"The Canary" by Katherine Mansfield (1888 to 1923-New Zealand) is the last story that Mansfield completed. After first being published in 1922 it was included by her husband John Middleton Murry in a collection of her work he published shortly after her death in 1923, The Dove's Nest and other Stories. It is very tempting to read an especial import into this story given that Mansfield knew her death was probably close at hand.
It is has been said that the English female (and male too for that matter) writers of the first half of the 20th century mainly wrote about the upper class and their attempts to go beyond this tended to be stiff and condescending. There is a sense of wailing about the injustices of the world while waiting impatiently for a servant whose name you barely know to bring you a cup of tea in a lot of the writing of this period. Mansfield seems to have gone beyond her compatriots in the treatment of people outside of the affluent or even the middle class. She is able to present in a sympathetic, non patronizing way servants and the uncultured. This is not to say that Mansfield did not have her own arrogance as she did but I think she saw through herself.
I loved "The Canary". It is a simple story about an older woman who makes her living from cooking meals for three young men. The most important thing in her life is her pet canary. Anyone who has ever had a beloved animal in their life who helped them through times of sadness and loneliness will relate directly to this story. There are symbolic matters that could be made of the caged bird but I will pass on that as I think the wonder of this story is in the beauty of the writing.
I must confess that there does seem to me something sad in life. It is hard to say what it is. I don't mean the sorrow that we all know, like illness and poverty and death. No, it is something different. It is there, deep down, deep down, part of one, like one's breathing. However hard I work and tire myself I have only to stop to know it is there, waiting. I often wonder if everybody feels the same. One can never know. But isn't it extraordinary that under his sweet, joyful little singing it was just this—sadness ?—Ah, what is it ?—that I heard."The Canary" can be read online here. It is very worth the five or less minutes it will take you to read it.