saw him again.”

First published in The New Age on 4 October 1917; collected in Bliss & Other Stories, Wordsworth Classics, 1998, and available to read online here

‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield

When my undergraduate creative writing professor assigned Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’, I was resistant to reading what seemed, on first impressions, to be a story about a frivolous, wealthy English woman preparing for a party. But this story taught me that first impressions are deceptive. Here, a single overheard conversation changes everything—a brief, fleeting moment, but significant enough to undo a life—and by the end of the story, we understand that the source of Bertha’s “bliss” up until now has been her ignorance. After that innocence is lost, it’s impossible to read the story the way you did the first time. On a second read, Bertha’s expressions of almost child-like delight are undercut by irony, and dread for what you know she will discover before the evening is over. It’s often said that the ending of a short story should feel “surprising yet inevitable”, and ‘Bliss’ provides a classic example of this at work.

First published in English Review, vol. 27, in 1918. Widely collected, including in Strange Bliss: Essential Stories, Pushkin Press, 2021. Available to read online via the the Katherine Mansfield society

‘The Doll’s House’ by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield is the superlative modern writer of childhood. Her child characters are not saccharine or tragic, overtly sentimental or unscrupulous. Instead, they are curious, in both senses of the word. This story dramatises relationships between children that are cruelly defined by social class. The well-off Burnells aren’t allowed to speak to the Kelveys, the fatherless daughters of a washerwoman. But the arrival of a doll’s house that is “too marvellous” allows a moment of connection. The house is the talk of the school playground; “four windows, real windows, were divided into panes by a broad streak of green. There was actually a tiny porch, too, painted yellow”. But the object that Kezia (the heroine of many Mansfield stories) adores, “the little lamp”, prompts her to break the rules to show the house to the Kelveys. What I love about the story is the use of the little or the tiny – the replica lamp that looks like it could be lit – to convey not cuteness but the complexity of aesthetic pleasure. The lamp becomes an emblem of the sudden, devastating insight that anyone can have no matter their social standing.

First published in The Nation or Athenaeum, 1922, collected in The Doves Nest and Other Stories and available online here

‘The Doll’s House’ by Katherine Mansfield

At the risk of giving away too much information, a small 1950s edition of A Dove’s Nest my wife picked up in Hay-on-Wye an age ago is on the windowsill of the downstairs loo along with some other essentials like a Claire Keegan book and The Penguin Book of Exorcisms. Mansfield has lingered with me for a few years, but only recently, partly because her story reflects something of Dorothy Edwards (and of course, Woolf, with whom Mansfield had a complex respectful rivalry). I am consistently astounded at how modern Mansfield’s voice remains – she was the consummate modernist, I guess. She is forthright, fearless, and exceedingly good company. I love that Virginia Woolf just couldn’t keep away from her. I don’t think Woolf particularly liked her, but she was compelled to be in her presence, to discuss writing with her, to explore that mind of hers. Mansfield was a New Zealander, and I think it’s important to remember something I heard Eleanor Catton once say about the psychology of the New Zealand writer, that people just don’t realise how isolated a place it is, and how far away from their closest neighbours they are. That has an effect in many ways, but particularly on how a writer views the world. Mansfield was, as the experts would have it, an adventuress, and her life story is even more brilliant in its colours of passion and intensity than the fiction she dedicated herself to. As her death encroached (she probably caught her tuberculosis from DH Lawrence) she wrote incessantly, and ‘The Doll’s House’ comes from this period. It is a great example of that voice I am so enraptured by. It is lively, funny, it cuts you dead with its swagger. I just love being around it.

First published in The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories, Middleton Murry, 1923, and widely collected. Available to read on the Katherine Mansfield Society website, here

‘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


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