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.
Commentaries on this story fall into two main categories:
- Over multiple viewpoints we are shown that Kezia still has the future before her. (Sometimes Beryl is thought to have the future before her.) But Linda, in contrast, has no future at all. In this reading, Mrs Fairfield is seen as a warm and encouraging grandmother. In this reading we can find numerous examples of preludes: The family’s move is a prelude to a new kind of suburban living, the children’s prelude to adolescence, Beryl’s prelude to spinsterhood, Mrs Fairfield’s prelude to death. Unfortunately Linda gets no prelude. She’s done. This explains why she’s a little down, I guess.
- In the feminist reading, Mansfield uses imagery to reveal the power struggle between men and women. Kezia is all caged up. Linda is trapped within marriage, but going through an hysterical rebellion. Stanley exerts dominion over not just the house he bought, but also wants to expand to buying a pew at church etc.
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“, features the Burnell family, who are 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.)
The story is not of an individual character but of an entire cast. Imagine the story as a stained glass window:
[Mansfield’s] intention is not to focus the material in a certain single character and thus achieve unity of vision. She centers the material upon all characters and thus obtains a number of visions which exist not in a hierarchy but in an anarchy. The very sectioning of the stories indicates the author’s intentions of avoiding characterisation. Each section is a piece of coloured glass, and all the pieces exist together not in subordination but in juxtaposition. Out of each piece comes a shaft of light, the point of view of a character.Yuan-Shu Yen
Mansfield’s earlier version of “Prelude” was called “The Aloe”. An aloe (which flowers only once every 100 years) makes a symbolic appearance in this short story. Mansfield liked symbolic trees. 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 the aloe 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’, leaning 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.
What Happens In “Prelude”
Mansfield wrote that she was having a difficult time defining this story. “What form is it?… As far as I know, it’s more or less my own invention.”
A narrative camera follows various members of a household as they move from the city to the country then settle in (or not, as the case may be).
Writing Techniques of Note
- Characters are mentioned before we meet them in person, which helps ground readers within the wider network of characters. We also look forward to meeting them properly when we do finally see them in action. We know quite a bit about the grandmother before we’ve met her, for instance: She’s probably closer to Kezia than Kezia is to her own mother, as Kezia watched her pack. The grandmother packed carefully, and Kezia knows there will be nothing left in her room — a careful sort of woman who perhaps grew up with little in the way of possessions. She’s a longtime friend of the kindly store man and we see her scrabbling about in the distance trying to look after Linda, who is ‘prostrate’ on the dray. (A dray is a two-wheeled cart.) We also hear about Pip and Rags, so we know they are cousins before we meet them properly.
- Read “Prelude” as an excellent example of a story which achieves “The Overview Effect” (seen also in We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen, Matchless by Gregory Maguire and Happy Valley Season One.)
- Mansfield was expert at expanding short periods of time so they felt much longer.
- Mansfield explores various forms of ‘fantasy’ in this story, and how some fantasies are fun, others self-sabotaging, still others a little disturbing.
- She aligns child characters to adult characters — one daughter is like her mother; another is more aligned with her auntie.
- The narration is expertly done, with a very TV-like feel to it (even in the days before TV) — the camera moves from one scene to another, and each scene includes a different ensemble of cast members. Mansfield learned these tricks earlier than most writers because of her involvement in theatre.
“Prelude” is full of fleeting images signalled by words like ‘looked’, ‘seemed’, and ‘as if’. Reality in “Prelude only exists as momentarily perceived by the characters, as it seems to them at a particular moment. Kezia sees the aloe as old and withered; her mother sees it as cruel, invincible, and as a means of escape and she lies about the blossom period. Characters in “Prelude” have a solipsistic, momentary, fragmentary view of reality. There is continual irony as different characters misunderstand each other, fail to communicate or remain trapped in solipsistic isolation from each other.Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism
STORY STRUCTURE OF “PRELUDE”
In which the Burnell family set off by cart to their new home in the country, leaving the younger two daughters behind.
- There is no room for Kezia and Lottie in the buggy because the buggy is full of household stuff. Eldest daughter Isabel is riding in the front, which she seems proud of. The mother is revealed to value her possessions more than she values her children. (The possessions are considered ‘absolute necessities’ whereas the youngest two girls are optional.) So Kezia and Lottie are left with a neighbour, Mrs Samuel Josephs, who seems to be suffering from allergies or adenoids (conveyed via spelling in her dialogue).
- Kezia and Lottie eat tea with the high-spirited neighbour kids in the nursery, who trick Kezia into thinking there will be strawberries and cream rather than bread and dripping to eat. Kezia feels humiliated. This is the first time in the story a character doesn’t make a clear distinction between what is real and what is imagined. Young Stanley’s joke is a bit of child’s play rather than the work of a practised fantasist, but contrasts with how adult Beryl makes up her own story of a more pleasant life, aiming to dupe only herself. (Mansfield isn’t bothered about distinguishing between young Stanley next door and Mr Stanley Burnell — such coincidences happened in real life.)
In which Kezia says goodbye to her early childhood home and looks through symbolic windows.
- Kezia ventures back to their old house to explore. Their home is now empty. For Kezia, the house has a ghostly, scary feel about it. The colours of the scene are golden and blue with dots of red. The flowers through the window look a lot more colourful again. Lottie comes to collect her.
- Later, when the evening chill has set in, the girls are taken to their new country house by the kindly store man in his wagon. I’m struck by how fatherly the store man is, and how he tucks up their feet in a piece of old blanket and lets them snuggle in close. This was a time before people realised that some adults cannot be trusted alone with young children — even ‘old friends’ you buy grapes from. And so he was trusted completely. The role of men must have changed over the past century — it seems to me from the store man example that men were both removed from their own children but more able to express tenderness towards other people’s without arousing suspicion. Later: ‘Tenderly the storeman lifted her, set her cap straight, and pulled down her crumpled clothes.’
In which Lottie and Kezia travel to their new house and explore. Meanwhile, the adults argue a little and canoodle.
- The girls notice the night scene as they travel to their new house — they’ve never been out so late. They notice the speckling sky, the moon and the harbour. They see green lights coming out of the ships carrying coal, and the lighthouse on Quarantine Island. (I believe this is now known as Matiu/Somes Island (with both its Maori and European name.) The girls see the Picton Boat, which features in “The Voyage“. (For all we know, Fenella is riding that ferry right now, and her grandmother is climbing onto the top bunk of their cabin.)
- By the time they get to the house, Lottie is asleep on her feet. Kezia is trusted to carry the lamp. (This is a time before electricity.) Children can’t easily be trusted with lamps because there’s always a danger of setting the house on fire.
- At the new house, Linda Burnell has got a headache, and is described as a melodramatic queen.
- Stanley Burnell’s character is summed up in one brilliant snippet of dialogue. When offered tea he replies, “Well, you might just give me five-eighths of a cup,” showing his pernickety, fastidious personality.
- Beryl and Stanley are having dinner. There are more adults than children living in this house. Beryl is Linda’s unmarried sister. Stanley calls his wife ‘darling’ and Beryl by her given name.
- Isabel’s character is also introduced succinctly — she boasts about eating a whole chop, bone and all. When chastised for boasting, she is offended that she has been accused of boasting. For a child, there are few things worse than feeling misunderstood. (Funnily enough, she’s not accused of lying. Beryl’s fond of fabrications herself, so although a child couldn’t possibly have eaten a chop, bone and all, Beryl doesn’t chastise her for that.)
- Beryl and Stanley have a bit of a faux-lovers’ tiff about the moving in arrangements.
- Then Linda and Stanley share an intimate moment until they are interrupted by their eldest daughter.
In which everyone at the new house goes to bed.
- The children are taken to bed by their grandmother.
- There are no sheets on the beds at this point. The scratchy blankets make Kezia imagine she’s playing a game of Cowboys and Indians.
- The girls fall asleep to new sounds they’re yet to get used to. This is always the way in a new house — you hear every little thing the first night, then after that you sleep more soundly.
- Lottie and Kezie pray, then fall sleep in the same bed with their little bottoms barely touching.
- The scene switches to Beryl undressing for bed. Whereas Kezia imagined Indians, Beryl imagines being watched by a lover outside her window. In bed, she imagines being swept away by a rich suitor fresh off the boat from England.
- The scene switches again to Stanley and Linda’s bedroom. Stanley is talking business with an uninterested wife who clearly leaves all economic matters to her husband. (Women had only quite recently won the right to vote in New Zealand at this time.)
- The scene switches to Pat the handmaid, who has his own small room behind the kitchen. He is described as ‘a hanged man’. He owns an empty bird-cage.
- We get one single sentence about the servant girl who, like the woman who cared for the daughters all afternoon, ‘has adenoids’. (I wonder if she actually had hay fever, which would have been exacerbated by all the extra pollen of the surrounding bush, or perhaps she was sensitive to dust mites, stirred up in the move.)
- The grandmother goes to sleep with Kezia. She removes her false teeth. In those days in New Zealand, women commonly had all of these teeth extracted (sans pain relief) before their wedding days, to save their husbands needing to spend money on tooth maintenance. The girls’ fathers thought they were doing a favour to their future sons-in-law. This happened to my own grandmother and to her sister, who both had all of their strong, white teeth removed once they left school.
In which the Burnell children play make-believe outside while their mother languishes passively in bed, waiting for something — she doesn’t know what.
- The morning vista is described as red and green, wet and a little windy. Typical Wellington weather. The various birds sound loud.
- Linda dreams of birds, prompted by the birdcall outside her new window. She is dreaming of her late father. A baby bird becomes a baby human, which scares her. This dream gives us some insight into how Linda feels about motherhood. (It scares her a little. For her, motherhood is abject.)
- Stanley goes about his morning exercises, in which he looks ridiculous. He gets himself caught up in his shirt and remind Linda of a turkey.
- Linda remains in bed, Stanley leaves for work and the children are required to play outside. They play an imaginary game involving mud pies.
- Linda seems to be hallucinating, imagining the furniture and furnishings coming alive. Her hallucinations seem to keep her company, which makes her seem very isolated and lonely within her own busy household.
In which old Mrs. Fairfield washes the breakfast dishes and Kezia explores the garden
- We get a bit of the old woman’s back story — she lived in Tasmania as a young woman, and as a young mother.
- We learn that she takes comfort in household routine and order. If Mrs Fairfield were a fabric she’d be a checked cloth. She likes the ritual of tea, and still mothers her married daughter. Linda associates her mother with everything being in pairs.
- The story shifts to Kezia after Linda thinks of Kezia being ‘tossed by a bull’.
- Kezia has explored the yard and managed to get lost.
- Mansfield describes the garden, though not fully from Kezia’s point of view, because I doubt a child that young would know the names of all the plants. However, the description of the ‘little white ones’ which are ‘far too full of insects to hold under anyone’s nose’ does sound like Kezia’s voice. ‘Cabbage roses on thick stalks, moss roses, always in bud, pink smooth beauties opening curl on curl, red ones so dark they seemed to turn black as they fell, and a certain exquisite cream kind with a slender red stem and bright scarlet leaves’ sounds like an unseen narrator, but then we’re back to Kezia’s point of view at the conclusion of the description with ‘all kinds of little tufty plants she had never seen before’.
- Kezia rolls down the slope and makes herself giddy.
- Kezia makes a ‘surprise’ for her grandmother, puts a selection of petals and flowerheads inside a matchbox then ‘tricks’ her grandmother into opening the box for a match. The grandmother plays along, as she always does. This detail strikes me as very much what little kids do with adults who will pay them attention. (I once tricked my own grandmother with an eraser which looked and smelled like three squares of chocolate, but she didn’t twig to the joke and bit down hard. She wasn’t impressed at my ‘deceit’. At four of five years of age, I had thought it was obviously an eraser! The eraser bore the deep imprints of her dentures for the remainder of its lifespan.)
- On the way back to the house she notices a plant she’d never seen before. Her mother tells her it’s an aloe.
In which Stanley comes home after work in a state of cherry-eating bliss, and tries to sweep his low-affect wife up into his enthusiasm for the new house. In the second part of this section we accompany as she plays the guitar, interrupted by the servant girl.
- On his way home, Stanley picks up luxury, celebratory items: oysters, pineapple, cherries. Meanwhile, his servant attends to him as if he’s a baby, trucking him up in the brown rug.
- Ironically, Stanley thinks there’s ‘nothing servile about him’, despite him being the ultimate servant, attending to his master’s feet. Stanley is happy to believe Pat is content doing his job. (Pat is a new servant, hired for their move to the country.) He thinks of giving him some of his cherries, but realises he’d ‘better wait a little longer’, subtext reading: He does know that he needs a relationship of master-servant from the beginning, or their dynamic will be too odd.
- Stanley looks forward to arriving home at his new house in the country. He thinks of it as a kind of utopia. He feels ecstatic, akin to Bertha Young in “Bliss“. (And since you’ve read “Bliss”, you’ll know that these ecstatic feelings can never last.)
- In common with his children and wife, Stanley is inclined to see objects as something else. He sees the cherries as ‘a perfect little pair of Siamese twins.’
- Stanley imagines himself in church, singing very well. He imagines talking to his wife about work, and it’s evident that Stanley doesn’t understand his wife’s lack of interest. This is a man incapable of taking another’s point of view, he’s so full of self-importance.
- Stanley’s deep desire is to provide for his family. He produces the oysters and pineapple ‘as though he had brought her back all the harvest of the earth’.
- Linda isn’t very impressed, referring to them as ‘silly things’. Her mood is out of sync with Stanley’s. She refuses to eat the cherries he bought for her because she doesn’t want to ruin her appetite for dinner.
- Linda and Stanley go upstairs together. Stanley remains happy; Linda shivers from the heavy dew. She closes the bedroom window. (Pathetic fallacy — Linda withdraws from her husband.)
- Beryl sits on a hassock (a big cushion, often used for kneeling during prayer) and plays guitar. She has created an imaginary audience for herself. Rather than getting caught up in the music, Beryl is all about how she appears to others.
- But she is interrupted by the servant girl, who has a ‘crimson face’ (to contrast with her own white hue).
- At the end of this scene she smiles into the mirror because smiling makes her look adorable, but the act of smiling itself makes her genuinely happy, or so we are told. The ending of this section is reminiscent of the end of “Her First Ball“, or “The Doll’s House“, in which young female characters almost seem to make a decision to be happy, as if making the decision is all it takes. It’s like they’re all read self-help books fro the 1990s, which tended to emphasise ‘the power of positive thinking’. (Those ideas have now evolved into ‘action, not thoughts’.) What sort of self-help ideas were doing the rounds in New Zealand at the turn of the 20th century, I wonder? Beryl may not have been up with current trends in psychology, but Katherine Mansfield certainly was. In 1890, William James (brother of Henry James) published The Principles of Psychology. We can safely guess Mansfield read this unexpected bestseller because she quoted from James (a different work of his) in a 1920 review of The Captives by Hugh Walpole. What did James believe about psychology? His ideas were ahead of his time:
James hypothesised that the relationship between emotion and behaviour was a two-way street, and that behaviour can cause emotion. According to James, smiling can make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad. Or, to use James’s favourite way of putting it: “You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of the bear because you run from it.”
In which the children annoy the dog and play make-believe outside.
- The children include a pineapple into their make believe because Stanley brought one home last night. What else have they taken directly from life? Their attitude towards the servant class, undoubtedly. Mansfield teases this aspect of the Burnell children out in “The Doll’s House”, and here we see them observe that servants are not to be talked to. This is the child, make-believe version of the scene of Stanley in the cart, wishing to give Pat a cherry, but knowing he cannot, not without upsetting the social order.
- The Burnells’ cousins arrive. Pip and Rags Trout are distinguished by their personalities — Pip is a boisterous boy (adhering to everyone’s idea of what a little boy should be), whereas Rags is more transgressive, and would like to play with dolls. Pip has a dog which, by modern standards, he is abusing somewhat, by creating concoctions then feeding that to the dog.
- The new garden is described as ‘bonzer’. ‘Boncer’ is a New Zealand/Australian word no longer used, meaning wonderful. (I have heard ‘bonzer’ to mean the same thing — is bonzer an evolution of ‘boncer’?) Others have suggested different etymology, with an Australian focus:
Bonzer is an adjective meaning ‘surpassingly good, splendid, great’. The word is also used as a noun meaning ‘something (or someone) that excites admiration by being surpassingly good of its kind’, and as an adverb meaning ‘beautifully, splendidly’. Bonzer is possibly an alteration of the now obsolete Australian word bonster (with the same meaning) which perhaps ultimately derives from British dialect bouncer ‘anything very large of its kind’.ANU
- The children negotiate their make-believe games, with Isabel wanting to play boring games in which she is in control of the others, and Kezia rebels, remembering unpleasant incidents from previous occasions.
- Pip ties a kerchief around the dog’s head, with the aim of flattening his ears against his head in the way of proper fighting dogs.
Section eight emphasises the centrality of mimicry.
Two of the characters have status-making titles (Mrs Jones and Mrs Smith). Gwen is just Gwen. The children don’t know whether she should be introduced to a Visiting Lady or not. These are children still trying to nut out the complicated rules of etiquette in upper-middle class New Zealand society.
When the Trout boys turn up the game changes into a different variety of competition.
Pip is like Stanley, and is keen to draw attention to himself. He boasts about his athletic prowess.
Isabel wants to play hospitals. By doing so she can salvage a role that will give her some importance, even in male company. She wants to be the nurse, who holds some degree of feminine power. She tries again by suggesting a game of “Ladies”, in which she will be the mother.
Kezia doesn’t want to play Ladies. She has no enthusiasm for a game which simply mimics boring old ordered society — she’d probably prefer more of a carnivalesque adventure.
These games are not simply proto-adult games — clearly, the children are already part of the same big game of jostling for hierarchy in every mundane aspect of their social lives.
Ditto for sexuality. These kids are already sexual, albeit in a typically childlike sense. The games of Hospitals and Ladies hint at childhood sexual curiosity. Talk of the fictional Mrs Smith and her children shows these real children haven’t quite got a handle on how babies are made. They haven’t got the facts of life straight. They’re factually unsophisticated but not textually unsophisticated. They have taken on board the overall resentment around Linda’s pregnancy. The fictional baby is cast out of the buggy as the children are cast out of their home.
In which Pat kills the duck and the children are disturbed by it. (I find the image a little disturbing myself.) This scene is clearly a rite of passage for the children, part of their ongoing education in the cycles of life: birth, death, consumption, revival and so on.
- Pat the handyman kills a duck for dinner. First he collects the children so they can watch the spectacle. Some critics consider this a scene redolent with sexual symbolism, given the scene that came before.
- They all go to the steam. Pat pretends to feed one grain, then catches it when it comes close. He has tricked the duck. (Much earlier in this story, Kezia was also taken in with a food trick. No wonder she affiliates herself with the duck.)
- The children each have a different reaction to the duck, who continues to run after the head has been decapitated.
- Pip is delighted.
- The younger, more sensitive cousin Rags wonders if the duck’s head might still be alive. He hasn’t fully comprehended the nature of death and how it all works.
- Kezia stops thinking about the dead duck when she realises Pat wears earrings. She didn’t know men could wear earrings. (In fact, men have been wearing earrings for much longer than women.) Pat’s sexual ambiguity distracts Kezia from wanting things as they had been before.
In which Alice prepares afternoon tea and is irritated by Beryl.
- The reader sees that Alice and Beryl are cut from the same cloth, each living in their own kind of hopeful fantasy world. But Alice doesn’t like being micromanaged when doing her job of putting out afternoon tea, and Beryl has already shown to consider herself above Alice, so the two will never know each other.
- Also like Beryl, Alice has the facility to change her mood by simple will. She quickly recovers her temper, not by smiling in the mirror, but by imagining she’s said what she wanted to say.
In which Linda goes out to view the garden. She takes special note of the aloe, which she earlier told Kezia only flowers every 100 years.
- Alice has cooked the duck and presents it to Stanley for carving.
- Point of view shifts to Stanley, who does not trust anyone else to cut meat, especially not women. He pretends he doesn’t know the duck is a ‘home product’ and asks anyway. This is Stanley’s form of fantasising. He likes to play out being Father as if on a home stage, and in a play the father would ask such a thing, for the benefit of an unseen audience. He’s similar to Beryl in this respect.
- The family eats ‘tea’ (the New Zealand word for the evening meal) in the drawing-room.
- Stanley regards Beryl as similar to himself in her fondness for food.
- Beryl moves the lamp so that she is bathed by its light, rather than Linda. This is a rather literal way of saying that Beryl is enjoying her brother-in-law’s attention and needs to be noticed.
- Linda feels separated from them both as Beryl and Stanley play cribbage together.
- The reader notices how Beryl is similar to her mother, having ‘two pairs’ (Mrs Fairchild was earlier revealed to prefer everything in pairs.)
- Beryl is happy to let Stanley win the game, since he is competitive (and petty) by nature. Because cribbage is made up of pairs of pegs, she can imagine for this short while that she is paired up with Stanley.
- We learn that the furniture in the house belonged to old Mrs. Fairfield. I suspect this is where the family’s money has come from, and that Stanley has married into it, hence his competitive spirit, and the need to prove himself in the business world. (Because he’s so ridiculous, and because Linda takes no interest, I wouldn’t be surprised if in twenty years’ time he’d lost the entire family fortune.) In “At The Bay” we learn that Stanley does earn a good income — double that of his brother-in-law, Jonathan Trout.
- Two big moths fly in through the open window. This symbolism is used elsewhere throughout storytelling, including near the end of Six Feet Under, in which the character of Nate desperately tries to get a bird out of the house. Like birds, moths have this gothic symbolism attached, and whatever it means, it never seems to mean anything good. It’s not clear which of the drawing room people tells the moths to fly out again before it’s too late. Or perhaps they simply thought it. (Katherine Mansfield put thoughts inside speech marks as well as speech.)
- On the balcony, Linda speaks to her mother ion the boat she imagines in the sky, “Don’t you feel that it is coming towards us?” I’m reminded very much of the scene between Bertha and Pearl in “Bliss“. One woman tries to make a connection with another as they both look at foliage.
- Linda and grandma go to inspect the aloe to see if it’s about to flower or if it simply looks like it under moonlight.
- Linda has a anagnorisis about living life to the fullest. In contrast, her mother has been thinking about jam. They haven’t been on the same page at all.
In which Beryl writes a letter to a friend saying that the family has been in the new house for a week and that Stanley will bring two young men home with him for lunch and tennis.
- The first section of part twelve is epistolary, taking the form of Beryl’s letter.
- A week has passed since the beginning of the story.
- Bertha imagines she’s now ‘on the shelf’ with no marriage prospects and a year away from being a most awful frump. This is a form of side shadowing, and leaves the reader with one possible New Situation, and because it’s extrapolated by an unreliable, melodramatic character, we are also able to formulate our own endings for this family. (Mine is that Stanley sent them bankrupt, which would force Beryl into a less-than-satisfactory marriage of convenience. She would spend the rest of her life in fantasy, perhaps too old to have her own children by that point.)
- At first we don’t know who the letter is to, but we can tell it’s to another female friend. She talks about dressmaking. Then we are told the name of the recipient is Nan Pym, described as ‘a solid kind of girl, with fat hips and a high colour’ — exactly the sort of friend Beryl would seek out, reminiscent of a Kim and Sharon sort of ‘friendship’ in which Beryl is the designated beautiful one and Nan her sycophant.
- ‘It was her other self who had written that letter. It not only bored, it rather disgusted her real self.’ Has Beryl known all along that she has two distinct and separate selves, or is this something she realises just now, looking at the letter which feels very much not of herself?
- Beryl examines herself in the mirror, as if to try and work out which part of her is her ‘true’ self. She regards herself, grading herself on beauty, pulling each feature apart as if distinct from the rest of her. Then she realises what she’s doing and feels disgusted by herself.
- She reflects on the night before, when she put her white hand next to Stanley’s brown one, hoping he’d notice the difference in shade (I doubt he did), and again she disgusts herself. She concludes that if she was leading her ‘own’ life rather than living with her mother and married sister, then this false self would disappear.
- Kezia interrupts her in the bedroom to tell her to come down for lunch and one of Stanley’s friends has arrived. This snaps Beryl out of her maudlin mood and she regrets crumpling her skirt by kneeling next to the bed. (She’s switched back to her usual false self. The real-er self was the insecure self. I feel Beryl is almost certainly on the narcissistic spectrum.)
- Has Kezia been listening in on Aunt Beryl? She tells her toy cat to “look at yourself”, as Beryl has just been doing, thinking herself in private.
- Kezia has done something mildly naughty, dropping the top of the cream jar onto the floor. She tiptoes away ‘far too quickly and airily’. Just like her auntie, Kezia is learning to draw a distinction between her natural, childlike self and the self she feels she must present to the world.
SETTING OF “PRELUDE”
The mention of certain plants in the Burnells’ new garden offers a distinctively New Zealand location.
Beyond the house, the family’s domestic space is clearly demarcated by the cultivated garden, with its deliberate arrangement of familiar British plants emphasising the total dependence of the family’s economic and social status, as well s its value system, on the colonial centre. The domesticated space of the garden exists in sharp contrast t the recently settled land beyond it, which is glimpsed only rarely, but in which we find depicted the often brutal realities of the agriculture and dangerous manual labour that are necessary to maintain the economic structures which permit the colonial family’s starkly incongruous existence in the midst of such terrain.Richard Brock
The era was xenophobic. This story includes dismissal of all things Chinese but romanticises the “tomahawk” and the “Indian brave”.
As Kezia and Lottie approach their new house, they experience it like this:
…they were clanking through a drive that cut through the garden like a whiplash, looping suddenly an island of green, and behind the island, but out of sight until you came upon it, was the house. It was long and low built, with a pillared veranda and balcony all the way round. The soft white bulk of it lay stretched upon the green garden like a sleeping beast. And now one and now another of the windows leaped into light. Someone was walking through the empty rooms carrying a lamp. From the window downstairs the light of a fire flickered. A strange beautiful excitement seemed to stream from the house in quivering ripples.
In common with contemporary short story writers such as Alice Munro, Mansfield had the ability to write a story over a condensed period of time (here it’s seven days) but convey to the reader that it takes place over a much longer period of time. She does this by juxtaposing the various experiences of time:
- In the story, time is measured by the clock. ‘The clock ticked in the warm air, slow and deliberate, like the click of an old woman’s knitting needle…’
- The characters are each caught up in their daily routines, mostly unable to look beyond any given moment, though the grandmother thinks back on her time in Tasmania. Looking back in time is often the preserve of the elderly in storytelling. Younger characters, especially adults with young children, are rarely afforded time to reflect outside the immediacy of their daily lives.
- Beryl is a classic Katherine Mansfield fantasist, unencumbered by children or by housework (she only dishes it out). She has the ability to move forward into an imagined future.
- Three generations living in the same house suggest a longer time in history.
- Mansfield includes symbolism of nature, of the movement of planets rotating around the sun, of the aloe which flowers only once every 100 years, affords the reader something akin to The Overview Effect, experienced most acutely by astronauts who view Earth from space for the first time.
The Moon gives a feeling of legend to the story.
- The moon is seen by Kezia when it is in its first quarter, low in the sky, rising over the ocean
- In section four, Beryl undresses in the moonlight: high in the sky
- Later, Linda watches two moths flying round and round bringing ‘the silence and the moonlight in with them on their silent silent wings’.
- Linda stands with Mrs Fairchild in the garden under the gibbous moon.
So, the movement of the moon is tied to the various phases of women in the household, providing an overriding sense of time and a feeling of swelling growth.
As the women are connected to the moon, Stanley is connected to the sun. Mansfield had already made use of this same symbolism in her short story “Sun and Moon“. On his first morning in their new house he stands naked in the exact center of a square of sunlight. Everything revolves around him. Everyone rallies around him as he departs for work with much nervous energy. His departure and arrival is timed with the sun; he leaves at sunrise and comes home at sunset.
GEOGRAPHY OF THE STORYWORLD
The Burnell family moves:
- From one house to another
- From city to country
- From house to garden. Frequent mention is made of windows. The view from the windows serve to orientate the characters in their new house. Throughout storytelling, windows are highly symbolic.
The dining-room window had a square of coloured glass at each corner. One was blue and one was yellow. Kezia bent down to have one more look at a blue lawn with blue arum lilies growing at the gate, and then at a yellow lawn with yellow lilies and a yellow fence. […]
She knew there was nothing in her grandmother’s room; she had watched her pack. She went over to the window and leaned against it, pressing her hands to the pane.
Kezia liked to stand so before the window. She liked the feeling of the cold shining glass against her hot palms, and she liked to watch the funny white tops that came on her fingers when she pressed them hard against the pane. As she stood there, the day flickered out and dark came. With the dark crept the wind snuffling and howling. The windows of the empty house shook, a creaking came from the walls and floors, a piece of loose iron on the roof banged forlornly. Kezia was suddenly quite, quite still, with wide open eyes and knees pressed together. She was frightened.
The windows were open; a jar of wild flowers stood on the mantelpiece, and the lamp made a big soft bubble of light on the ceiling.
When Linda shut the window the cold dew touched her finger tips. Far away a dog barked. “I believe there is going to be a moon,” she said. […] She shivered; she came away from the window and sat down upon the box ottoman beside Stanley.
Tea was served in the drawing-room, and Beryl, who for some reason had been very charming to Stanley ever since he came home, suggested a game of crib. They sat at a little table near one of the open windows.
- From family spaces into private rooms
- From reality to fantasy, with dreams forming a montage with reality. This focalises characters’ attention on more than two points of time at once.
In this way, time and place are one and the same.
Orderly Progression/Sequential Time vs Chaos
On moving day everything is ordered. Linda Burnell waves her white hand, directing where furniture is to go.
Orderliness continues as Kezia explores the house and the discarded objects brought together by chance.
This is disrupted as darkness descends outside the window and Kezia starts to panic.
The juxtaposition between orderliness and chaos continues throughout the story, for example with Stanley and his daily routines contrasting with his inner turmoil when things don’t go exactly to plan.
HOW STORYWORLD OF “PRELUDE” EXTENDS CHARACTER
“Prelude” is an exploration of character; the story is mainly of interest due to the complexities of human emotions rather than due to the plot itself. The characters are able to exist as children and adults at once, with the past, present and future merging into one at certain points.
Each of the characters in this story tries to escape the narrow boundaries imposed by society. At any particular moment in time, a larger meaning can be discovered.
When Kezia explores the new house she explores it in an orderly way. The reader learns the lay of the house at the same time Kezia does. She notices neatly arranged flowers and carefully planted orchards. But around this orderly garden is a bush — dark and frightening. (This makes use of fairytale symbolism of the forest.) From her safety within the family garden she sees the tangled trees, the cream flowers buzzing with insects; she smells strange aromas. Kezia understands, as do the other members of the family, that beyond the garden brimming with life lies a dark forest – a prelude to death.
“Prelude” is a good example of the technique of ‘defamiliarisation’. This is when a writer takes what should be a familiar context (in this case a family home) and turns it into something uncanny. Mansfield does this by telling one story through multiple characters. She juxtaposes the perception of Linda and Stanley Burnell (in the morning scene). Stanley begs for forgiveness; Linda wonders what for. When two characters perceive a situation very differently, the reader experiences a more transient reality.
THE CHARACTERS OF THE “PRELUDE” FAMILY
The household revolves around the comings and goings of Stanley who travels a path like that of the sun. He wants to do the best for his family, but mainly to increase his personal prestige. His days and weeks are planned: morning swim, trip to the office (6.5 miles), weekends take care of basic human needs; tennis on Saturday, church on Sunday, companionship with Linda in the evenings and on Sunday afternoons.
Stanley is a comical man-child; master of the house yet looked after by others. He panics when approaching the house after work and feels anxious in the mornings.
Stanley is proud of his ability to chop the duck meat into neat little pieces. Linda finds this frightening. She would like to hand him her feelings, done up ‘in little packets’. This is why the duck is said to symbolise Linda’s feelings, mainly feelings of hatred.
Linda’s life revolves around Stanley’s. Although Linda loves Stanley, she is frightened by him. He jumps at her, barks loudly, watches her with ‘eager loving eyes’. She produces his children, and in this era, childbearing was not considered a choice. Unlike her husband, Linda does not accept her role. Nor does she focus on day to day routines. She has a broad concept of life. She asks more fundamental questions and is conflicted by the will to survive and death, which occupies her mind equally. Life is seen as a necessary ‘prelude’ to death – hence the title.
Linda has had three children and her health has suffered. Stanley wants a son. Although it does not say explicitly in the story that Linda is pregnant, it is suggested that she is, or soon will be. Linda puts aside the oysters given to her by her husband; Alice reads that women in the family way should avoid ‘a probable present of shell fish’.
Apart from childbearing, Linda’s function seems to be a creative one. Mrs Fairchild and Beryl get the house in order while Linda lounges about the place – alone in her room or in the garden, away from the dinner table when the family are eating, at the other end of the drawing room when Beryl plays cribbage with Stanley.
Linda does not dress as other women do; instead, she appears in the story draped in a shawl or blanket. Her outdoor clothes are a cape and a hat with a plume, ‘mysterious as ever’ (writes Beryl). Her clothing gives Linda a romantic aura. She is like a mother-goddess, intimately connected with the moon and earth.
Like Mansfield herself, who always knew that her lungs were weak, and that tuberculosis would eventually be the end of her (because a doctor told her family this once), Linda Burnell has been told that she has a weak heart. Each birth has put strain on her heart — whether real or imagined — and in a pre-contraceptive era, Linda’s feelings towards her ‘Newfoundland dog’ of an enthusiastic husband are understandable. Further relations with her husband could quite literally kill her.
There were all her feelings for him, sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest. She could have done her feelings up in little packets and given them to Stanley.
The notion that one can feel more than one way at once towards the same object at the same time is in line with the school of psychology Katherine Mansfield was following closely at this time. (The idea of multiple selves, one at a surface level, the other at a deep level, and constantly changing from moment to moment.)
For Linda, the fecund garden around them reminds her of her own fecundity — she resolves to keep having children and not guard herself so preciously. This seems to be her Anagnorisis at the end — what’s life for if not to live it fully?
Linda’s mother juxtaposes with her daughter by calmly and passively accepting life, people and herself. Time is simple. She accepts that the aloe flowers once every hundred years. She accepts simple things in life, for example that the currants in the kitchen garden were put there for humans to utilize. She has a long past and doesn’t look far into the future – possibly because she is growing elderly and the future may only extend to a matter of months. Instead, she busies herself with pressing tasks – looking after the extended family, arranging jam jars.
Like Beryl, Mrs Fairchild dresses conventionally but with accoutrements specific to her. When washing the dishes:
She wore a grey foulard dress patterned with large purple pansies, a white linen apron and a high cap shaped like a jelly mould of white muslin. At her throat there was a silver crescent moon with five little owls seated on it, and round her neck she wore a watch-guard made of black beads.
A watch-guard is a short chain or ribbon, which usually attaches a pocket watch to a man’s vest. Here it refers the same style of beading, but utilised in a woman’s necklace.
Mansfield connects Mrs. Fairchild to the kitchen, painting her as part of it.
When she had finished [the breakfast dishes], everything in the kitchen had become part of a series of patterns.
This is a woman who takes comfort in routine and order. I imagine this is how she gets on in a household headed by Stanley Burnell.
[Linda] thought her mother looked wonderfully beautiful with her back to the leafy window. There was something comforting in the sight of her that Linda felt she could never do without.
Linda and Kezia are linked strongly together. Kezia is presented as an apparition of Linda’s past – Linda as a little girl. They share the same fears. Their dreams are interchangeable. Both mother and daughter interact with a mirror in the house, each rejecting the image as a reflection of themselves. They both know that the reflection in the mirror is not real.
A major part of the story revolves around Kezia’s preoccupation with death. When the duck is killed she is at first excited by its death, but realises the finality and asks for its head to be put back. This doesn’t change the fact that she takes strange delight in death.
Imagery of restriction and closure recurs in Kezia’s life through a series of references to boxes and buttons. First she and Lottie are displaced by the ‘hold-alls, bags and boxes’. Their coats are fastened with ‘brass anchor buttons’. When Kezia leaves the Samuel Josephs to take one last look at their old house the Venetian blinds are down, but not quite closed. She chooses some mementoes to take with her — beads, a needle, a pillbox and a stay-button — all items of containment. Her youth doesn’t free her from psychosexual and social restriction.
At her new house, she finds a ‘high box border’ and the paths have ‘box edges’. She sits down on one of the box borders but doesn’t find it comfortable. She compares it to the frames around the outside of Stanley’s pictures.
Kezia can still think of a matchbox as a container for a surprise to give to her grandmother. She also thought the pillbox would be good as a container for a bird’s egg. She’s thinking about the future potential of these containers, and also thinking about the future of her own social containment.
The 1980s Thanksgiving comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a completely different kind of story, but Del’s trunk is a constant reminder for the annoyed Neal that he is trapped on public transport — with this annoying man — when he’d rather be at home with his family.
Beryl’s name is symbolic — without having found a husband she lives as a child in her natal home. She is somewhat of a beauty (from her own perspective — we get no outside take on this).
Commentators have said that Katherine Mansfield constantly felt like an outsider, partly self-imposed, partly because she lived in Europe but grew up in far-flung New Zealand. The character of Beryl is also an outsider:
- She writes a letter for nobody else to read.
- She is alone in her room, cast away from all the other characters in the house.
- She is escaping into her writing, placing the real social world on the other side.
Beryl longs for a lover but doesn’t know how to go about finding one. She figures living in the country is going to isolate her further. Apart from the men Stanley chooses to bring home for lunch and tennis –- men who Beryl has already rejected — she’ll have little opportunity to meet a husband by chance. She’s going to have to be more proactive from here on in, organising more of a social life, deliberately putting herself in marriageable circles by asking for Pat to take her into town by cart. At this point, Beryl could be accused of imprisoning herself, living in a fantasy world of her own construction, preferring to be admired by imaginary men who will never let her down than interacting with real men who might.
Characters looking into mirrors are sometimes utilised by storytellers to describe psychology. (When used only to describe how someone looks, this technique can feel like a bit of a hack.) Mansfield uses characters’ reactions to their own reflections to juxtapose them, and to explore various ways in which people view themselves — as authentic, or as inauthentic. Unlike Kezia and Linda, Beryl does not see that her image in the mirror is not real. She sees her real self as a shadow. For Beryl, it’s her reflection in the mirror that is real. Beryl’s ur-Fairytale is the step-mother of Snow White stories, refusing to acknowledge what she sees in the mirror, imagining all sorts of scenarios which are wholly made up in her head.
Stuck in an adolescent mindset, Beryl is yet to find her own identity, seeing herself only in relation to her mother. She defines herself in terms of a man’s desire and needs to be adored. Beryl has learned that her value derives mainly from how she appears as an ornament to men.
She knows she is ‘always acting a part’ and sees herself doing things in her imagination, often imagining how other people perceive her. Beryl shares this in common with other young female characters such as Rosabel from “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (a very early Mansfield short story) and Miss Brill.
Beryl flirts in a subtle way with Stanley, partly because he’s safe.
“By Jove, this is a pretty pickle. Eh, Beryl?”
Beryl, sipping tea, her elbows on the table, smiled over the cup at him. She wore an unfamiliar pink pinafore; the sleeves of her blouse were rolled up to her shoulders showing her lovely freckled arms, and she had let her hair fall down her back in a long pig-tail.
As her brother-in-law, she can’t imagine him ever reciprocating. So in absence of her own suitor, she dresses for her sister’s husband. (In more ways than one, “The Tiredness of Rosabel” was an earlier iteration of Beryl’s story in the “Prelude” trilogy. In each, a single woman imagines herself with another woman’s man, leading a different life. This is an example of literary side shadowing.)
Whereas Kezia is learning to distinguish her female self from that of the other women in the family, Isabel clearly models herself on Beryl — or at least, what she perceives her aunt to be. Isabel is the power-seeker and drinks most desperately “from Beryl’s cup” (despite the fact it’s Kezia who literally drinks from Aunt Beryl’s cup). The adults describe Isabel as more grown up than any of them, and in some ways they may be right. She reveals herself to be a tattle-tale:
“I don’t want to tell you, but I think I ought to, mother,” said Isabel. “Kezia is drinking tea out of Aunt Beryl’s cup.”
But she’s probably also a little incensed that Kezia is playing ladies and is aligning herself with her aunt.
The competition between Isabel and her younger sisters turns sibling rivalry into a mimicry of how the adults tug at each others’ boundaries.
Alice The Servant-girl
This is how Beryl condescendingly thinks of Alice, who Mansfield makes sure to give her own personality. Because of her social position, she’s forced to keep her thoughts to herself, but simply thinking them gives her great comfort.
Alice was a mild creature in reality, but she had the most marvellous retorts ready for questions that she knew would never be put to her. The composing of them and the turning of them over and over in her mind comforted her just as much as if they’d been expressed. Really, they kept her alive in places where she’d been that chivvied she’d been afraid to go to bed at night with a box of matches on the chair in case she bit the tops off in her sleep, as you might say.
She takes great interest in dreams, and their predictive powers. But she hides her dream book from Beryl.
Alice has more in common with Beryl than Beryl will ever know.
Alice is afraid of sleeping next to a box of matches in case she bites the end off in her sleep. Remember Kezia’s relationship to containment? Alice is a grown version of a contained woman, perhaps afraid that she might snap at any moment.
IMAGERY IN “PRELUDE”
If the narrative method of “Prelude” is perceived as rendering the fragmentary experiences, thoughts, feelings, dreams and fantasies of the many different characters in the twelve fragments, then the images within the story become components of psychological revelation. They describe not only the manner in which Linda, Stanley, Beryl, Mrs Fairfield, the children Kezia and Lottie perceive the external world, but also reveal the quality of the mind at that moment. Imagistic patterns portray the different psychological states of the characters, of the innocent children, (for example Kezia) of the initiated woman (Beryl), the afflicted mother (Linda), the reconciled grandmother (Mrs Fairfield), and the energetic businessman (Stanley). Their interrelationship is characterised by isolation and loneliness. Their worlds are silent and fragmentary. Very rarely do the characters conduct any meaningful communication with one another. Linda seldom talks to anybody. She spends her days dreaming and ruminating in secret. Beryl is a little more communicative, but keeps her intimate thoughts to herself. Kezia is most of the time entirely alone. Mrs Fairfield, the grandmother, lives in memories of the past. Only Stanley, bumptious and crude, does not seem to have an inner mental life. Truly meaningful communication occurs only between Mrs Fairfield and Kezia when they talk about death.
A most revealing moment comes when Mrs Fairfield and her daughter Linda are linked by perceiving the aloe under the moonlight. There is a variety of restricted visions in various perspectives and if the narrative method of “Prelude” is perceived as rendering the thoughts, feelings, experiences, daydreams and fantasies of the different characters, then the images within the story become components of psychological revelation. The images describe and suggest not only the way in which the different characters perceive the external world but also the quality of their minds at any given moment. Imagistic patterns change according to the different psychological states, motivations, desires and thoughts of the characters.
Let us now examine the images used in relation to Linda, Kezia, and Mrs Fairfield more closely, as they are the only characters that perceived the aloe. In the first fragment, the imagery reveals the narrator’s and Linda’s vision of the Burnell’s departure to their new house. There’s not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia. The two children have to be left behind to be picked up later. Instead ‘the absolute necessities’ are transported. The irony of the situation causes Lind to laugh with a laugh bordering on the hysterical. In Linda’s vision even the children ‘out to stand on their heads!’. But Mrs Josephs, the neighbour, ‘like a huge warm black silk tea-cosy’, comes to the rescue by taking temporary care of the children. The narrator articulates Linda’s thoughts and her vision of the outside world. Linda is pregnant yet appears to hate her children. She looks upon them as pieces of furniture. The imagery reveals Linda’s grappling with reality and her confusion. The fragment already gives the reader a premonition of Linda’s discontent with her life. In the second fragment, the narrator focuses on Kezia. Her perspective is articulated in atmospheric blurred contours. There are ‘long pencil rays of sunlight’ and ‘the wavy shadow of a bush outside danced on the gold line’. Kezia sees ‘a little Chinese Lottie through the multi-coloured glass-window’. She sees everything tinted by the glass. Kezia’s analytical power is still that of a child, unable to tell appearance from reality. The blue lawn and the yellow lawn observed through the different coloured panes of glass are two different lawns. The white Lottie becomes Chinese when her vision of the yellow Lottie conflicts with Kezia’s everyday vision of her sister. Her mind is momentarily off balance and she needs to restore her normal vision by looking through the ordinary window.Julia van Gusteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism
Header painting: Albert Chevallier Tayler – The Quiet Hour