Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield’s Modernist Aesthetic

by Annie Pfeifer

A Colonial Childhood
Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield’s experiences growing up in colonial New Zealand heightened her awareness of the discontinuities, lacunae, and tensions of modern life. She was born in 1888 in Wellington, a town labeled “the empire city” by its white inhabitants, who modeled themselves on British life and relished their city’s bourgeois respectability.[1]  At an early age, Mansfield witnessed the disjuncture between the colonial and the native, or Maori, ways of life, prompting her to criticize the treatment of the Maoris in several diary entries and short stories.[2] Mansfield’s biographer, Angela Smith, writes: “It was her childhood experience of living in a society where one way of life was imposed on another, and did not quite fit in” that sharpened her modernist impulse to focus on moments of “disruption” or encounters with “strange or disturbing” aspects of life.[3]

Her feelings of disjuncture were accentuated when she arrived in Britain in 1903 to attend Queen’s College. In many respects, Mansfield remained a lifelong outsider, a traveler between two seemingly similar yet profoundly different worlds. After briefly returning to New Zealand in 1906, she moved back to Europe in 1908, living and writing in England and parts of continental Europe. Until her premature death from tuberculosis at the age of 34, Mansfield remained in Europe, leading a Bohemian, unconventional way of life.

The Domestic Picturesque

Mansfield’s short story “Prelude” is set in New Zealand and dramatizes the disjunctures of colonial life through an account of the Burnell family’s move from Wellington to a country village. The story takes its title from Wordsworth’s seminal poem, “The Prelude,” the first version of which was completed in 1805, which casts the poet as a traveler and chronicles the “growth of a poet’s mind.”[4] Although the Burnell family moves a mere “six miles” from town, the move is not inconsequential; it enacts a break with their previous way of life and alerts the family members to the various discontinuities in their lives. Beneath the veneer of the Burnells’ harmonious domestic life are faint undercurrents of aggression and unhappiness. The haunting specter of a mysterious aloe plant and a slaughtered duck in their well-manicured yard suggests that the family’s “awfully nice” new home conceals moments of brutality and ignorance toward another way of life that was suppressed and denied.[5] As I will propose, these two incidents echo the aesthetic concept of the sublime, as they encapsulate a mysterious power that awes its beholders and cannot be fully contained within their picturesque home.

Through her subtle, dream-like prose, Mansfield deploys traditional aesthetic conventions like the picturesque while simultaneously transfiguring, subverting, and reinventing them in a modernist context. The concept of the picturesque was first defined by its originator, William Gilpin, an 18th century artist and clergyman, as “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.”[6] Thus, a scene or representation is beautiful when it echoes an already-established, artistic conception of beauty, revealing the self-reinforcing way in which art creates the standard of beauty for both art and life. Mansfield presents these picturesque moments in order to demystify them and reveal the suppression and violence they contain. In addition to “Prelude,” her stories “Garden Party” and “Bliss” dramatize the transformation and inversion of picturesque moments of bourgeois life and domestic harmony. While she seems to exhibit a certain attachment to these standard aesthetic forms, Mansfield subtly interrogates many of these conventions in a strikingly modernist way.

Through her childhood in a colony, Mansfield also became attuned to the violence and inequalities of colonialism. As Angela Smith suggests, her early writings demonstrate a keen sensitivity towards a repressed history of brutality and duplicity.[7] In her 1912 short story “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped,” she questions and overturns the perspective of the colonialist, whose vantage point historically trumps that of the native. The deliberate ambivalence of the word “kidnapping” dramatizes the conflict between the colonist’s perspective and Pearl’s joyful, eye-opening experiences during her abduction. In a similar way, empire dramatized for Mansfield the way that a picturesque, bourgeois household could suppress alternative perspectives.

The Sublime

In “Prelude,” the mysterious, sublime aloe plant disrupts the pleasant domesticity of the Burnell household. Their well-manicured yard with its tennis lawn, garden, and orchard also contains a wild, unseemly side—“this was the frightening side, and no garden at all.”[8] This “side” contains the aloe plant, which exerts a mysterious, enthralling power over its awed beholders. In its resemblance to the ocean, the aloe assumes the characteristics of the sublime: “the high grassy bank on which the aloe rested rose up like a wave, and the aloe seemed to ride upon it like a shop with the oars lifted. Bright moonlight hung upon the lifted oars like water, and on the green wave glittered the dew.”[9] For many writers and poets, the ocean was a manifestation of the sublime because of its unfathomable power and scale that awed and humbled its observers.

The aloe’s strikingly physiological effect on its viewers recalls Edmund Burke’s sublime, which overpowers its observer and reinforces the limitations of human reason and control. In his famous treatise on the sublime, Burke writes: “greatness of dimension, vastness of extent or quantity” is a powerful cause of the sublime, as it embodies the violent and overpowering forces of nature.[10] In a similar vein, the child, Kezia Burnell’s first impression upon seeing the “fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem” is one of awe and wonder.[11] In this case, the sublimity of the aloe plant disrupts and challenges the domestic picturesque as it defies mastery, categorization, and traditional notions of beauty. In its resistance to categorization and control, the sublime embodies the part of the ungovernable landscape that the Burnell family cannot domesticate and the picturesque cannot frame. As a result, in “Prelude,” the magnitude of the sublime interrupts and fractures the tranquil surface of the picturesque by exposing the unfathomable depths beneath it.

The colonial backdrop of the Burnells’ yard also contributes to the mysterious, occult power of the aloe. This unruly part of their property hints toward a landscape that eludes domestication and serves as a constant reminder that the Burnell family is living in a land that is not quite theirs and cannot be fully tamed.[12] At the age of 19, Mansfield wrote that the New Zealand bush outside of the cities is “all so gigantic and tragic—and even in the bright sunlight it is so passionately secret.”[13] For Mansfield, the bush embodies the history of a people whose lives have been interrupted and displaced by European settlers.[14] After wars, brutal colonial practices, and European diseases had devastated the local Maori population, the bush became a haunting monument to their presence. As the Burnell family settles down to sleep on the first night in their new home, “far away in the bush there sounded a harsh rapid chatter: “Ha-ha-ha… Ha-ha-ha.”[15] In her subtle way, Mansfield unveils the voices of those whose perspectives are excluded from this portrait of nocturnal domestic harmony.

In a similar way, the aloe plant exudes an unfathomable history that is beyond the time and place of the Burnells. Even its age—implied by the fact that it flowers “once every hundred years”—suggests that the aloe exists on a different scale than its human beholders.[16] In its ancient, superhuman scale, the aloe gestures towards the “gigantic,” indicating a subtle, but implicitly threatening power within, or in proximity of the home. The aloe is a kind of lacuna in the imperial landscape of New Zealand, whose power threatens the colonial household and its control over the landscape.[17]

By disrupting and encroaching upon the ostensibly safe domestic sphere, the aloe also echoes the “unheimlich,” or uncanny, an aesthetic concept explored by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny.” The uncanny becomes, in part, an invasive force violating the sacred, domestic sphere and hearkens back to a previously repressed or hidden impulse: “The uncanny is something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.”[18] In “Prelude,” the aloe is initially depicted as a threatening force that “might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something.”[19] Positioned within the safe space of their property, the aloe is a menacing, ungovernable force that seems to encroach upon it. The plant becomes part of the repressed history of the landscape—a history that is only apparent to Kezia, her mother Linda Burnell, and her grandmother Mrs. Fairfield, who are attuned to the forces below the surface of the picturesque exterior.

Violent Underpinnings

Beneath many of Mansfield’s picturesque domestic scenes are moments of violence and rupture. In “Garden Party,” for instance, a poor man falls to his death during the preparations for a much-anticipated social gathering of the wealthy Sheridan family, undermining the convivial spirit of the occasion. In “Prelude,” Pat, the handyman, slaughters a duck while the children watch with grotesque enthrallment as it waddles for a few steps after being decapitated. “The crowning wonder” of the dead duck walking hearkens back to Burke’s sublime, which is experienced in “Prelude” within the confines of the private residence.[20] The sublimity of this apparent defiance of the properties of death acts as a dramatic external force imposing on the observers’ intellect and reason in a profoundly Burkian way.

But later that night, when the duck is placed in front of the patriarch, Stanley Burnell, “it did not look as if it had ever had a head.”[21] The duck’s picturesque dressing—“its legs tied together with a piece of string and a wreath of little balls of stuffing round it”—conceals its violent death.[22] In a similar way, the “awfully nice” picturesque house is imposed upon the landscape, as if it had never been any other way.[23] Through reconfiguration and transformation, a new imperial order conceals the fact that an older order once lay beneath it. In both cases, the picturesque functions as a way of naturalizing the violent order of domination. As Pat’s golden earrings distract Kezia from her grief over the duck’s death, the duck’s pretty garnish conceals its “basted resignation.”[24] There is no such thing as a pure aesthetics, Mansfield seems to suggest, as each serene moment is implicated in some act of violence, brutality, or suppression.

In “Prelude,” the good-natured Pat disrupts a pre-existing picturesque scene in which ducks “preen their dazzling breasts” amidst the pools and “bushes of yellow flowers and blackberries.”[25] Tellingly, the duck pond contains a bridge, a typical feature of the picturesque that reconciles or bridges the gap between different aspects of the scenery. In this way, the Burnell family’s cultivation of the land by planting and slaughtering ducks disrupts another underlying order. Their unquestioning appropriation of this pre-existing order mirrors the way colonial life disrupted and undermined the indigenous Maori life. Juxtaposing two picturesque scenes that interrupt and conflict with one another, Mansfield questions and unravels the conventional image of the picturesque. This interplay of various conflicting aesthetic orders constitutes part of Mansfield’s modernist style, in which aesthetic forms are ruptured, fragmented, and overturned.

As the yard’s landscape bears traces of the Maori past, so the quiet harmony of the Burnells’ domesticity is underscored by deep, unspoken tensions and an animosity that hints at the uncanny. In fact, the only character who expresses any contentment is Stanley, who reflects, “By God, he was a perfect fool to feel as happy as this!”[26] Yet even he shudders upon entering his new driveway, as “a sort of panic overtook Burnell whenever he approached near home.”[27] Beneath this veneer of marital bliss and familial harmony, his wife Linda occasionally ignores her children and expresses hatred towards her husband and his aggressive sexuality: “there were times when he was frightening—really frightening. When she screamed at the top of her voice, ‘You are killing me.’”[28] Meanwhile Stanley and Beryl, Linda’s sister, seem to have a flirtatious, indecent relationship: “Only last night when he was reading the paper her false self had stood beside him and leaned against his shoulder on purpose. Hadn’t she put her hand over his… so that he should see how white her hand was beside his brown one.”[29] Dramatizing these dynamics, Mansfield suggests that a “happy” household outside of town is not as “dirt cheap” as Stanley boasts; it comes at the cost of servitude, sexual aggression, and a ravaged Maori landscape.[30]

Through these layers, which Mansfield subtly strips off one at a time, she artfully exposes the way that an existing political and aesthetic order is not what it seems to be or how it has always been. Her short stories are fraught with their own tensions; while exposing the picturesque as false and absurd, she nevertheless draws on its conventional associations. Similarly, her subtle attempts to question colonial power are embedded in a seemingly idealized portrait of colonial life. Mansfield creates a seemingly beautiful or normal image, such as the happy family in “Prelude,” “Bliss,” or “Garden Party,” and then slowly challenges it through a subtle counter-narrative. In this way, her deployment of modernist techniques is less pronounced than that of James Joyce and her other modernist contemporaries. Just as she challenges aesthetic conventions, Mansfield unravels the reader’s ideas about her own stories by presenting a seemingly beautiful, transparent narrative that is haunted by tensions, lacunae, and opacity. Like the headless walking duck, these fictions of transparency and harmony quickly collapse upon closer inspection.

  1. ↑ Angela Smith, Introduction to Katherine Mansfield’s “Selected Stories,” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. x.
  2. ↑ Smith, p. xi.
  3. ↑ Smith, p. xi.
  4. ↑ William Wordsworth, The Complete Poetical Works, introduction by John Morley, London: Macmillan and Co., 1888, p. 234.
  5. ↑ Mansfield, p. 92.
  6. ↑ William Gilpin, “An essay on prints,” London, 1792, p. 5.
  7. ↑ Smith, p. xi.
  8. ↑ Mansfield, p. 71.
  9. ↑ Mansfield, p. 90.
  10. ↑ Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” New York: Garland Publishing, 1971, p. 127.
  11. ↑ Mansfield, p. 73.
  12. ↑ First mapped by James Cook in the late 18th century, New Zealand was settled by large numbers of European settlers in the 1840’s. Writing only forty years after the establishment of a large, permanent base of European settlers, Mansfield and many of her compatriots were made aware of their impact on the local Maori population.
  13. ↑ Smith, p. xi.
  14. ↑ Smith, p. xi.
  15. ↑ Mansfield, p. 63.
  16. ↑ Mansfield, p. 73.
  17. ↑ J. Lawrence Mitchell, “Katherine Mansfield and the Aesthetic Object,” Journal of New Zealand Literature: No. 22 (2004), p. 34.
  18. ↑ Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. by James Strachey, London: Hogarth Press, 1955, p. 64.
  19. ↑ Mansfield, p. 73.
  20. ↑ Mansfield, p. 84.
  21. ↑ Mansfield, p. 87.
  22. ↑ Mansfield, p. 87.
  23. ↑ Mansfield, p. 92.
  24. ↑ Mansfield, p. 87.
  25. ↑ Mansfield, p. 82.
  26. ↑ Mansfield, p. 76.
  27. ↑ Mansfield, p. 75.
  28. ↑ Mansfield, p. 92.
  29. ↑ Mansfield, p. 95.
  30. ↑ Mansfield, p. 62.