The Reading Life Katherine Mansfield Project
Katherine Mansfield (aka Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp Murry 1888-1923-New Zealand) is considered one of the great short story writers of the early 20th century. She was a friend of D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. D. H. Lawrence based the character of Gunden in Women in Love on Mansfield. (As Mansfield traveled in some of the same circles as Ford Madox Ford in London I checked the net but I was not able to verify that she had any contact with him professional or otherwise.)
Short Stories: East of the Web is turning out to be a great resource for me in my still beginning interest in the short story. I admit I have never read anything by Katherine Mansfield before "Miss Brill". I knew vaguely, I thought, that she was an important writer of the early 20th century (though below the status of the giants) that I probably should have read something by a long time ago. As soon as I saw her story "Miss Brill" was one of the stories of the day on East of the Web I read it. A bit of research validated it is one of her most highly regarded short stories.
Miss Brill, a teacher of English is a seaside vacation town in France, goes to the park every Sunday by herself, her only company being a fur wrap (in the style of the time with the animals' head still on the fur). Miss Brill likes to see the people in the park as actors in a play arranged for her amusement. She has a special seat she always occupies where she listens to the conversations of those around her. The story is told in the third person in a kind of detached observing from on high mode. I find her style a little hard to describe. I prefer it to the other three short story writers of this era I have recently reviewed, P G Wodehouse, O Henry, and Saki as all of these writers, even though I liked each one a good bit, have a style that can be described as almost cute and near pandering to market needs of works published in popular magazines. Here is the description of Miss Brill's' observations on one Sunday
Only two people shared her "special" seat: a fine old man in a velvet coat, his hands clasped over a huge carved walking-stick, and a big old woman, sitting upright, with a roll of knitting on her embroidered apron. They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn't listen, at sitting in other people's lives just for a minute while they talked round her.
Miss Brill delights in projecting lives on the people she sees in the park and passing condescending judgements on them. As we quickly realize, this is how she derives her sense of self worth. Nothing is said but with the mastery of Mansfield we quickly see Miss Brill's life is rather empty. Miss Brill delights in objectifying the people she sees. She likes to tie up the lives of the people she observes in the park in a neat little package that she can play with and laugh at.
Two young girls in red came by and two young soldiers in blue met them, and they laughed and paired and went off arm-in-arm. Two peasant women with funny straw hats passed, gravely, leading beautiful smoke-coloured donkeys. A cold, pale nun hurried by. A beautiful woman came along and dropped her bunch of violets, and a little boy ran after to hand them to her, and she took them and threw them away as if they'd been poisoned. Dear me! Miss Brill didn't know whether to admire that or not! And now an ermine toque and a gentleman in grey met just in front of her. He was tall, stiff, dignified, and she was wearing the ermine toque she'd bought when her hair was yellow. Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same colour as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw. Oh, she was so pleased to see him - delighted! She rather thought they were going to meet that afternoon.
Miss Brill likes to talk to her fur (to visualize it recall that in the 1920s fox furs with heads on them were all the rage). She sees nothing odd about this at all. The fur seems to be her best friend almost. One day an attractive young couple (we never learn any background information on Miss Brill such as her age, how she got to France, does she have a past of any kind etc) sit very near Miss Brill in the park. Miss Brill is happy to see them as she thinks they will be an interesting part of the play in the park which she directs and writes for her great amusement. I think it must have been the literary convention of the time to have sort of an ironic ending to short stories. There is a depth and a sadness in the close of this story that will stay with me for a long time.
Just at that moment a boy and girl came and sat down where the old couple had been. They were beautifully dressed; they were in love. The hero and heroine, of course, just arrived from his father's yacht. And still soundlessly singing, still with that trembling smile, Miss Brill prepared to listen.
"No, not now," said the girl. "Not here, I can't."
"But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?" asked the boy. "Why does she come here at all - who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?"
"It's her fu-ur which is so funny," giggled the girl. "It's exactly like a fried whiting."
"Ah, be off with you!" said the boy in an angry whisper. Then: "Tell me, ma petite chere--"
"No, not here," said the girl. "Not yet."
On her way home she usually bought a slice of honey-cake at the baker's. It was her Sunday treat. Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference. If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present - a surprise - something that might very well not have been there. She hurried on the almond Sundays and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way.
But to-day she passed the baker's by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room - her room like a cupboard - and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.For sure Mansfield has created a world in this story. Some may read this story and see it as exemplifying why they find short stories "leave them hanging". We get interested in Miss Brill, we wonder about her life, we come to feel sympathy for a character we may not have initially felt any bond with at all then we are abruptly expelled from her world.
I am very glad I have read my first Katherine Mansfield story. She lived an very interesting and far too short life. There is a wonderful web page that gives a lot of information about Mansfield and her circle here. Mansfield was the daughter of a chairman of the Bank of New Zealand and was largely supported by her father throughout her life. A lot of her work can be read on line. Her strongest influence as a short story writer was Chekhov. I will be reading more Mansfield.