At the Bay by Katherine Mansfield, 1922

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by Katherine Mansfield, 1922

Katherine Mansfield's reputation rests primarily on four expansive stories set in and around Wellington, New Zealand: "Prelude," "At the Bay," "The Garden Party," and "The Doll's House." The last three of these, along with "The Voyage," were written in an inspired creative burst in Switzerland between August and October of 1921. At the time Mansfield entertained thoughts of amalgamating them, along with other material, to form a novel, Karori. But like other earlier projects for novels this one was never fulfilled.

"Prelude" (earlier titled "The Aloe") was begun much earlier—in 1915 shortly after her younger brother, Leslie ("Boy"), visited her in London on his way to the battlefront, where he died in October of the same year. Her conversations with him—and the shock of his death—evidently unlocked a series of childhood memories and she determined, ostensibly as a tribute to Leslie, to "make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World. It must be mysterious, as though floating. It must take the breath. It must be 'one of those islands."' It is in "At the Bay" that this ambition is most explicitly fulfilled; the little seaside community of Crescent Bay floats up out of the mist in the first of the story's 12 sections and disappears back into the darkness at the end.

The group of characters in the story correspond very closely to the extended family in which Mansfield, as Kathleen Beauchamp, grew up. Kezia Burnell; her older sister, Isabel; and the younger Lottie correspond respectively to Kathleen, Vera (or Charlotte), and Jeanne Beauchamp. "The boy" (as the baby in the story is called) occupies Leslie's position in the family and bears his nickname. The Burnell parents, Stanley and Linda, closely resemble Harold and Annie Beauchamp. Linda's unmarried sister, Beryl, and their mother, Mrs. Fairfield (a bilingual pun on "Beauchamp"), live with the family, as did Annie's sister (Belle) and mother (Mrs. Dyer). Sharing the Burnells's holiday at the beach are Linda's brother-in-law, Jonathan Trout, and his two boys (Pip and Rags). Their surname mocks that of Kathleen's uncle, Valentine Waters, and his sons, Barrie and Eric. The Crescent Bay of the story corresponds to Muritai Beach (across the harbor from Wellington city), where the Beauchamps and the Waterses spent their summer holidays.

At a deeper level too the story can be seen as autobiographical. Mansfield's biographer, Antony Alpers, believes that she had her first sexual experience with a man at Muritai Beach one night in 1908. This strange blend of English and French was written in her Journal that evening:

Night. J'attends pour la premiere fois dans ma vie le crise de ma vie. As I wait a flock of sheep pass down the street in the moonlight. I hear them cracking the whip—and behind, the dark heavy cart—like a death cart il me semble—and in all this sacrificial light I look lovely. I do not fear—I only feel…. Ah come now soon. Each moment il me semble is a moment of supreme danger—but this man I love with all my heart…. It comes—I go to bed.

"At the Bay" begins with the passage of a flock of sheep along the beachfront in the early morning. It examines the topic of death at some length in section seven. And it ends with Beryl longing for love and undergoing a close encounter with the sinister Harry Kember. While Kezia corresponds to the young Kathleen Beauchamp, Beryl may be seen as a projection of the mature Mansfield who wrote the story.

As Beryl is threatened by Harry Kember, "the sea sounded deep, troubled." Once she escapes from his clutches, its sound becomes "a vague murmur, as though it had waked out of a dark dream." Here and elsewhere (as when the young Lottie is frightened by "an old whiskery" wave in the fifth section, or when Stanley and Jonathan take utterly different approaches to their early morning swim in section two) the treatment of the sea underlines an important distinction in the story between childish (or in Jonathan's case childlike) innocence and adult experience.

The distinction is akin to Kristeva's between "the semiotic" and "the symbolic." Those who accept the sea in effect access what Kristeva calls "the archaic contact with the maternal body," which is a prerequisite for creativity. Those who resist it are locked in the phallocentric symbolic order that children enter after they have passed through "the mirror phase" and acquired linguistic competence. It is interesting that little Lottie, who retreats from the "old whiskery" wave, is just over the threshold of language. Mansfield herself defined the distinction between child and adult along more traditional romantic lines. In a book review written late in her life she presented this version of the Wordsworthian maxim that "the child is father of the man":

It is implicit in the belief of the child that the dream exists side by side with the reality; there are no barriers between. It is only after he has suffered the fate of little children—after he has been stolen away by the fairies—that the changeling who usurps his heritage builds those great walls that confront him when he will return.

The imaginative games played by the children in sections four and nine of "At the Bay" demonstrate their capacity to shift back and forth between reality and dream.

In all of Mansfield's stories the degree to which adults can empathize with children is generally a measure of their human worth. The brusque, self-centered Stanley fails this test of character, as do the cynical Kembers. Similarly the philistine tastes of Alice (the maid) and Mrs. Stubbs (the local shopkeeper) are ruthlessly pilloried in the eighth section of the story. (Mansfield subsequently dismissed this episode as a "black hole in my book.")

In contrast, old Mrs. Fairfield has a delightful rapport with her grandchild, Kezia. Jonathan (who describes adult life as a Wordsworthian prison-house at some length in section ten) still has intimations of childish freedom, and when he first appears in the story (in section two) he unsettles Stanley with talk of his dreams. His sister-in-law Linda is initially immune to the delights of childhood, but—in what is really the only palpable development in this long, leisurely "slice of life"—she finally learns to appreciate "the boy" at the end of the sixth (and central) section. Even the narrator adopts a childish point of view—especially in sections one and seven.

Overall then what Mansfield liked to call "joy" triumphs over "satire" in "At the Bay"—as it does in almost all her New Zealand stories. In her English stories, on the other hand, satire ("a cry against corruption," as she termed it in a famous letter to J. M. Murry) is generally the norm.

—Richard Corballis