I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Katherine Mansfield, this group of 15 short stories written between 1920 and 1922 were so enjoyable; easy to read and insightful. Some of the stories were just a few pages, others ran to chapters but I think what linked them was their thoughts on age.. How the young view the old and how the old view the young but also how at any time we might find ourselves out of step with our age, unsure what’s expected of us or how we’re supposed to behave.
Katherine Mansfield’s view of old age is really quite scary and sad! In Miss Brill, the elderly lady puts on her fur coat and goes to listen to the band play in the park. All is well as she watches and muses on the people around her noticing how odd the old people look ‘as if they’d just come from dark little rooms or even – even cupboards! But then she hears a young couple describing her – is it possible that she is one of the elderly, looking so strange? Seeing herself from a different perspective, the callousness of the couple is so cruel, the effect on Miss Brill is heartbreakingly sad and the loneliness of old age is very real as she hurries back to the familiarity of her room.
At the other end of the age spectrum are the descriptions of children. The nervous excitement of the children playing in At The Bay is palpable as they holiday at Crescent Bay. Snippets of conversation are overheard and we’re let in to the families’ foibles, a beautifully drawn relationship between little Kazia and her grandmother and the languorous days of summer. But the story finishes with the children’s young aunt, Beryl and a decision. Beryl is as gauche as any young person and is entranced by Mrs. Hammond, a sophisticated older women holidaying near by with her younger husband. Their interest stirs new feelings of excitement and beauty in her and its these tentative steps into an adult world that I think are explored so effectively.
The Garden Party, is told from Laura’s point of view, I think she’s about the same age as Beryl. The men arrive to put up the marquee for the Sheridan’s annual summer party as the family are having breakfast. Laura, being designated ‘the artistic one’ is sent by her mother to oversee their work. She runs down to the tennis court in a scene that is so wrapped in sunshine and wellbeing that even the piece of bread and butter she’s holding seems filled with wholesome, youthful vitality! But then she hears that a man from a nearby cottage has died and she’s filled with a sense of unfairness. How can they continue with a party on this beautiful day when there is so much grief close by? A look at her reflection in the mirror though, in her new dress and hat and her thoughts quickly turn back to the party.
But the death leaves its mark on Laura and an awareness of life outside her small circle is compounded by her visit to the bereaved family. The lane of cottages has always been out of bounds to the Sheridan children, forbidden to walk there ‘because of the revolting language and of what they might catch.’ Taking a basket of dainty food left over from the party into the gloomy cottage, the sense of injustice, the difference between the haves and the have-nots is staggering.
These are such new emotions for Laura that she can’t articulate her thoughts or even really know what they are but there is a definite air of fresh thinking, of someone who might dare one day, to step outside the constraints of their upbringing.
The Young Girl is also a story about a girl on the brink of womanhood but is quite different. The young girl in question is completely caught up in her own beauty, bored and arrogant she treats everyone, including the narrator who is taking her out for tea with a sneering contempt that is often funny
‘While we waited she took out a little, gold powder-box with a mirror in the lid, shook the poor little puff as though she loathed it, and dabbed her lovely nose.’
She really is unlikeable and yet, instead of laughing at her Katherine Mansfield never lets us forget how young she is and really just confused by her new role in the world. It finishes with her waiting for her mother ‘like a flower that is just emerging from its dark bud.’
In these three stories, young women all face a crisis and must choose between maturity and the safe world of their home, but this collection reflects that crisis can happen at any age. In The Daughters of the Late Colonel, it slowly dawns on two middle aged sisters that they’re now free to live different lives if they’re brave enough. In Marriage à la Mode, a happy young mother is playing with her children at the beach when by chance she meets an old flame, the day is full of fun and memories but what Katherine Mansfield does so well is describe that subtle change in atmosphere when her husband arrives home from work. How does she feel about him now?
This nuance of human behaviour is set against descriptions of the sea and flowers and gardens: dazzling white picotees shining, glittering golden-eyed marigolds, manuka trees and verandas wound with nasturtiums. I loved the way the sea in At the Bay was another character. the sleepy sea, flopping lazily, it sounds deep and troubled and eventually is ‘a vague murmer as though it waked out of a dark dream’.
‘The tide was out; the beach was deserted; lazily flopped the warm sea. The sun beat down, beat down hot and fiery on the fine sand, baking the grey and blue and black and white-veined pebbles. It sucked up the little drop of water that lay in the hollow of the curved shells; it bleached the pink convolvulus that threaded through and through the sand-hills. Nothing seemed to move but the small sand-hoppers. Pit-pit-pit! They were never still.’
This is just a mention of a few of the stories in this collection but each one was a real discovery and (although it’s now October) was perfect as one of my 10 Books of Summer!