"The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield (12 pages, 1922 read at Dailylit.com )
After reading "Miss Brill" (1920) by Katherine Mansfield (1988 to 1923) I did a book blog search on her to see if any bloggers I am familiar with have recently read any of her stories. There have been a lot of book blog posts on her in the last year. The consensus among bloggers seems to be that "The Garden Party" was one of her very best stories. Dailylit.com has it on line so I decided to read another of her stories right away.
As "The Garden Party" opens Laura Sheridan under the supervision of her mother is planning a garden party. Readers in the 1920s in England and New Zealand would be aware that a garden party was meant to be a prestigious near formal occasion and an affair that was found only among the upper classes. One of the most coveted English society invitations was to the annual Garden party at Buckingham Palace. Laura is supposed to be in charge but we can quickly see her mother is a bit overbearing. Mansfield sets the atmosphere of the anticipation of the event masterfully:
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine.I knew I was going to like the story as soon as I read those opening lines. Rather near the home of the Sheridan's there is what the Sheridan family views as a wretched squalid community. Right before the party is set to begin they learn one of the workers for their party who lives in that area was killed in an accident. Laura wants to stop the party but her mother will not hear it.
A whole social history can almost be reconstructed from the conversation below between Laura and her mother over whether or not the death of the worker requires the cancellation of the party:
"But, my dear child, use your common sense. It's only by accident we've heard of it. If some one had died there normally--and I can't understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes--we should still be having our party, shouldn't we?"
Laura had to say "yes" to that, but she felt it was all wrong. She sat down on her mother's sofa and pinched the cushion frill.
Mother, isn't it terribly heartless of us?" she asked.
Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan..
There lay a young man, fast asleep--sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy...happy...All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.Mansfield does not tell us what to make of this. Is Laura just a silly rich girl who did not know that the poor have lives too or does she experience some kind of revelation when she sees the body? Is this a mockery of accepted views of death or is it a celebration of them? There is a a bit more to the story but I hope some may want to read it so I will not tell more of the plot.
I really enjoyed this story. A lot, maybe all, of her stories can be read on line as they are now in the public domain. For sure I will be reading more of her work.
If anyone has any suggestions for other short stories to read please leave them in a comment.