Mansfield, Katherine

views updated May 21 2018

Katherine Mansfield

BORN: 1888, Wellington, New Zealand

DIED: 1923, Fontainebleau, France

NATIONALITY: New Zealander

GENRE: Fiction

“Bliss” (1920)
“Miss Brill” (1920)
“The Garden Party” (1922)


Katherine Mansfield is a central figure in the development of the modern short story. An early practitioner of stream-of-consciousness narration, she applied this technique to create stories based on the illumination of character rather than the contrivances of plot. Her works consider such universal concerns as family and love relationships and the everyday experiences of childhood and are noted for their distinctive wit, psychological sharpness, and perceptive characterizations. Mansfield is one of the few authors to attain prominence exclusively for short stories, and her works remain among the most widely read in world literature.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Enamored of England Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp was born October 14, 1888, to Harold Beauchamp, a merchant and banker, and Annie Burnell (Dyer) Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand, and attended school in England in her early teens. She returned home after completing her education, but at nineteen she persuaded her parents to allow her to return to England.

Biographers believe that Mansfield either arrived in London pregnant as the result of a shipboard romance or that she became pregnant after her arrival as the result of an affair with a man she had known in New Zealand. She quickly married George Bowden, a young musician, and left him the next day for a German spa, where she mis-carried, alone.

Burgeoning Career Mansfield returned to England following a period of recuperation, during which she wrote the short stories comprising her first collection, In a German Pension (1911). These stories focus on themes relating to sexual relationships, female subjugation, and childbearing.

Determined to pursue a literary career, between 1911 and 1915 Mansfield published short stories and book reviews in magazines. In 1912 she met editor and critic John Middleton Murry and was soon sharing the editorship of two magazines with him. The two began living together and married in 1918, after her first husband consented to a divorce.

Bliss and The Garden Party In 1915 Mansfield was reunited in London with her only brother, Leslie Heron Beauchamp, shortly before he was killed in a military training accident. His visit is believed to have reinforced Mansfield's resolve to incorporate material drawn from her New Zealand background into her fiction. The collections Bliss, and Other Stories (1920) and The Garden Party, and Other Stories (1922)—the last that Mansfield edited and oversaw in production—contain “Bliss,” “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” “Je Ne Parle Pas Français,” and “Miss Brill,” which are considered among the finest short stories in the English language. The success of these volumes established Mansfield as a major talent comparable to such contemporaries as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Early End At the end of 1918, Mansfield learned that what she had regarded as “rheumatism” was a longstanding sexually transmitted infection that damaged her fertility and had seriously affected her heart. She was further weakened by tuberculosis in the early 1920s. Nonetheless, she worked almost continuously, writing until the last few months of her life, when she undertook a faith cure in France. She died of a lung hemorrhage resulting from tuberculosis on January 9, 1923, at the age of thirty-four.

Works in Literary Context

Class Consciousness Many of Mansfield's stories deal with the concerns of the upper class, as well as the chasm that exists between the upper and lower classes. This is shown most clearly in “The Garden Party,” where the main character—whose most important responsibility is planning a party for her family's wealthy acquaintances—has a wrenching encounter with a lower-class neighbor whose husband has just died. The gap between the classes is also evident in “A Cup of Tea,” in which a wealthy woman brings a poor beggar girl back to her opulent home. The wealthy woman, who appears to have everything, becomes despondent when her husband comments on the poor girl's beauty, but fails to say the same for his wife. As illustrated in these stories, Mansfield acknowledges the vain preoccupations of the upper classes, but also shows that money alone does not provide happiness or fulfillment.

Mansfield and Virginia Woolf Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf had a significant influence on each other, although Mansfield objected to many of the Blooms-bury Group's ideas. Mansfield developed from Woolf a capacity to describe moments of intense perception, “that condition of standing outside of things, yet being more intensely in them.” No other writers of the time could match Mansfield's or Woolf's capacity to convey the simultaneity of multiple and searching human perceptions.

Mansfield, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov Mansfield held deep literary debts to Russian writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov. Her connection to Dostoyevsky focuses on his recognitions of consciousness and his extraordinary capacity to depict the agonies of the human soul. But, Mansfield felt that Chekhov knew as well as Dostoyevsky the agonies of consciousness, and he retained a capacity to respond to the outside world; he acknowledged a need to write and live simultaneously with one's recognitions. She began translating his letters, including one she said was vital to her view of her own art, in which Chekhov asserted that “what the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question.” The irresolvable suspension of human emotion between self and otherness adds to the recognition of irremediable class distinctions, a social concern in one of Mansfield's most deeply Chekhovian stories.

Works in Critical Context

Mansfield's fiction has been increasingly respected throughout the years, and the quality of her thought and writing praised as further material has been posthumously published. Although reminiscences, particularly those of John Middleton Murry, the husband who survived her, have sometimes tended to sanctify her, healthy reactions against sanctity have questioned the viewpoints of Murry and others. The variety and brevity of her fiction, its accessibility as well as its length, have enabled Mansfield to reach an expanding audience throughout the century.

The Garden Party and Other Stories Jan Pilditch writes: “Katherine Mansfield published The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922, the same year that [Anglo-American poet] T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land, and [Irish writer] James Joyce published Ulysses. Mansfield's collection similarly represents the mature progress of her artistry. It contains some of her finest work, and illustrates the artistic usefulness of her New Zealand background…. Mansfield, no less than James Joyce, demonstrates a preoccupation with the growth of an artistic sensibility.” And Don Kleine writes: “‘The Garden Party’ is generally, and with justice, regarded as one of the most nearly flawless short stories in the language.”

Elizabeth Bowen writes: “We owe to [Mansfield] the prosperity of the ‘free’; story: she untrammeled it from conventions and, still more, gained for it a prestige till then unthought of. How much ground Katherine Mansfield broke for her successors may not be realized. Her imagination kindled unlikely matter; she was to alter for good and all our idea of what goes to make a story.”


Mansfield's famous contemporaries include:

D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930): Lawrence was an English writer and friend of Mansfield, who examined human sexuality in his novels. He was well-known for Sons and Lovers and Women in Love.

Dorothy Lawrence (1869–1964): Lawrence was an English reporter who posed as a man to become a soldier in World War I. She was discovered by the British and was made to promise not to write about her experiences for fear that other women would follow.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954): Matisse was a French sculptor, painter, and printmaker. He was a leading figure in modern art, famous for his fluid lines and use of vibrant color.

Wilfred Owen (1893–1918): Owen was a British soldier and leading poet of World War I. He was well-known for his graphic and realistic, rather than patriotic, poems about the war.

Responses to Literature

  1. Katherine Mansfield wrote about the difference between one's inner and outer worlds. When have you felt like what's going on inside you is not what other people see? Think about one specific instance. Was there a revealing detail that people should have noticed that indicated how you truly felt?
  2. After her death, Mansfield's husband tried to present a specific view of her. Do you think that is understandable or dishonest?
  3. Do you think short stories can reveal as much about a character as a whole novel can?
  4. Mansfield's stories are fairly short, and their language is simple. Usually, we think of great literature as having complicated language and being difficult to read. Think about two musicians or artists you like, one with outwardly simpler work than the other. Write an essay comparing and contrasting their two approaches. Do you feel that one is stronger than the other? Be sure to use specific examples.
  5. Many of Mansfield's stories use the past to establish a connection with the present and immediate. Read Galway Kinnell's poem “Pulling a Nail.” Write an essay analyzing what the connection is between the past and present in this poem, using specific examples. Compare this poem to a work by Mansfield.


Katherine Mansfield's short stories are driven by their characters rather than by an external plot. They are more about the interior life than specific events. Here are some other works that deal with this theme:

The Cherry Orchard (1904), a play by Anton Chekhov. Members of an aristocratic family return to their estate before it is auctioned off to pay their mortgage; caught in inertia, they are unable to save their home.

On Golden Pond (1981), a film directed by Mark Rydell. This movie follows the relationships between an elderly couple, their daughter, her fiancé, and his son as they reunite over the course of a summer.

Runaway (2004), short stories by Alice Munro. Three of these spare stories, reminiscent of Chekhov, focus on different stages of one woman's life; they all examine various facets of love and betrayal.

To the Lighthouse (1927), a novel by Virginia Woolf. This meditative story of a family's visit to the Scottish Isle of Sky is told by the interior thoughts of the characters and has minimal dialogue.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), short stories by Raymond Carver. The minimalist tales in this collection focus on small epiphanies in ordinary people's lives that lead to a change in their outlook.



Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Viking, 1980.

Boddy, Gillian. Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Bowen, Elizabeth. “Katherine Mansfield.” In Discussions of the Short Story. New York: D. C. Heath and Company, 1963.

Burgan, Mary. Illness, Gender, and Writing: The Case of Katherine Mansfield. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Daiches, David. “The Art of Katherine Mansfield.” In New Literary Values: Studies in Modern Literature. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1968.

Dunbar, Pamela. Radical Mansfield: Double Disclosure in the Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Kaplan, Sydney Janet. Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Magalaner, Marvin. The Fiction of Katherine Mansfield. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Pilditch, Jan. “The Garden Party: Overview.” In Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Detroit: St. James Press.


Bowen, Elizabeth. “A Living Writer.” Cornhill Magazine 1010 (Winter 1956–1957): 121–34.

Cowley, Malcolm. “The Author of ‘Bliss.’” Dial 73 (August 22, 1922): 230–232.

Kleine, Don W. “‘The Garden Party’: A Portrait of the Artist.” Criticism 5 (Fall 1963): 360–371.

O'Sullivan, Vincent. “The Magnetic Chain: Notes and Approaches to K. M.” Landfall: The New Zealand Quarterly 114 (June 1975): 95–131.

Schneider, Elisabeth. “Katherine Mansfield and Chekhov.” Modern Language Notes 50 (June 1935): 394–96.

Web sites

Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society Inc. Katherine Mansfield Birthplace. Retrieved June 6, 2008, from

Katherine Mansfield

views updated Jun 27 2018

Katherine Mansfield

Short story writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is noted for her short stories with themes relating to women's lives and social hierarchies as well as her sense of wit and characterizations.

Katherine Mansfield has played an important role in the genre of the short story. The New Zealand-born writer, who spent much of her adulthood in Europe, "is a central figure in the development of the modern short story," noted Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. "An early practitioner of stream-of-consciousness narration, she applied this technique to create stories based on the illumination of character rather than the contrivances of plot." Mansfield also attempted to free herself from the domination of her bourgeois family and the expectations for women of her class. As a young woman she often heeded her own determined whims, but later settled into a period of stability and literary creativity with her 1918 marriage to a fellow writer, editor, and literary critic. Together they moved in social circles that included some of the most acclaimed English-language writers of the early twentieth century.

Mansfield was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand, to a family of English descent in 1888. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, was a successful merchant who eventually became one of the English colony's most prominent citizens, rising to the position of chair of the Bank of New Zealand. She once described her mother as "constantly suspicious, constantly overbearingly tyrannous," and from an early age Mansfield seemed resentful toward her middle-class provincial family. As a writer, she later explored the theme of the hierarchy of class distinctions that restricted upbringings such as hers. As a teenager she was sent away to a finishing school in London that was a more intellectually rigorous institution than most girls of her class attended. There she became active in its magazine, for which she wrote several short stories, and established a lifelong friendship with classmate Ida Baker. When her schooling came to an end, Mansfield returned to her family's increasingly prosperous household in Wellington, but was determined to take leave again permanently. Enrolling in secretarial and bookkeeping courses, her parents allowed her to live abroad on her own, and in 1908 she returned to London. There she resided in a hostel for young, unmarried women pursuing artistic careers (she herself was an accomplished cellist) paid for by a stipend she received from her father until her death at age 34.

Courting Disaster Led to First Success

A long crush on musician Garnet Trowell eventually led to an unexpected pregnancy, and Mansfield suddenly married another man whom she had been seeing casually, George Bowden. She disappeared for a time, perhaps to serve as a chorus girl in the company of the light opera troupe that Trowell performed in, but her mother soon arrived from New Zealand and took her to a spa in southern Germany. "The most widely recommended cure for girls with Kathleen's difficult complaint was a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise," noted Antony Alpers in The Life of Katherine Mansfield. She suffered a miscarriage later that summer, but remained in Germany for several months. Out of her sojourn came her first collection of short stories, In a German Pension, first published in 1911. The volume was noted for its rather unflattering portrayal of Germans, and "the early appeal of the collection, most said, was to the anti-German sentiments felt by Britons in the years preceding the First World War," noted C. A. Hankin in Katherine Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories. In retrospect, the content of the stories "again and again [underline] her sense that sexual love for women is fraught with physical danger," as Mansfield was attracted to both men and women.

Moving back to London, in 1912 Mansfield met John Middleton Murry, the catalyst behind an acclaimed new English literary magazine out of Oxford called Rhythm. "Henceforth, she had a center to work from, and her early disastrous affairs, though they continued to provide a few themes for stories, sank below the horizon," observed Ian A. Gordon in British Writers. Mansfield instead began to mine her New Zealand upbringing for subject matter, and many of these were published in Rhythm and its successor, the Blue Review.

World War I Brought Tragedy

By 1914 Mansfield and Murry were living together, and the literary journals had ceased publication; for a time he was a reviewer of French books for the Times Literary Supplement. The next year, Mansfield's younger brother stopped by London for a rare visit before joining the British Army. His death later that year in World War I resolved Katherine to further explore their childhood in colonial New Zealand for her stories. It devastated her and she produced little work for a time, and her mental anguish was compounded by her own increasingly fragile physical health. Since arriving in England as a teenager she had been plagued by illness, and by 1916 she and Murry were living in the south of France to escape its damp and chilly climate.

During these years Mansfield and Murry were becoming well-acquainted with such literary and historical figures as D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Bertrand Russell. Mansfield also began writing short stories for a journal called New Age. It was in the south of France that she penned her first major story, "The Aloe," which in a revised form was published first in 1918 as "Prelude." It "set the standard and established the pattern for all her later work," wrote Gordon in British Writers. "Prelude" chronicles the doings of the fictional Burnell family of New Zealand, whose structure and members resemble the Beauchamps of Wellington quite distinctly. There is Stanley, the aggressive tycoon, the harsh mother Linda, the unmarried maiden aunt Beryl, and daughter Kezia, who in some of her youngest incarnations caused Joanne Trautman Banks to assert in The English Short Story that Mansfield was "one of our greatest portrayers of children in short fiction."

Entered Period of Intense Creativity

In 1917 Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and began spending even more time in the south of France. The following year she married Murry after finally winning a divorce from her first husband. This next period saw the publication of some of her most acclaimed works, including the collections Je ne parle pas francais and Bliss and Other Short Stories. Like much of her work, many of the stories feature women prominently, and often portray the few choices available to them outside of marriage. In Mansfield's era, to forsake a husband and children was almost like a death sentence.

"The success of these volumes established Mansfield as a major talent comparable to such contemporaries as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce," noted Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Now dividing her time between Switzerland, Paris, and the south of France, Mansfield wrote at a feverish pace, sometimes one story a day. They frequently appeared in publications such as the Athenaeum, the Nation, and the London Mercury. Much of what Mansfield wrote during 1920 and 1921 was published in the collection The Garden Party. Its title story may be her most well-known, and as in much of her fiction the tale is taken from an actual incident. The wealthy Burnell family in many of her stories is here called the Sheridans, as the story opens their sensitive daughter Laura is excited by the prospect of her family's impending afternoon fete. However, the Sheridans' idyllic afternoon is marred by the death of one of the workmen in the area just outside the Sheridan manse. The family he has left behind lives at the bottom of the hill from the lawn where the party will take place. Upset, Laura wishes to cancel the party, but the other Sheridans convince her otherwise. Later, she brings the party's leftover food to the destitute family, which Mansfield's older sister actually did when the incident happened to them in New Zealand in 1907. Grief, like the miserable fate mapped out for most women of her class, was a strong theme in much of her work. In "The Garden Party" and other stories like "The Fly" and "Six Years After," death and loss are predominant.

Mansfield also penned several pieces of literary criticism during her writing career and a final burst of short stories that appeared as The Dove's Nest, published the year she died. The work contains more of the fictional Burnells, and further explorations into the genre of the short story that "treat such universal concerns as family and love relationships and the everyday experiences of childhood, and are noted for their distinctive wit, psychological acuity, and perceptive characterizations," as Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism assessed. Mansfield spent much of the last two years of her life between Italy and France, eventually staying at a priory in Fontainebleau for a holistic-type cure for her tuberculosis. She sometimes lived apart from Murry for long stretches of time, but her longtime friend Ida Baker was often living nearby.

Some critics charge that Murry, while also serving as an editor of Mansfield's literary efforts, inhibited or excised some elements of her earlier work, most notably her preoccupation with a romantic attraction between women. Biographers assert that both Mansfield and Murry conducted affairs during their marriage, and that after her death of a lung hemorrhage in early 1923, her widower exploited her work, as "he profited from the publication of stories that Mansfield had rejected for publication, as well as notebook jottings, intermittent diaries, and letters," stated Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism.

Further Reading

Scott-Kilvert, Ian, editor, British Writers: Edited under the auspices of the British Council, Vol. Volume VII: Sean O'Casey to Poets of World War II, Scribner's, 1984, pp. 171-183.

Alpers, Antony, The Life of Katherine Mansfield, Viking Press, 1980.

Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Gale Research, Vol. 39, 1991, pp. 292-331. □

Mansfield, Katherine

views updated May 29 2018

MANSFIELD, Katherine

Pseudonym for Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp. Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Wellington, 14 October 1888. Education: A school in Karori; Girls' High School, Wellington, 1898-99; Miss Swainson's School, Wellington, 1900-03; Queen's College, London, 1903-06; Wellington Technical College, 1908. Family: Married 1) George Bowden in 1909 (separated 1909; divorced 1918); 2) the writer and editor John Middleton Murry in 1918 (lived with him from 1912). Career: Settled in London, 1908; contributed to the New Age, 1910-11; contributed to Murry's Rhythm and its successor, the Blue Review, and became partner in the business, 1911-13; reviewer, Westminster Gazette, 1911-15; founder, with Murry and D. H. Lawrence, q.v., Signature magazine, 1916; afflicted with tuberculosis: lived for part of each year in the south of France and Switzerland, from 1916; contributed to the Athenaeum, edited by Murry, 1919-20. Died: 9 January 1923.



Collected Stories. 1945.

Selected Stories, edited by Dan Davin. 1953.

The Stories, edited by Anthony Alpers. 1984.

Works (Centenary Edition), edited by Cherry Hankin. 1988—.

Katherine Mansfield. 1994.

Short Stories

In a German Pension. 1911.

Je ne parle pas français. 1918.

Bliss and Other Stories. 1920.

The Garden Party and Other Stories. 1922.

The Dove's Nest and Other Stories. 1923.

Something Childish and Other Stories. 1924; as The Little Girl and Other Stories, 1924.

The Aloe. 1930; edited by Vincent O'Sullivan, 1982.

Undiscovered Country: The New Zealand Stories, edited by Ian A. Gordon. 1974.

The Escape and Other Stories. 1995.

Seven Short Stories. 1996.

Katherine Mansfield: A "Do You Remember" Life: Four Stories. 1996.


Poems. 1923; edited by Vincent O'Sullivan, 1990.


Journal, edited by J. Middleton Murry. 1927; revised edition, 1954.

Letters, edited by J. Middleton Murry. 2 vols., 1928.

Novels and Novelists (reviews), edited by J. Middleton Murry. 1930.

Scrapbook, edited by J. Middleton Murry. 1939.

Letters to John Middleton Murry 1913-1922, edited by J. MiddletonMurry. 1951.

Passionate Pilgrimage: A Love Affair in Letters: Mansfield's Letters to John Middleton Murry from the South of France 1915-1920, edited by Helen McNeish. 1976.

Letters and Journals: A Selection, edited by C. K. Stead. 1977.

The Urewera Notebook, edited by Ian A. Gordon. 1978.

Collected Letters, edited by Vincent O'Sullivan and MargaretScott. 1984-1996.

The Critical Writings, edited by Clare Hanson. 1987.

Letters Between Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, edited by Cherry Hankin. 1988.

Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O'Sullivan. 1989.

The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks. 1997.

Translator, with S. S. Koteliansky, Reminiscences of Leonid Andreyev, by Maksim Gor'kii. 1928.



Mansfield: Publications in Australia 1907-1909 by Jean E. Stone, 1977; "A Bibliography of Mansfield References 1970-1984" by N. Wattie, in Journal of New Zealand Literature, 1985; A Bibliography of Mansfield by B. J. Kirkpatrick, 1989.

Critical Studies:

Mansfield: A Critical Study by Sylvia Berkman, 1951; Mansfield: A Biography, 1953, and The Life of Mansfield, 1980, both by Antony Alpers; Mansfield by Ian A. Gordon, 1954, revised edition, 1971; Mansfield in Her Letters by Dan Davin, 1959; Mansfield by Saralyn R. Daly, 1965; Mansfield: An Appraisal by Nariman Hormasji, 1967; The Edwardianism of Mansfield by Frederick J. Foot, 1969; The Fiction of Mansfield by Marvin Magalaner, 1971; The Art of Mansfield by Mary Rohrberger, 1977; Mansfield: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, 1978; Gurdjieff and Mansfield by James Moore, 1980; Mansfield by Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr, 1981; Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories by Cherry Hankin, 1983; A Portrait of Mansfield by Nora Crone, 1985; Mansfield by Kate Fullbrook, 1986; Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin, 1987; Mansfield by Rhoda B. Nathan, 1988; Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer by Gillian Boddy, 1988; Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia Van Gunsteren, 1990; Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction by J. F. Kobler, 1990; Katherine Mansfield's Fictions by Patrick Morrow, 1993; Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield, 1993; Female Subjectivity in Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories by Simone Elizabeth Murray, 1994; Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Personal and Professional Bond by Nóra Séllei, 1996; Word of Mouth: Body Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf by Patricia L. Moran, 1996; Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield Short Stories by Pamela Dunbar, 1997.

* * *

Born in New Zealand in 1888 as Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, Mansfield managed in her brief life to establish a reputation as one of the finest practitioners of short fiction in English. Five collections of her work were published during her lifetime and her Collected Stories appeared in 1945. (She died of tuberculosis in 1923.) Mansfield mingled stories of delicate poetic evocation, often based on her childhood and adolescence, with others of hard-edged, satiric comedy, such as "The Daughters of the Later Colonel." Her deceptive simplicity and subtlety of style showed the thoroughness with which she had learned the lessons of Chekhov and to a lesser extent Joyce in Dubliners (though she is not above writing wickedly funny parodies of Chekhov in stories like "Green Goggles").

The title story of her second collection, "Bliss," is a fair sample of her work. Thirty-year-old Bertha Young is ecstatically in love with life: "Really—really—she had everything." Mansfield skillfully captures the brittle charm and good humor of the guests at Bertha's dinner party, "just a trifle too much at their ease, a trifle too unaware," and has Bertha imagining that her friend Pearl Fulton shares her own feelings of joy in life. Only at the end does she discover that Miss Fulton, whom her husband Harry affects to despise, is having an affair with him. Less important then the action, however, is the motif of the pear tree that she and Miss Fulton admire. The story ends ambiguously:

"Oh, what is going to happen now?" she cried. But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.

There is little or no action in most of Mansfield's stories. They work instead by suggestion and evocation. Her adult characters especially are often trapped in unhappy situations they cannot escape, although more hope lies with the children, who often recognize the imperfections of their elders.

Josephine and Constantia in "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" are so traumatized by the memory of their tyrannical father that even after his death they are unable to shake off his influence, and this becomes the source of the story's often acerbic comedy:

Josephine had had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing without asking his permission. What would father say when he found out?… "Buried. You two girls had me buried!"

As in many of Mansfield's stories the ending is ambiguous, with at least a slim hope held out that the two women will be able to free themselves from the colonel's posthumous influence.

Many of Mansfield's finest stories go back to her childhood in New Zealand, which she portrays as having a surprisingly deep class consciousness. In "The Garden Party," the title story of perhaps her finest collection, the adolescent Laura learns to reject the condescending response of her mother to the news that a young working man has died. "The Doll's House" examines the way in which adults impose their class values upon their children and the latter resist them:

For the fact was, the school the Burnell children went to was not at all the kind of place their parents would have chosen if there had been any choice. But there was none. It was the only school for miles. And the consequence was all the children of the neighbourhood, the Judge's little girls, the doctor's daughters, the storekeeper's children, the milk-man's, were forced to mix together.

When the Burnell children receive a wonderful doll's house and disobediently allow the ragged Kelveys to come and see it for a few minutes, a moment of Joycean epiphany occurs to end the story.

Meanings and significances seem to stretch beyond the boundaries of Mansfield's stories. If her comedy is sometimes cruel and her vision bleak, there are often redemptive moments of discovery and hope that counteract the pessimistic tone.

—Laurie Clancy

See the essays on "At the Bay," "The Garden Party," and "Prelude."

Mansfield, Katherine

views updated Jun 11 2018

Mansfield, Katherine (1888–1923) British writer, b. New Zealand. A master of the short story, her debut volume was In a German Pension (1911). Her delicate humour and deceptively simple style are best represented by The Garden Party (1922) and The Dove's Nest (1923). Mansfield had a troubled life and died of tuberculosis.

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