by Ruth Gilligan
Born in 1888 into a socially prominent New Zealand family, Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp began writing at an early age, publishing short stories in her high school magazine from as young as ten. At the age of fifteen, she moved to London and, despite a brief return to her homeland, spent the rest of her short lifetime in Europe, launching a prolific career as a short story writer under the penname Katherine Mansfield.
Early Career and Developing Technique
Before such success emerged, Mansfield experimented with many other short forms such as ‘vignettes’; prose poems characterized by conspicuously symbolic descriptions of flowers and other natural detail. However, the ghost of a plot could yet be found beneath such imagery, as in the closing lines of her 1909 work ‘Spring Wind in London’:
You feel that golden rain
Both of you could not hold, alas,
(Both of you tried, in vain)
A memory, stranger. So I pass…
It will not come again
The allusion to characters and action, evoked in the past tense unlike the descriptions which have gone before, imply an event to which we, the reader, were not privy. Similarly, the look to the future in the final line, despite denying any recurrence of such an event, is undermined by the absence of a final full-stop, leaving us with the sense that the poem may in fact continue though we shall not be permitted to read on. This calls to mind Mansfield’s description of what she tries to achieve in her short story writing: to ‘lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then hide them again’. Thus we are invited to catch a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of a greater continuum.
Eliot and “Bliss”
This overlap in technique between Mansfield’s short stories and her poetry indicates just how fine a line she believed separated the forms. Writing of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (a poem which she elsewhere described as ‘by far and away the most interesting and the best modern poem’), Mansfield declared that it was ‘after all a short story’. There is irony at work in her use of the the poem’s own repeated ‘after all’ given that, despite Prufrock’s many intricate musings and the poem’s invitation to go on a journey (‘Let us go then, you and I’), no event actually occurs – again, only the ghost of a plot haunts the lines.
Eliot, in turn, wrote on Mansfield’s 1918 work ‘Bliss’, terming it ‘brief, poignant, and in the best sense, slight’, whilst also admiring the ‘skill with which the author has handled perfectly the minimum material’. The material centers around Bertha Young who is throwing a dinner party for some friends in her and her husband’s picturesque home. She is overcome throughout the story with a great sense of the titular ‘bliss’, constantly ‘waiting for something…divine to happen…that she knew must happen…infallibly.’ This use of ellipsis implicates the histrionic excitement of the protagonist, yet it is also used throughout the story to toy with the idea of time – just as the quoted lines here discuss inevitability, whilst yet delaying the completion of the very sentence itself.
The ‘something…divine’ for which Bertha waits is described by Eliot as a ‘moment of revelation’, a term which links Mansfield’s stories to those of Joyce, wherein the ‘epiphany’ played such a prominent role. And yet, it is not entirely explicit to which ‘moment’ Eliot is referring. For there are two apparent climaxes in the story; the first in Bertha and her guest Pearl Fulton’s shared viewing of the pear tree, in which the protagonist is overcome by her sexual feelings for the other woman. Then there is the swift undermining of this when Bertha stumbles upon another intimate moment, only this time, between her husband and Pearl, revealing that they are engaged in an affair.
This latter ‘moment’ is introduced by a Mansfieldean ellipsis: ‘And then she saw…’, while the following eight lines describe the interaction. This is then contrasted by Pearl’s friend Eddie discussing a new modernist poem entitled ‘Why Must it Always be Tomato Soup?’, bemoaning that ‘Tomato soup is so dreadfully eternal.’ Whilst at once satirizing the bohemian culture Eddie here represents, the reference to eternality provides the great continuum against which this single ‘moment’ can be set. Similarly, the story ends with Bertha lamenting: ‘Oh what is going to happen now?’ followed by the image of the pear tree, which is ‘as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.’ The double implications of the final world allude back to the different scales of time which are here at work, evoking another permanence which will continue to exist once this moment, and indeed, this short story, has passed.
Published in 1903 and employed greatly by Eliot were Henri Bergson’s theories of time as outlined in his work The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Here he contrasts external or social time with internal time or the personal ‘durée’ – one’s own individual experience of each passing moment. Eliot explores this in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by interspersing the very personal stream of consciousness, so concerned with time and the delaying thereof, with benchmarks of social time such as ‘the taking of a toast and tea.’ Even in the single line: ‘In a minute there is time’, he captures the ambiguities between the ‘external’, mathematical instance of a sixty second period, and the delaying throwaway ‘in a minute’; the putting off of an event which becomes the entire event of the poem (or short story?) itself.
To return to Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’ and the former ‘moment of revelation’ to which Eliot could be referring – Bertha and Pearl, staring out at the pear tree – the narrator asks: ‘How long did they stand there?’, then spends the rest of the paragraph describing the image of the pair. The following paragraph then begins: ‘For ever – for a moment?’, continuing on the previous question, as if having forgotten about it; having been too caught up in the moment itself. And we, the reader, were caught up in it too, reading those words at our own pace whilst trying to gauge both the women’s, and the narrator’s too. For the necessary shortness of the form introduces another timing to consider; that of the act of reading, its brevity at once encouraging swiftness and yet a closer attention to detail which demands the opposite. For example, earlier in the story we see Bertha laughing, and then the paragraph ends, leaving a whitespace so rarely found in Mansfield’s work, and then followed by the words: ‘It was over at last.’ We cannot know how long the ‘at last’ lasted; how long we were supposed to spend in the blankness, our own personal durée necessarily disconnected from that of Bertha.
But the theme of disconnect also permeates the material itself. She tells her infant daughter: ‘I’m fond of you. I like you.’, though the narrator tells us, through the free indirect discourse of Bertha herself, ‘she loved Little B so much’. This ambiguity of the emotional is expounded further with regard to Bertha’s relationship with her husband, in which a sexual connection is conspicuously absent, but apparently: ‘That was the best of being modern.’ Here Mansfield is again satirizing the ‘modernist’ or ‘bohemian’ lifestyle as evinced in Eddie’s Tomato Soup, or the other male guest, Norman Knight, with his monkey-print coat and monkey-like wife.
Furthermore, Mansfield’s references to a lack of connection or emotional attachment can also be applied to the form in which we find them. For the individualized world of this short story will not be seen again – the mist will be pulled over – and Mansfield will go on to write of a new moment involving a brand new cast. For this reason, the short story form is seen as highly appropriate for the ‘modern’ world, as Frank Norris wrote: ‘We are growing and living, as it were, in spots, here a little, there a little, scattered bits of life and movement, quite independent of each other – short stories that are happening every day.’  Again the Bergsonian continuum: ‘every day’, and the individualized, are juxtaposed, while the repeated use of the term ‘spot’ calls to mind Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’ wherein present self and past self are at once united; another blurring of time.
“The Garden Party”
By no means is this toying with time or modernist disconnect unique to Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’, as we look now to her 1922 story ‘The Garden Party’. Here, the mist is pulled back swiftly at the start, at once promising that all build-up to the ‘moment’ to come has been erased, whilst also harking back to Prufrock’s passing time: ‘And after all the weather was ideal.’ [my italics] The line’s perfect iambic pentameter enforces this poetic reference, and yet, as in Eliot’s work, the ‘event’ is difficult to locate. For despite the opening ‘and’s promise of plunging us therein, the story consists mainly of the build up and aftermath of the titular garden party. The party itself lasts for fourteen lines in total – seven of description, seven of dialogue – until this single-sentence paragraph occurs: ‘And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.’ The location of the ‘and’ at the start of the sentence rather than before the final clause in the series again jars our awareness of time passing, while the fact that the petals ‘close’ rather than fall away, implies that this bloom may flower again. However, we will not be there to see it – the mist will undoubtedly prevent that.
The rest of the story is concerned with the protagonist, Laura, going to deliver some leftovers to a recently bereaved peasant family in the neighborhood, in respect for whom she had originally wanted to postpone the party. She pays her visit, and is even brought in to see the corpse, before returning for a final interchange with her brother Laurie. But here she is unable to convey her thoughts, struggling for the adjective to complete her exclamation: ‘Isn’t life-‘, despite trying twice. The narrator eases her struggle: ‘No matter. He quite understood. / ‘Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie.’ But the ‘matter’ – the elusive word – is never imparted unto us, so the story ends with our exclusion from this mutual understanding, and even a doubt as to whether the siblings are even thinking the same thing. This again evinces Mansfield’s sense of disconnect, seen here both within the wealthy family, and on a broader scale between the two vastly separate classes of the same community.
Virginia Woolf and Mansfield
The overlap of party and external death in the protagonist’s experience has led this story to be compared to Virginia Woolf’s novel of three years later, Mrs Dalloway. However, the links between the two women are far more numerous than this, to the extent that Woolf wrote:
I feel a common certain understanding between us – a queer sense of being ‘like’ – not only about literature – & I think it’s independent of gratified vanity. I can talk straight to her.
Their friendship has been described as ‘intimate but guarded, mutually inspiring but competitive’, and indeed Woolf admitted that Mansfield was the only writer of whom she had ever been jealous. However, despite such praise, or perhaps precisely because of it, Woolf was still very vocal in her critiques of some of Mansfield’s stories, such as the following remarks on ‘Bliss’: ‘She’s done for! Indeed I don’t see how much faith in her as a woman or writer can survive that sort of story.’ The emphasis here on Mansfield’s sex offers an insight into the real reason Woolf wished to distance herself from this work; its explicit dealings with sexuality. For Mansfield was known for having had more than one homosexual relationship and this, together with her foreign background and membership of an inferior class, seemed to cause the undeniably snobbish Woolf great discomfort.
Of these social contrasts between the women, Mansfield wrote:
How I envy Virginia; no wonder she can write. There is always in her writing a calm freedom of expression as though she were at peace – her roof over her – her own possessions round her – and her man somewhere within call. Boge what have I done that I should have all the handicaps – plus a disease.
But had she achieved the security of Woolf’s situation, Mansfield would not have been the writer she was, as her position as an outsider brought about an overall sense of disconnect within her own life, which she was then able to convey in her stories. Furthermore we, the reader, are placed in a similar position to Mansfield herself; always on the edge, watching on, but never being fully implicated in the tale’s happenings. For as Eliot writes of ‘Bliss’: ‘the moral and social ramifications are outside the terms of reference’ – before we can draw conclusions or indeed, be offered any by the narrator herself, the mist intercedes; the connection is lost.
So we must learn to draw pleasure from Mansfield’s stories for what they are – a series of impressions which, though they may centre around apparent ‘moments of revelation’, never ‘reveal’ any ultimate truths. Instead, they offer us repeated sensations of modern detachment, teaching us that perhaps, ignorance is indeed bliss, and that ‘after all’ we may find ourselves having learned nothing at all.
- ↑ Katherine Mansfield, Poems (California, 1923), p.4
- ↑ Letter to Dorothy Brett, October 11 1917, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (Oxford, 2008), p.331
- ↑ Letter to Violet Schiff, Letters, p.256
- ↑ Letters, p.313
- ↑ T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems (Courier Dover Publication, 1998), p.1
- ↑ T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (London, 1934), p.35;36
- ↑ Katherine Mansfield, Stories (New York, 1991), p.144
- ↑ After Strange Gods, p.36
- ↑ Stories, p.155
- ↑ Stories, p.156
- ↑ The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems, p.2
- ↑ ibid. p.2
- ↑ Stories, p.153
- ↑ Stories, p.152
- ↑ Stories, p.145
- ↑ Stories, p.154
- ↑ The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896-1898, Vol 1 (New York, 1996), p.273
- ↑ Stories, p.282
- ↑ Stories, p.293
- ↑ Stories, p.297
- ↑ Angela Smith, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two (Oxford, 1999), p.26
- ↑ The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol 2 (California, 1980), p.45
- ↑ Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London, 1996), p.386
- ↑ Ibid. p.227
- ↑ Ibid, Vol 1, p.179
- ↑ Letters, Vol 3, pp.127-28
- ↑ After Strange Gods, p.36