Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although “The Doll’s House” is populated by the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” are so closely aligned to “Prelude” that these two stories might be considered a diptych. “New Dresses” is thought to have explored an earlier version of the Burnell family dynamics.
For me, “Prelude” is chiefly about all the various ways in which people live in their own fantasy worlds. Each of the characters in this story has a different relationship with reality, whether it’s make-believe games or pranks played by children, a romantic fantasy played out by a young woman, the slightly crazed imaginings of a ‘desperate housewife’, or the delusions of grandeur enjoyed by the man of a busy household.
Read “Prelude” online at The Katherine Mansfield Society.
Plotwise, “Prelude“, stars the Burnell family, who is moving from the city of Wellington into the nearby country. Mansfield’s own family made a similar move when she was a child, perhaps to escape a bacterial infection which was killing lots of people in central Wellington in the late 1800s. She probably drew on memories of that time. Mansfield called her house in central Wellington ‘a horrid little piggy house’. It was small and plain compared to the house they moved into. (If you visit this original house in Wellington today, you may be surprised at how small it is by modern standards.)
Mansfield originally called “Prelude” “The Aloe”. An aloe (which flowers only once every 100 years) makes a symbolic appearance in this short story, as a beech tree is symbolic in “The Escape” and the pear tree is symbolic in “Bliss“.
The aloe plant has a tall, thick, swollen stem with long, sharp thorns.
Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.
In this story it has been said to symbolise:
- Separate things merging together: past and present, Kezia and Linda.
- Linda’s sexual fears
- Thorns represent the destructive powers of sex and the dominant role fulfilled by the male head of household.
- Power (for Linda) to escape (corresponding with money for Beryl)
In her revision, Mansfield also made her plot less ‘obvious’, leaned more heavily on symbolism to suggest and, in short, turned the story into something far more muted than before. Between revisions she had lost her brother in the war. In the revision, Linda is now pregnant with a male child. Some readers have speculated that this is perhaps in honour of Mansfield’s deceased brother.