|Mansfield and her brother Leslie|
"A Cup of Tea" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) is included in the 1923 collection of her work, The Dove's Nest and Other Stories edited by Mansfield's husband, John Middleton Murry. There is a very moving introduction to this collection in which Murry lets us know details about the next ten stories his wife was going to write. There is a temptation in reading Mansfield to see her work as artistically peaking in 1921 and 1922 given that we know these are her last stories. I sense a rapid growth in her artistic depth during this period but it is a feeling of a writer just starting to find her true power not of a writer at her zenith.
I really like "A Cup of Tea" a lot. It, among other things, does a brilliant job of depicting matrimonial jealousy and insecurity. Our lead character is a very wealthy young woman, Rosemary, seemingly recently married. Her time is largely taken up with looking for ways to spend money. As the story opens she has just bought a small box in an exquisite shop, the cost is about six months pay for an ordinary working man of the time. (No doubt it is at least a year's pay for a young female servant.) There is a world in these few lines:
One winter afternoon she had been buying something in a little antique shop in Curzon Street. It was a shop she liked. For one thing, one usually had it to oneself. And then the man who kept it was ridiculously fond of serving her. He beamed whenever she came in. He clasped his hands ; he was so gratified he could scarcely speak. Flattery, of course. All the same, there was something...
" You see, madam," he would explain in his low respectful tones, " I love my things. I would rather not part with them than sell them to someone who does not appreciate them, who has not that fine feeling which is so rare..." And, breathing deeply he unrolled a tiny square of blue velvet and pressed it on the glass counter with his pale finger-tips.Rosemary has been reading Dostoevsky lately and when she is approached by a very bedraggled looking young woman asking for the price of a cup of tea she is at first put off but then she decides to have a bit of an adventure. She invites the girl to come home with her. The girl is so hungry she overcomes her fear at talking with someone so far above her station in life and agrees to go with Rosemary.
The story is not long and the psychological depth of the work is great so I will not tell any more of the plot action. As I was reading this, I thought that maybe Mansfield in "A Cup of Tea" is gently (or maybe not so gently!) mocking or satirizing the world Mansfield's wealthy parents (her father was the Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand) wanted her to live in.
I love the opening description of Rosemary and her world:
ROSEMARY FELL was not exactly beautiful. No, you couldn't have called her beautiful. Pretty ? Well, if you took her to pieces . .. But why be so cruel as to take anyone to pieces ? She was young, brilliant, extremely modern, exquisitely well dressed, amazingly well read in the newest of the new books, and her parties were the most delicious mixture of the really important people and... artists—quaint creatures, discoveries of hers, some of them too terrifying for words, but others quite presentable and amusing.
Rosemary had been married two years. She had a duck of a boy. No, not Peter—Michael. And her husband absolutely adored her. They were rich, really rich, not just comfortably well off, which is odious and stuffy and sounds like one's grandparents. But if Rosemary wanted to shop she would go to Paris as you and I would go to Bond Street. If she wanted to buy flowers, the car pulled up at that perfect shop in Regent Street.
This is just a near perfect story. Thanks to the wonderful New Zealand Electronic Text Center you can read it online.