The Garden Party and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield, 1922
- New Zealand, #3
- Kindle edition, free from amazon.com
- Read April 2015
- Rating: 4/5
- Recommended for: Tragic loners and the unhappily married
There are a lot of things I could write about Katherine Mansfield’s masterful book of stories. The gorgeous, fragile prose. The detailed observation (one of my favorite lines is from the first story, At the Bay, when the grandmother warns the children to be careful with the dishes as they carry them into the dining room; “But they were taking the very greatest care. They loved being allowed to carry things.”) The way the stories aren’t really stories, most of the time, but snapshots, fragments, illicit glimpses into other people’s lives. How she dips in and out of the secret interior lives of men, women, children, even animals, like an observing spirit, impartial and unpitying. The way that all the stories, even in moments of wry humor, are pervaded by a delicate sadness, a sense of missed connections, of faded potential and thwarted dreams, and also by some mysterious significance that defies interpretation. Like dreams, they are emotionally accessible and yet elusive in terms of meaning.
But it’s a lot to analyze, and I don’t feel quite up to the task. I’ve spent the last two weeks hunting for apartments and jobs, applying for said apartments and jobs, getting rejected, finally getting one (an apartment…no sign of a job yet), moving, cleaning frantically, fretting about lead paint, and trying to furnish the new apartment without spending any money, and also not sleeping because of a streetlight outside our window (we don’t have curtains yet) and the fact that it seems every night is garbage night on our new street. I’m not sure I would have the patience for Mansfield if I read her right now, instead of when and where I did–in a sun-filled hospital room in Dublin, just before Easter, while my husband recovered from back surgery. If possible I suggest reading it under similar circumstances–nowhere to go, nothing to do but wait, with cottony shreds of clouds tearing across a blue Irish sky and the cherry trees just coming into bloom.
But now I’m tired and cranky, and also some annoying mansplainer commented on my goodreads review of The Shiralee to tell me why my opinion was wrong. I wrote that I found the book predictable, but he was quick to jump in and tell me that in fact, it is NOT predictable, but beautiful and classic. Because he said so. And his tone was incredibly condescending and it irritated me far more than it should have. And probably that sort of ridiculousness would annoy me coming from a woman too, except that I can’t really remember a time when I got that sentiment of “your opinion is different from mine and therefore it must be wrong!” from a woman. So instead of all that other stuff, I’m going to write about Katherine Mansfield’s subversive feminism.
Mansfield is often compared to Virginia Woolf, her friend and sometimes frenemy (Woolf’s first impression was that Mansfield was shockingly common, describing her as “a civet cat that had taken to streetwalking.” But later they were besties). Like Woolf, Mansfield often explores the less obvious ways in which women are suppressed by the men in their lives. Women in apparently loving relationships, women who are adored by husbands or fathers or lovers, are nevertheless misunderstood, quashed, and made miserable at every turn by men who simply cannot be bothered to see them as real people. In The Daughters of the Late Colonel, two spinsters mourn the death of their beloved father, an overbearing tyrant who has warped their lives and kept them fearful and isolated. In The Stranger, a man waits at the dock in Auckland for his wife, who is returning from a long voyage to Europe. He is as enthusiastic and impatient as a puppy, rushing on board to meet her as soon as the ship docks, and yet he seems totally unaware of her own desires. She clearly wants to see her children as soon as possible, but he has booked a room in town for the night and doesn’t notice that this upsets her; he won’t even give her the children’s letters lest they take the focus from him for a moment; and one of his most ecstatic thoughts is that there will be “no more going without tea or pouring out his own” now that she is home to do it for him. He knows nothing of her own interior life–cannot imagine that she even has one, or that her thoughts might be different from his own–and when he receives evidence that she is, in fact, a separate and unique person, he is irreparably devastated. Mansfield expresses all this with an admirable subtlety (all showing, no telling), but it is evident enough.
I think the most complete expression of Mansfield’s feminism is the first story, probably the best in the collection, At the Bay. It is a story that largely revolves around women and children and yet even in their absence, men are an oppressive presence. A family–husband, wife, their children, the wife’s sister and mother–all live together in a seaside colony in New Zealand. Stanley, the husband, heading off to work in the morning, upends the dreamy equilibrium of the family. He expects to be waited on, and fussed over; he is annoyed and even shocked when his sister-in-law first fails to pour him a cup of tea and then forgets to put sugar in it. The women cook and clean and carry, and yet far from recognizing his dependence on them he feels put-upon when this work is not smoothly invisible. When he misplaces his walking-stick he expects the entire household to search and thinks bitterly to himself,
The heartlessness of women! The way they took it for granted it was your job to slave away for them while they didn’t even take the trouble to see that your walking-stick wasn’t lost.
It was the status quo, at the time of Mansfield’s writing, and yet she and Woolf, among others, were challenging that status quo in showing that financial security did not justify lack of independence, and that “cared-for” women in loving marriages could nevertheless be miserable and oppressed. When Stanley leaves the women rejoice—
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… Even Alice, the servant-girl, washing up the dishes in the kitchen, caught the infection and used the precious tank water in a perfectly reckless fashion.
“Oh, these men!” said she, and she plunged the teapot into the bowl and held it under the water even after it had stopped bubbling, as if it too was a man and drowning was too good for them.
But if marriage is a prison, staying single is no way to escape. Spinsters are sad and vulnerable beings in Mansfield’s stories–besides the aforementioned sisters of The Daughters of the Late Colonel, there’s the sad narrator of The Lady’s Maid and the maiden aunt Beryl in At the Bay–afraid, angry, and subject to sexual threat from both men and women alike. There’s no real answer for women here, no good path to choose, and that, I think, is the point.