Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day

‘Le Soir’, a decorative panel by Camille Martin (1861-1898)

“Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, functioning mainly as a character study.

Chris Lilley’s hipster-ironic comedy techniques have been criticised for enforcing stereotypes rather than critiquing them. That said, Mansfield’s Mr Reginald Peacock reminds me very much of Chris Lilley’s high school drama teacher, and I consider Mr G. the modern Australian equivalent of this very old archetype: The youngish white man who considers himself sensitive, unappreciated, entitled and artistic, solipsistically the star of his own show, and wholly unable to empathise with others.

Mansfield’s Reginald Peacock has a clearly symbolic name, and so do other characters in this short story.

This post will be sprinkled with peacock art, because peacocks were once very fashionable in a way I haven’t seen in my lifetime. Mansfield would have been surrounded by peacocks in fashion and in art. The peacock is still widely understood as a symbol of vanity, which is pretty unfair to peacocks, who are born with their magnificent plumage, and who don’t get to mate unless they strut and rattle their trains.

by the French artist Paul Jouve 1878 - 1973, for Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), Rudyard Kipling, 1919 peacock
by the French artist Paul Jouve 1878 – 1973, for Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), Rudyard Kipling, 1919

STORY STRUCTURE OF “MR REGINALD PEACOCK’S DAY”

SHORTCOMING

As a rule of thumb, readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the viewpoint character but I doubt I speak for myself when I say that Reginald Peacock is less empathetic than his wife from the get go, whose point of view we don’t see at all. Reginald is clearly an unreliable narrator. He imagines his wife wakes him up deliberately, but only because the world revolves around Reginald, not because his wife has a full-time ob of her own, and housework really was a fulltime job back in the early 1900s.

Reginald Peacock embodies a number of deadly sins: sloth, vanity, quiet wrath of his own wife. He is clearly envious of the aristocratic acquaintance who asks his children to shake their father’s hand each morning, and comically tries to gain the same respect from his own son by instituting the practice in his own household. He’s basically a comically depicted flaneur. I have a feeling Mansfield was surrounded by flaneurs in her adult lifetime, hanging around with artists and poets. She was also involved in theatre and acting, so I wager she knew a few Reginald Peacocks in real life.

Mansfield has Reginald self-describing himself as a bird, and how his wife clips his wings, which is a bit of an inversion because it’s most commonly women who are described as birds in fiction and art. I almost forgot for a second that peacocks are a bird. Perhaps the peacock is one of the few masculinised birds in fiction, outshadowing the peahens because of their highly decorative plumage. Mansfield didn’t exactly shy away from describing her female characters as birds. I guess Mansfield was equal opportunity on that score. By the way, what do you call the technique of comparing a human to an animal? If it happens the other way round we call it personification, so I’m going for animalification. At one point, Reginald Peacock is also likened to a frog. (He’s doing his daily exercises.) This is interesting because there’s a particular frog-person archetype which is basically the middle-aged equivalent of the younger peacock. (Peacocks are beautiful, like youth; frogs not so much.)

Apart from the seven deadly sins, at first glance Reginald seems prone to coveting, about to breakone of the Christian commandments, first by fantasising about the latest and most beguiling of his female students. The word ‘latest’ is key here, because these women are not fully rounded in Reginald’s mind. So long as they fit his outsourced image of a desirable woman any one of them could easily be exchanged… and oh, they are, as Mansfield demonstrates with one woman after another. Ostensibly this works because Reginald sees a succession of women over the course of his working day. Aenone Fell, Miss Betty Brittle, the Countess Wilkowska, Miss Marian Morrow. The job fits him well: constant novelty all day, and the opportunity to perform in front of a revolving audience. None of these women has the time to get utterly sick of him.

Charles-Dufresne-The-Peacock-of-Versailles
Charles Dufresne, The Peacock of Versailles

DESIRE

Reginald wants to be the star of his own show, leading a better life than the one he already has. As happens to the best of us, reality punctures his romanticism. For Reginald, it wouldn’t matter who he married, the day-to-day familiarity of his partner would be the killer. Reginald is all about cultivating and seeking out novelty, constantly drawn to mystery.

Common Peacock, Ringed Pheasant, Horned Pheasant, and Silver Pheasant from A history of the earth and animated nature (1820) by Oliver Goldsmith

OPPONENT

The wife remains mindfully unnamed. She goes without a name because she exists as a function to Reginald, not as a human in her own right.

These days, to go without naming a put-upon wife in a story opens the writer up to challenges of sexism. I prefer to trust readers. There’s a darn good reason why Mansfield hasn’t named the wife, but has fully named Reginald , as well as his younger female ‘love’ interests. It’s evidence of his dismissal of her. But this naming avoidance also universalises the wife.

Gaspar Camps (1874-1942) peacock fashion
Gaspar Camps (1874-1942), woman staring at a peacock feather whill wearing a costume that makes her look like a peacock.

PLAN

In a flashback we learn that the wife has learned to deal with Reginald by immersing herself in the day-to-day running of their household. Reginald earns enough to keep her and their son, and in an era of no social security, this was something.

I think most people have the ability to unsee things if it’s to our detriment. It would be to the wife’s emotional advantage if she were to occasionally play along with Reginald’s games. A number of Mansfield’s short stories end with a female character seeing something (perhaps with the fling of the boot, in this case), then mindfully disregarding it. “Her First Ball” is an excellent example of that. The ‘temporary epiphany’ (more commonly known as ‘phantasmagoric’) is a feature of Impressionist fiction, though contemporary short story writers regularly use it, too. As one example, Helen Simpson utilised the phantasmagoric epiphany in her modern climate change story “In-flight Entertainment“. Climate change is the ultimate ‘look away’ example of our times.

Reginald seems to have some kind of phantasmagoric epiphany in this story though goodness knows what it is. I’m sure it’s only champagne-induced.

We get no insight whatsoever into the psychology of Mrs Reginald Peacock. I am relying heavily on Mansfield’s oeuvre when trying to deduce her motivations.

Reginald himself doesn’t have much of a plan other than to reluctantly be broomed about by his wife, then quietly seeths about her while fantasising about other women. If you can call that a plan.

By Warwick Goble (1862-1943)--'Hundreds of peacocks of gorgeous plumes came to the embankments to eat the khai.'- Ill. f. Folk-tales of Bengal, Lal Behari Day (1912)
By Warwick Goble (1862-1943)–‘Hundreds of peacocks of gorgeous plumes came to the embankments to eat the khai.’- Ill. f. Folk-tales of Bengal, Lal Behari Day (1912)

BIG STRUGGLE

It’s pretty unpleasant being stuck for a (short-story-length) day with this pair, who clearly despise each other. (At least, Reginald despises her.) And we don’t get any big fight scene, either. The scene where Reginald comes home drunk is truncated, or perhaps that’s all that happens before husband and wife drift off to sleep.

1920 ad for fragrant Florient Flowers of the Orient beauty products, from Colgate & Company peacock
1920 ad for fragrant Florient Flowers of the Orient beauty products, from Colgate & Company peacock

ANAGNORISIS

In Christianity the peacock is considered a symbol of rebirth, but there’s no such rebirth here. Mansfield clearly isn’t using that particular aspect of peacock symbolism. Reginald starts out lazy, self-absorbed and vain, and ends the same way.

It’s possible that his wife finally had a gutsful of the guy and experienced a self-revelation of her own. But we don’t get to hear her response. (And I don’t imagine that’s how it went down. See below.)

Arthur Wardle - A Fairytale, All seemed to sleep, the timid hare on form, Walter Scott 1895
Arthur Wardle – A Fairytale, All seemed to sleep, the timid hare on form, Walter Scott 1895

NEW SITUATION

However, there’s one small shift that happens at the end, and that wholly resides within me (and I assume in other readers). I see what Reginald’s wife must have initially seen in him, and how she might put up with him still. To be clear, it’s not evident that she does put up with him. This was an era in which a married woman with a child was economically and socially unable to leave her husband. But when Reginald draws her into his own game for a moment, even after scaring her with the clunk of his flung boot, he says, “Dear lady, I should be so charmed–so charmed!” and I’m reminded of the ending of another Mansfield short story, “A Blaze“. At the end of “A Blaze”, husband and wife (Elsa and Victor) come together in what I consider an amae relationship, in which one person loves to be ‘babied’ by the other. Both get a lot of reward from it. (The Japanese concept has far more to it than that.)

If “A Blaze” had been published after “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” I’d have guessed that the marriage dynamic in “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” were a practice story for the more sophisticated but similar relationships in “A Blaze”. In fact, “A Blaze” is the earlier story.

EXTRAPOLATION

The title “Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day” suggests this is a typical day-in-the-life-of story, not an extraordinary one.

Wouldn’t you like to know how (if) Reginald’s wife responded? I want her to throw his other boot at his head, but I doubt that happened. I suspect this is one of those relationships where it’s fight fight all day, kiss kiss at night.

But I don’t know. My prior reading experience of “A Blaze” is colouring my interpretation of Mr Reginald Peacock’s marriage. Sticking only to this particular story, my best evidence for a peaceful reunion is the darkness. Reginald is clearly a night person, preferring to sleep into the day and partying at night. When he returns home to his wife, he can’t see her through the darkness. Aided by liquor and by the fantasy life he’s been living all evening without her, the darkness itself might provide sufficient mystery for him to pretend his wife is not his wife, but a more mysterious and alluring member of his cast. In turn, she might imagine Reginald is not Reginald.

RESONANCE

Even today, highlighted by the 2020 pandemic, the work traditionally expected of women has less social and economic value attached to it than work traditionally done by men. Today, much of women’s work is also invisibilised. I’ve wondered at times if the housewives of the early 20th century at least had their work considered proper work, even though they weren’t personally recompensed, of course.

Mansfield’s 1917 creation of Mr Reginald Peacock is the painfully comic portrait of a man who sort of does consider the running of a house ‘work’ but sort of actually doesn’t at all. We know this because he encourages his wife to hire someone (while also making it impossible for her to keep anyone). The hiring of help is more about status for himself rather than help for his wife. Reginald’s his cognitive dissonance is right there on the page, because when his wife requires him to get out of bed by late morning, and to let her know if he won’t be in for his evening meal, he clearly disrespects the job she is doing.

This short story shows that in the first half twentieth century, while housework and childcare were indeed considered a fulltime job, the cognitive dissonance of husbands infuriated women, even temporarily married and child free women like Katherine Mansfield: Wifely work was proper work — invaluable! — but not valued.

Elizabeth Shippen Green, early 20th Century American illustrator threading needle
Elizabeth Shippen Green, early 20th Century American illustrator threading needle peacock

Header illustration: ‘Le Soir’, a decorative panel by Camille Martin (1861-1898)

The Children Stay by Alice Munro

the children stay

“The Children Stay” is a short story by Alice Munro, published in the collection The Love Of A Good Woman (1998). It’s very difficult to write empathetically about women who leave their husbands and children for another man, especially when it’s purely lust driven rather than depicted as ‘pure love’. This is because mothers are held to a higher standard. Alice Munro’s monumental task is to get the reader to understand exactly why a woman might do as Pauline did. This involves getting deep into Pauline’s mind. I think she manages it perfectly.

Continue reading “The Children Stay by Alice Munro”

Goethe and Angela Carter’s Erl-king

Moritz von Schwind, Illustration to Goethe's Poem "Erlkönig", 1849

“The Erl-King” is a short story by Angela Carter based on an old ballad by Goethe, one of the most famous ballads ever told. Carter’s re-visioning doesn’t take the plot from Goethe’s ballad, but borrows some of the atmosphere, inverting the gaze, turning it into something new. As you might expect from Angela Carter, her re-visioning expands notions of gender.

Below I take a look at both, as a compare and contrast exercise.

GOETHE’S ERL-KING

Goethe’s ballad can be found easily online.

Goethe’s Erl-King (“Der Erlkönig”) is a terrifying narrative poem written by a German called Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1782. The Erl-King was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel (light opera) called Die Fischerin.

What Happens In “Der Erlkönig”

  • A boy and his father are out riding one windy night.
  • The boy is safe and secure, wrapped warmly in his father’s arms.
  • Suddenly the boy hides his face.
  • The boy has seen the Erl-King, or fairy king, who he recognises by the Erl-King’s cloak and crown. The Erl-king is King of the Elves and is hideous.
  • The father reassures the boy, telling him there’s nothing around them but mist. Perhaps he even persuades himself there’s nothing there. The father’s shortcoming is that he has learned not to trust his senses. He is probably doing that very adult and logical thing by relying on past experience, in which he thinks he sees some terrible creature out of the corner of his eye but it always turns out to be nothing.

Who’s riding so late, in the night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He grasps the boy in his arm.
He holds him securely; he keeps him warm.

My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully?
“Father, don’t you see the Erl-King there?
The Erl-King with his crown and train?”
My son, it’s a streak of mist.

  • But the Erl-King starts to sing right into the little boy’s ear, asking the boy to come with him. He promises to play games and find bright flowers together on the shore. We never learn why the Erl-King wants the boy. As in Rumpelstiltskin, we just assume that everyone wants children, especially boy children, fantasy creatures included.
  • Only the boy can hear the Erl-King speak. The father insists there’s no sound but dry leaves in the wind.
  • The Erl-King keeps promising things to the boy daughters who will dance for him all night, holding him and rocking him and loving him. (There are realworld religions which promise feminine care and sex to male followers in the after life.)
  • Now the Erl-King’s daughters beckon to the boy.
  • The father doesn’t see (or acknowledge) these supernatural creatures and insists the beckoning girls are nothing but willows.
  • The Erl-King becomes desperate for the boy and says if he won’t come willingly, he’ll take him anyway.
  • The boy tells his father the Erl-King is gripping him.
  • Finally the father believes the son. (It’s not clear why he suddenly believes the boy now. Why not before?)
  • The father quickly dashes home with his son in his arms.
  • But when the father reaches home, he discovers his son is dead in his arms.

RESONANCE OF GOETHE’S ERL-KING

The trope of the adult who lies to children hoping to protect them from very real fears is utilised frequently to this day in stories. This kind of adult dishonesty continues to be punished in the majority of these narratives, if only because the child is proven correct, exposing the adult as a fool and a liar.

[Goethe’s] ‘Erlking’ … personifies death as a danger above all to the young, who are credited with a more intense perception of the other world in the first place; this intimacy with the supernatural makes them vulnerable to its charms and its desires. Fear is the child’s bedfellow.

Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman

Goethe’s ballad has been set to music by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert.

Many artists have illustrated Goethe’s “Erl-King”. The etching below evinces an unmistakably scary, Gothic tone.

Etching by Anders Zorn, Storm, 1891, The Erl-King. This etching accurately showing the gallop gait, new at the time.

But other artists, long before Angela Carter got to it, saw the erotic potential in Goethe’s ballad. The natural target for this objectification was not The Erl-King himself, because these classic artists were largely heterosexual men, but the Erl-King’s daughters.

Erl-king illustration by Jessie Bayes (1878 – 1970) “The Erl Kings Daughter sending faery servants to their several tasks”. Again the daughter is beautiful. (So is the white stag.)

The Little Governess by Katherine Mansfield

George Dunlop Leslie - Roses

“The Little Governess” (1915) is one of the most functionally useful stories Katherine Mansfield wrote. It’s a cautionary tale without the Perrault didacticism. It’s Little Red Riding Hood, but social realism. This story exists to say, “You’re not alone.” It’s a gendered story, about the specifically femme experience of being alone in public space. Some critics find the ending inadequate. This is a stellar example of a lyrical short story with emotional closure but no plot closure. And it only succeeds in offering emotional closure if the reader can identify with the experience.

Tricksters, villains and criminals are everywhere in narrative. But throughout storytelling, across history the femme seule must deal with a particular subcategory of predator: The sexually predatory trickster. “The Little Governess” is Mansfield’s treatment of that particular dynamic.

Though this story is over 100 years old, it hasn’t dated as much as we might have hoped. Have you ever got a bad feeling about somebody but didn’t want to seem rude, so went along with their plan anyway? “The Little Governess” is a case study into why a young woman might ignore her instincts and find herself isolated.

Continue reading “The Little Governess by Katherine Mansfield”