Content Warning: Microaggressions, classism, 19th century sexism, misogyny
- Short stories
- 348 pages
Although Katherine Mansfield was closely associated with D.H. Lawrence and something of a rival of Virginia Woolf, her stories suggest someone writing in a different era and in a vastly different English. Her language is as transparent as clean glass, yet hovers on the edge of poetry. Her characters are passionate men and women swaddled in English reserve—and sometimes briefly breaking through. And her genius is to pinpoint those unacknowledged and almost imperceptible moments in which those people’s relationships—with one another and themselves—change forever.
My admiration for Virginia Woolf led me to Katherine Mansfield (both being early 20th century modernist writers and friends), and when I found this collection of short stories my interest was particularly piqued by the notion that Katherine Mansfield was “something of a rival of Virginia Woolf” (rival doesn’t really appropriately describe the entire relationship, as I’ve since read here). And now that I’ve slogged through Stories, if I had to choose between the two writers, there is no doubt that I’m Team Virginia Woolf.
While I did enjoy a couple of the stories out of the total 28 in this collection, the majority of them fell flat for me. Katherine Mansfield wrote many characters and quite a bit of dialogue, and by just the halfway point most of those characters and their conversations muddied together in my mind (this continued into the second half of the collection). I don’t want to discount the symbolism, banter, and various descriptions that touched many of my senses—from flowers to food to clothes to furniture—but even those could not elevate the stories from dull to delightful. In fact, I found the first lines of the introduction by Jeffrey Meyers far more impressive and gorgeous than most of Katherine Mansfield’s stories:
Like the painter Watteau and the composer Chopin, Katherine Mansfield is an artist whose strength lies in subtle detail, precise phrasing, delicate observation, and concentrated emotion. Her elegant, witty, and sometimes bitterly ironic stories do not emphasize character and plot, the traditional concerns of fiction, but present a quintessential event, a summary of a human life in a few significant scenes.
It was certainly this emphasis on “a summary of a human life in a few significant scenes” that gave me my overall impression of this collection and these stories—dull, muddied, flat. To me it felt like Katherine Mansfield prioritized style over substance, which made most of the stories nearly unbearable to get through.
Even so, I did encounter some positive elements that are worth pointing out. I may not agree with the point in the synopsis that describes Katherine Mansfield’s writing as “hover[ing] on the edge of poetry”, but I do find the two subsequent sentences to be true (“Her characters are passionate men and women swaddled in English reserve—and sometimes briefly breaking through. And her genius is to pinpoint those unacknowledged and almost imperceptible moments in which those people’s relationships—with one another and themselves—change forever”). Most of the narratives and stories had a dreamy quality to them, as the characters and/or narrator reflected or acted on their emotions, planned out scenarios that may be slightly scandalous for early 20th century society, or contemplated humanity and civility. These reflections and contemplations have so much merit, that it made the characters’ “real lives” outside of their heads feel less tangible, which is an interesting conflict. In many of the stories Katherine Mansfield made the setting quite solid, realistic, and picturesque, which gives the impression that the reader has something to hold on to no matter where the character goes, but that wasn’t really the case. The ideas and actions of the characters felt more reliable and everlasting than the physical, actual elements of each story.
If you do decide to experience Katherine Mansfield’s writing for yourself, I would recommend three stories, which happen to feature the same characters: “Prelude”, “At the Bay”, and “The Doll’s House”. There are many unmarked narrative shifts which I found fun, and while the few men in these stories don’t outwardly reinforce expectations of women, it is through the women that we learn and explore how they are pressured by those expectations. These stories are less dream-like and focused than most of the others in the collection, and the symbolism is a bit more obvious although not gauche, which perhaps is why I found them more affecting.
If you’ve read this collection or any of Katherine Mansfield’s work, I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions; let’s chat in the comments.
I did want to share at least one of the few quotes I actually enjoyed enough to write down in my reading journal; this is from “The Garden Party”:
“But the air! If you stopped to notice, was the air always like this? Little faint winds were playing chase, in a the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star. She could have kissed it.”