"The Sister of the Baroness"
All of these short stories (none are over 15 pages) are from Katherine Mansfield's first collection of short stories, In a German Pension (1911). I have already posted on the first story in this collection, "German Meat". All of these stories revolve around the experiences of a young English woman taking the waters at a health spa in Germany and staying in a pension there with others there for the same purpose. The pension (boarding house) caters to affluent Germans seeking a cure for various ills real and imagined. Spas were also places where the rich could go and get extensively pampered. I am going to post on four stories in the collection today. Each story can stand on its own but they are interrelated. I was surprised a little that some of these stories were laugh aloud funny (as I said before, the stories are hard on Germans, who may not appreciate the humor in them). Each of the four stories I will post on here is a real work of literary art. Only one of them relies on the standard O Henry/Saki twist at the end technique which was seemingly preferred by magazine editors of the time. Mansfield did not need to care about this due to extreme family wealth.
"The Baron" is about a baron staying in the pension who keeps totally to himself. He speaks to no one and he takes his meals in his room. His social rank is higher than anyone else at the pension at the time and the other guests are hoping for some attention from the baron. Mansfield does a wonderful job of conveying all this to us in a few sentences:
“The Baron comes every year,” went on the Herr Oberlehrer, “for his nerves. He has never spoken to any of the guests—yet.” A smile crossed his face. I seemed to see his visions of some splendid upheaval of that silence —a dazzling exchange of courtesies in a dim future, a splendid sacrifice of a newspaper to this Exalted One, a “danke schön” to be handed down to future generations.The English woman runs into the baron in town and asks him why he always stays alone in his room.
I sit alone that I may eat more,” said the Baron, peering into the dusk; “my stomach requires a great deal of food. I order double portions, and eat them in peace.”They return to the pension together and the Baron gives her a very cordial thanks for her company. The Baron departs that day for his estate and the English woman now has a much higher social status among the German guests.
"The Sister of the Baroness"
When ever a new guest checked in the pension the other guests were eager to discover the social and financial standing of the new arrivals. Today a very exciting guest is expected:
“There are two new guests arriving this afternoon,” said the manager of the pension, placing a chair for me at the breakfast-table. “I have only received the letter acquainting me with the fact this morning. The Baroness von Gall is sending her little daughter—the poor child is dumb—to make the ‘cure.’ She is to stay with us a month, and then the Baroness herself is coming.”
“Baroness von Gall,” cried the Frau Doktor, coming into the room and positively scenting the name. “Coming here? There was a picture of her only last week in Sport and Salon. She is a friend of the Court.I am still trying to imagine how a course at a spa (known for its curative waters) could help this child and that is part of the great humor of this story. (Mansfield was herself sent to a spa in Germany by her mother to cure her of lesbianism through a series of water treatments some involving high pressure hoses!)
There is a really funny surprise ending to this story so I will not tell anymore of the plot. Like all her stories I have read so far, the tone is marvelous and the prose is beautiful.
Mansfield liked to flaunt convention, both in her life, her dress and in her stories. Frau Fisher is the wealthy widow of a candle factory owner who comes once a year to the spa and always stays in the pension. She is very curious about the young English woman:
. When I meet new people I squeeze them dry like a sponge. To begin with—you are married.”
I admitted the fact.
“Then, dear child, where is your husband?”
I said he was a sea-captain on a long and perilous voyage.
“What a position to leave you in—so young and so unprotected.”
She sat down on the sofa and shook her finger at me playfully.
“Admit, now, that you keep your journeys secret from him. For what man would think of allowing a woman with such a wealth of hair to go wandering in foreign countries?This conversation has turned into a private joke on Frau Fisher who just assumes the English woman is married. From the conversations of the English woman just the idea she would be married to a sea captain is hilarious but the Frau has no clue.
This husband that I had created for the benefit of Frau Fischer became in her hands so substantial a figure that I could no longer see myself sitting on a rock with seaweed in my hair, awaiting that phantom ship for which all women love to suppose they hunger. Rather, I saw myself pushing a perambulator up a gangway, and counting up the missing buttons on my husband's uniform jacketOne of the things one seems to see often is the work of Mansfield is older society women who are happy dwellers in male dominated societies who delight in enforcing the rules of conventional correct behavior for young women. Mansfield delights in puncturing pomposity and hypocrisy. There is a smugness and self amused quality to the narrator of the stories in A German Pension that some may not like as much as I do. The more I learn about her the more I like her and admire the brilliant incredible stories of her creator.
"Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding"-
This is another really fun story along the lines of the other three.
I read these stories on line at The New Zealand Electronic Text Center. This site has all of her stories on line (it looks to me), some of her letters and journals as well as a lot of great background information.
There are nine stories I still have not had the pleasure of reading for the first time in In a German Pension. I plan to post on them in groups of 2 to 4. None of these stories are among her most famous but so far this has been a very enjoyable read and I see why New Zealand is so proud of her.