Saturday, November 14, 2009

33. “The Garden Party and Other Stories” by Katherine Mansfield

Year of first publication: 1922
Genre: collection of short stories
Country: New Zealand

You can read all the short stories in the collection on the web, at this link.

In italiano si può trovare: Tutti i racconti di Katherine Mansfield, edito da Mondadori (2006), € 18 oppure Tutti i racconti edito dalla Newton Compton (2008), € 7.

What it’s all about: This is a collection of fifteen short stories, most of which deal with everyday tasks or uneventful things. The beauty of the stories lies in the description of the inner life of the characters, from the delicate Laura of “The Garden Party” who is shocked by the death of a man down the street to Linda of “At the Bay”, who is bored with domestic life in provincial New Zealand but probably disapproves of different lifestyles, such as that of Mrs Harry Kember, who’s considered a scandal in town for her peculiar behaviour with both men and women.

Some thoughts: In the front cover of this book (a Penguin edition) there is a painting by Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf and a member of the Bloomsbury group. Virginia Woolf was in fact a friend of the author and one of the first people to recognize her talent. She published some of her work and extolled "the only writing I have ever been jealous of”. Another connection might be that Vanessa Bell led, to some extent, a bohemian life (she had an open marriage ante litteram), which is something Mansfield experienced as well. Woolf and Mansfield are considered two of the best women writers of their time, the former for her wonderful novels and the latter for her beautifully-written short stories.
As it usually happens, in this collection there are bad stories and good stories. I had already read four of these stories for a course on New Zealand literature and rereading them was like meeting with old friends. Some of the other stories were almost inconsistent, easy to read but also easy to forget. I’ll write about the two I liked the most.
In the first one, “At the Bay”, we are introduced to New Zealand as if reaching the shore on a ship: bungalows, paddocks, bush-covered hills, silvery, fluffy toi-toi and, of course, a flock of sheep are in sight. There are no doubts: we are in “the land of the long white cloud”. The sky is ‘bright, pure blue’ and the sea is ‘leaping, glittering, […] so bright it made one’s eyes ache to look at it’. The contrast with an English landscape is evident and appalling. The story is mostly about gender relationships: Stanley is the man of the house and gives for granted that women should serve him and look that his walking-stick is not lost, but then worries all day because he didn’t say goodbye to his wife before leaving home in the morning. His wife Linda, instead, is looking for something more than just domestic life. She becomes infatuated with Jonathan, who’s fond of music and books. Mansfield’s feelings about life in New Zealand are summarized in his words: ‘And all the while I’m thinking, like that moth, or that butterfly, or whatever it is, “The shortness of life! The shortness of life!” I’ve only one night and or one day, and there’s this vast dangerous garden, waiting out there, undiscovered, unexplored’. They’re both probably bored with the provinciality of life in New Zealand. Then there’s Beryl, the unmarried aunt, who goes swimming with a Mrs Harry Kember, whose behaviour borders on homosexuality (she pays a compliment to Beryl for her beauty, she behaves as if she were a man, she smokes, plays bridge and, most important of them all, she has an open relationship with her much-younger husband). The part with the children playing a game of cards until dusk reminds me of some short stories by Janet Frame, another New Zealander who liked to write about her childhood memories. Another thing that Mansfield has in common with Janet Frame is the funny distortion of the English language that they both put in the mouth of their characters: ‘a jug of what the lady-help called “Limmonadear”’ or ‘a bee’s not an animal, it’s a hinseck’ (uttered by one of the children) are just some examples of it.
The second story, “The Garden Party” is maybe her best one. The main character is Laura Sheridan who, like Clarissa Dalloway, is preparing for a party. Even the opening line, ‘And after all the weather was ideal’, reminds me of Woolf’s book, which begins with ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’. It’s the same way of throwing us immediately into a world that already existed before the beginning of the story: no Dickens-style introductions and no three-page long descriptions of the characters. The main concern of “The Garden Party” is the social-class divide: Laura and her family learn that a man has died down the street, just before their garden party is to be started. He belongs to another class and lives in an unhealthy, smelly ‘poky, little hole’, where Laura and her sisters are forbidden to go. Unlike her mother, Laura claims that she doesn’t care for class distinctions (it sounds like Miss Quested from A Passage to India when she says she wants to see ‘The real India'). She would like to cancel the party but her family doesn’t agree, so she finally decides to visit the family of the deceased and bring them a basket of spare sandwiches. It’s only when Laura is in the house with the mourning women that she realizes that it was not really a good idea and that class distinctions exist in spite of her. New Zealand’s society, as portrayed by Mansfield in these stories, is not dissimilar from English society: the upper middle-class enjoys drinking tea and having garden parties with marquees, but they’re completely disconnected to common workmen.
Some of Mansfield's longer stories (“At the Bay”, for instance) read like section of novels, because the characters outgrow the short-story format and could easily fit in a novel. I’m not sure whether this is good or bad, but I enjoyed “At the Bay” all the same. Another reason why some people dislike Mansfield’s fiction is that sometimes the stories have abrupt endings and no resolution (in “The Voyage” for instance, where a young girl and her grandmother experience a night on a boat): nothing of importance occurs and all the story is about small incidents.
“The Garden Party” is more self-contained and yet so much detail is crammed into one single short story - sibling rivalries, the class divide, the opposition between the inner life of Laura and her outer, more respectable self (also reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway’s introspection), the reality of death happening on your doorstep (which is something recurrent in Mansfield’s stories, it’s also the main theme of “The Stranger”, another piece of good work) - to me it's the flawless short story.

About the author: Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is considered one of the most accomplished short story writers of her time. She was born in Wellington, New Zealand, into a prominent colonial family. She went to England to finish her education and, after having journeyed across continental Europe for a few years, she went back to New Zealand. However, she found her native country terribly provincial and headed again for London. In London she led a bohemian life, had lesbian love affairs, got pregnant out of wedlock and married a man whom she left the same evening and finally had a miscarriage. Her first book, In a German Pension, was published in 1911. In 1912 she began to write for Rhythm, edited by John Middleton Murry, whom she later married. She broadened her literary acquaintances, encountering modernist writers such as D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf with whom she became close friends. With the publication of Prelude in 1916 (which was requested by Virginia and Leonard Woolf to be published for their Hogarth Press) she showed herself to be master of her own style. She contracted tuberculosis in 1917 and from that time led a wandering life in search of health, even though she kept writing short stories almost until her death in 1923. Before dying she published Bliss (1921) and The Garden Party (1922). Most of her work was still unpublished at the time of her death, so her husband took on the task of publishing her works.

By the way
, I wrote a post on New Zealand literature (in Italian) just a few days ago.
For a series of articles on the best short story writers of world literature (including Franz Kafza, Julio Cortazar and, of course, Katherine Mansfield)
follow this link.
The piece on K.M. also reflects on the fact that she wrote
wonderful short stories as well as lousy ones.


  1. thanks for this. is there any reason why you don't review your books just after reading?

  2. No, there's no reason. It's simply because I have accumulated many reviews to write and I'm not a very quick writer.

  3. Nice review. I remember I saw this book many times in the library I went but for some reason did not get it. This time I will. :)

  4. @Raj: Yes, do read some of Mansfield's stories, please!