Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

Katherine Mansfield: The Complete Stories

First published: 1974
Found: Looking for more Virginia Woolf and found Mansfield instead
Pages/read time: 830, two months on and off during exam time

To and fro, in front of the flower-beds and the band rotunda, the couples and groups paraded, stopped to talk, to greet, to buy a handful of flowers fro, the old beggar who had his tray fixed to the railings. Little children ran among them, swooping and laughing; little boys with bit white silk bows under their chins; little girls, like French dolls, dressed up in velvet and lace. And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down “flop,” until its high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue. … They were all on the stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance, after all.
– Miss Brill, 1922

Yet again, as is my habit, I go looking for Virginia Woolf and come away with something equally wonderful instead. This time I was googling ‘authors who write like Woolf’ (there are a surprising number of buzzfeed-esque articles on the subject) and one of the authors listed was Katherine Mansfield. Naturally, I borrowed a volume of her entire collected short stories. #nerd

Mansfield’s most prolific period of writing occurred between the 1910s to 20s with publications in England, France, Australia and her native New Zealand. Her works are set variously in German pensions, trains to war-occupied France, Australian bush properties, Parisian cafes, New Zealand beach sides and London town houses. Her prose is equal parts charming and and dry, mirthful and ironic, poignant and cynical. All short stories and novellas, this particular 1974 collection includes unpublished manuscripts and her first published works that Mansfield refused to have republished during her lifetime because they were ‘not true enough’.
She drew her hand away from Jimmy’s, leaned back, and shut the chocolate box forever.
– Taking the Veil, 1923
[S]he noticed Face’s funny habit of tucking  something down her bodice – as if she kept a tiny, secret hoard of nuts there, too – Bertha had to dig her nails into her hands – so as not to laugh too much.
– Bliss, 1920
Truth is key to Mansfield’s writing- most pieces even feel autobiographical such as the description of a garden party which ends with the news of a death down the lane. Somewhat like Woolf, many stories are long descriptions of small life events – a child’s tea party made with sticks and leaves abandoned in haste for the real thing – and short, curt one-liners on love, life and swims in the ocean. She is humourous and wry and very, very truthful. Mansfield writes about what one might call ‘the little things’. Human day-to-day activities, sudden tragedies during dinner, a little girl’s account of travelling with her grandmother, a child’s gesture of kindness to her classmates. These are, however, not the ‘little things’ – they are the essential things. The daily human truths and great dreams of the everyday. Life set in such a way as to reveal how incredible the seemingly little things are. Food is very central, as are descriptions of bodily sensations from back pain and cold feet, to toddlers ‘making water’ and young women washing their faces.
Lemonade! A whole tank of it stands on a table covered with a cloth; and lemons like blunted fishes blob in the yellow water. It looks solid, like a jelly, in the thick glasses. Why can’t they drink it without spilling? Everybody spills it, and before the glass is handed back the last drops are thrown in a ring.
– Bank Holiday, 1922
Unlike Woolf, who’s stories are heavily inlaid with descriptions and punctuation in a stream-of-consciousness manner, Mansfield combines succinct descriptions with short stream-of-consciousness internal monologues and refreshingly believable dialogue. She is utterly charming with the skill to drop either a bombshell or a fuzzy feeling at the end of every other carefully crafted tableau. To finish I will leave you with this delightful description of two sisters in their early twenties snaffling cream puffs from the kitchen:
Sadie brought [the cream puffs] in and went back tot he door. Of course, Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn’t help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar. …
“Have one each, my dear,” said cook in her comfortable voice. “Yer ma won’t know.”
Oh, Impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream
– The Garden-Party, 1922

One comment on “Katherine Mansfield: The Complete Stories

  1. Pingback: Wild Grass | Ellan Read

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