Summer is the time to read short stories. You read a story, you weed flowers; you read a story, you mow the lawn.
Long ago I admired but was vaguely mystified by Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories. But these days I appreciate short stories more, and I am completely enthralled by The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Wordsworth Classics).
I just finished The Garden Party and Other Stories, published in 1922. (It is included in The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield.)
Mansfield (1888-1923) grew up in a large extended family in New Zealand. Eventually she moved to London, where she wrote, married the editor John Middleton Murry, and socialized with D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group. (Lawrence portrayed her as Gudrun in Women in Love.) She traveled widely in Europe, and died tragically of tuberculosis in 1923 in France.
Her semi-autobiographical story “At the Bay” is a small masterpiece. She humorously portrays the Darnell family as they go about their business on a summer day. The story is a kind of sequel to “Prelude,” which appeared in Bliss and Other Stories.
The women in “At the Bay”—and it is a house full of women—are relieved when Stanley Darnell goes to work. Absurdly furious that a neighbor has beaten him to the beach for his morning swim, he is curt with his wife Linda about a missing walking stick. And though his mother-in-law, Mrs.Fairfield, who takes care of the children, and her daughter Beryl try to be patient, his anger is a cloud over the family. They are happy when he goes to work.
Oh, the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house. Their very voices were changed as they called to one another; they sounded warm and loving and as if they shared a secret. Beryl went over to the table. “Have another cup of tea, mother. It’s still hot.” She wanted, somehow, to celebrate the fact that they could do what they liked now.
And then the lives of the women and children begin. After a messy breakfast (rivers are dug in porridge), Isobel, Kezia, and Lottie climb the stile and wander to the beach, where they marvel at a glittering green treasure their friend Pip has found: he tells them it is “a nemeral.” Extending the jewelry theme further, Mansfield describes Beryl’s dropping her two rings and a thin gold chain in her disapproving mother’s lap before she hastens to bathe with the “fast” Mrs. Harry Kember. At home, the lazy Linda luxuriates in the yard with the baby, happy to be free of the demands of children, whom she cannot love, and telling the baby she doesn’t love him either–and then suddenly she does. And at night Beryl goes out into the garden, fantasizing about a man’s falling in love with her, but asserts her feminine loyalty and power by refusing the advances of her friend’s husband, Mr. Harry Kember.
Perhaps my favorite story is “The Garden-Party,” in which Laura, a young woman, supervises the setting up of the marquee for her mother’s garden party, while her sister Meg dries her hair and her mother pretends not to be interested in the party. But when Laura learns that a working-class neighbor, a carter, has died in an accident at the bottom of the hill, she cries and wonders if they should cancel their garden party. And she cannot understand her mother’s assertion that her reaction is hyperbolic until later.
In “Life of Ma Parker,” a cleaning woman mourns the death of her young grandson, Lennie. In “Marriage a la Mode,” William is troubled about his wife’s new bohemian friends and her new stylish theories about raising their children without bourgeois toys. In “Mr. and Mrs. Dove,” a young man courts a woman who loves to laugh but at first earnestly says they are too alike to be romantic. In “Miss Brill,” a spinster loves her role as part of the audience at a Sunday concert until a young couple mocks her. And of course there is the brilliant story, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” in which two spinster sisters realize that they are finally free of their domineering father.
It is one brilliant story after another.