Teaching Journal: Katherine Mansfield

I'm teaching a class on 20th century British women writers this spring. It's a modified version of my standard "British modernism" course. I wanted to try teaching people like Irish Murdoch, Doris Lessing, A.S. Byatt, and Monica Ali, writers I often can't quite make room for. Thus far it's been a lot of Virginia Woolf, and a brief but exciting bit of Katherine Mansfield.

I initially just scheduled one day for Katherine Mansfield, on the strength of Hermione Lee's comments on the friendship between Mansfield and Virginia Woolf in her recent, definitive biography of Woolf. Following Lee's reading of the relationship between Mansfield and Woolf, I planned to put Mansfield in as a contemporary with a vision of the modern experience parallel to Woolf's (similar themes), but with a radically different approach to telling stories (different form).

But it worked out quite differently. For one thing, my students reacted really energetically to the three Mansfield stories I assigned, so I decided to add four more stories and extended the discussion by a day. In the first class, the discussion of both class relations and the symbolic importance of death in "The Garden-Party" seemed to have a nice spark to it. And in the second session, the polymorphous (bisexual? queer?) eros that one finds in "Bliss" also seemed to generate quite a bit of interest.

[Note: read a helpful bio of Katherine Mansfield here. And most of Mansfield's major short stories are available online via Project Gutenberg, or at sites like Arthur's Classic Novels. You could go read one right now, if you felt like it.]

Woolf and Mansfield are especially close in their shared vision of the ephemerality (or collapse?) of the big concepts that form the bedrock of 19th century literary individualism –- the distinction of the self from others, the ability to know and understand that self, and the ability to respond to crises rationally and intentionally. But where Woolf wrote monumental philosophical novels about the dissolution of the self, Mansfield makes the point in small, impressionistic passages in short stories whose themes seem trifling in comparison to Woolf’s. And yet the point is no less real, and no less admirably expressed.

After reading about a dozen of Mansfield's stories, it now seems to me that Mansfield’s differences from Woolf are actually both thematic and formal. Mansfield has a capacity for directness that is at least disarming, and at its most extreme rather shocking ("Bliss"; "The Garden-Party"; "Marriage a la Mode"; "The Man With No Temperament").

Mansfield’s adult characters are philosophical but not social radicals. In Mansfield's world adulthood seems to always be a story of failure, expressed in the stories via the exposure of a series of little weaknesses that actually have big ramifications. An example is Isabel’s failure, in "Marriage a la Mode," to immediately respond to her husband’s threatened divorce. Another example is Laura’s failure, in "The Garden Party," to insist on the cancellation of the Garden Party when a man in her immediate neighborhood has just met with a fatal accident. And it's there again in "Bliss," in Bertha Young's complete mis-appraisal of her erotic/spiritual connection to Miss Fulton.

These may seem like small imperfections -- "character flaws," they could be called -– but I think they suggest a generalized condition, not just a problem with some lost individuals. Mansfield’s protagonists embody Virginia Woolf’s famous motto in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" that something in "human character" changed in the 1910s, but that change is not so much a new capacity for self-reflexive and self-conscious thinking (Woolf's argument) as it is a complete, radical evacuation of interiority. (Mansfield might protest if she were reading this; on the surface, she appears to be passionately invested in discovering her characters' interior lives. But as much as there are many moments of small "revelations," self-knowledge never seems to lead anywhere concrete in Mansfield. It's as if the self that knows itself is essentially paralyzed.)

So I'm newly interested in Mansfield, and satisfied with my recent experience teaching her stories. And maybe I'll write something bigger on her once I've made my way through the remainder of her stories. I also probably need to take a crack at her letters and diaries.

But: is she Woolf's philosophical equal? Is she as good a writer? Maybe, maybe not. Check out the final lines of "The Garden Party," and decide for yourself. The protagonist Laura has gone to pay her condolences to a working-class family where a man has died. She's naive, deeply uncomfortable to be out of her social element, and also feeling a little guilty that her posh little lunch went on as scheduled, even when someone in the neighborhood had just died:

"You'd like a look at 'im, wouldn't you?" said Em's sister, and she brushed past Laura over to the bed. "Don't be afraid, my lass,"--and now her voice
sounded fond and sly, and fondly she drew down the sheet--"'e looks a picture. There's nothing to show. Come along, my dear."

Laura came.

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.

But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn't go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.

"Forgive my hat," she said.

And this time she didn't wait for Em's sister. She found her way out of the door, down the path, past all those dark people. At the corner of the lane she met Laurie [her brother].

He stepped out of the shadow. "Is that you, Laura?"


"Mother was getting anxious. Was it all right?"

"Yes, quite. Oh, Laurie!" She took his arm, she pressed up against him.

"I say, you're not crying, are you?" asked her brother.

Laura shook her head. She was.

Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. "Don't cry," he said in his warm, loving voice. "Was it awful?"

"No," sobbed Laura. "It was simply marvellous. But Laurie--" She stopped, she looked at her brother. "Isn't life," she stammered, "isn't life--" But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood.

"Isn't it, darling?" said Laurie.