“Something Childish But Very Natural” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1913, 1924. The story is named after a poem Harry reads in the book-stall. The poem is by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This poem provides Mansfield’s re-visioning with a nutshell emotional arc:
Had I but two little wings,
And were a little feathery bird,
To you I’d fly, my dear,
But thoughts like these are idle things,
And I stay here.
But in my sleep to you I fly,
I’m always with you in my sleep,
The world is all one’s own,
But then one wakes and where am I?
All, all alone.
Sleep stays not though a monarch bids,
So I love to wake at break of day,
For though my sleep be gone,
Yet while’ tis dark one shuts one’s lids,
And so, dreams on.
This is a story of youth and reckless abandon. At times Mansfield seems to be making fun of youthful attitudes:
“If only we weren’t so young” [Edna] said miserably. “And yet,” she sighed, “I’m sure I don’t feel very young—I feel twenty at least.”
Mansfield never lived to see middle age. But by the time she wrote this story, she almost certainly did not feel young. She had been through a lot. (‘Middle age’ means something different now than it did then, but even by the standards of 100 years ago, Mansfield died young.)
CONNECTION TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE
Mansfield wrote a number of stories about failed, failing and limited romantic partnerships. “Something Childish But Very Natural” is one of them.
Katherine wrote this story while she and John Middleton Murry were living in France. They had a negative amount of money between them, and Murry was soon to declare himself bankrupt after they inherited debt from Stephen Swift in England (long story).
But during their escape to France:
There were gay excursions with Murry’s old bohemian friend, the writer Francis Carco. Together they explored the bals musette and the cafes of Montmartre and wandered through narrow streets and boulevards till dawn. It was a happy romantic interlude, something of which Katherine Mansfield captured in the moving story “Something Childish But Very Natural”, written in that Paris flat but unpublished until 1924. Murry’s hope for work in Paris did not eventuate and Katherine Mansfield’s allowance [of 100 pounds per annum from her father] to cover their living expenses. As a result the monthly payments to their creditors ceased.Katherine Mansfield: The woman and the writer, Gillian Boddy
Mansfield wrote “Something Childish But Very Natural” in 1913, though it wasn’t published until 1924. By 1924 she would have been very much in love with John Middleton Murry, though past the initial heady days. The pair had been professional acquaintances first. Murry later moved in with Katherine in London and for months they shook hands each night before retiring separately to bed. But eventually Mansfield asked John why he didn’t make her his mistress.
By the time they moved to Paris together theirs was a passionate relationship which had its share of ups and downs. They’d both come to each other from a tough place — after events which had governed the previous three years of her life, Mansfield was undoubtedly dealing with some trauma. As Gillian Boddy says, John and Katherine were unable to give each other what they needed at the time.
The denouement of “Something Childish” — a telegram delivered to Henry, presumably telling him of Edna’s change of heart — recalls Mansfield’s ‘childish’ reaction to Murry’s telegrams in early February 1914, that due to bankruptcy charges he cannot return to France: ‘Im afraid I am rather childish about people coming & going — and, just now, at this moment when the little boy handed me your telegram — the disappointment is hard to bear’.
The two-month visit to Paris of 1913-14, therefore, coincides with her renewed exploration of the subject on the border between childhood and adulthood when awakening sexual desire is enmeshed in fantasy, yet the pull towards childhood remains.Katherine Mansfield and Continental Europe: Connections and Influences, by Gerry Kimber, Janka Kascakova
STORYWORLD OF “SOMETHING CHILDISH BUT VERY NATURAL”
THE CONCEPT OF ‘ADOLESCENCE’
It is notable that the term ‘adolescence’ was just coming into vogue in the early twentieth century. The creation of this new concept and stage of psychological development was due almost entirely to Stanley G. Hall’s two-volume study, Adolescence, published in 1904. Hall saw childhood in Rousseau fashion as an enactment of early primitive forces and a savage existence, but adolescence as a ‘new birth’, when ‘the higher and more completely human traits are born’: ‘The adolescent is neo atavistic.’ He identifies this stage with purity and idealism, but also as dangerously prone to corruption, and even criminality due to the subject’s lack of emotional control and responsibility towards self and other. Hall also recognises that ‘some linger’ longer in the childish stage’.Katherine Mansfield and Continental Europe: Connections and Influences, by Gerry Kimber, Janka Kascakova
The carriage smelt horribly of wet india-rubber and soot.
The train had flung behind the roofs and chimneys. They were swinging into the country, past little black woods and fading fields and pools of water shining under an apricot evening sky. Henry’s heart began to thump and beat to the beat of the train.
At that moment the train dashed into a tunnel.
The train slowed down and the lights outside grew brighter.
The train of “Something Natural” is both a motif and a setting. I’ve written before about the symbolism of trains. Alice Munro is another short story writer who likes to make heavy symbolic use of them. Trains are interesting as an example of heterotopia — an ‘other’ space, separate from the regular world. To enter into a heterotopia is akin to going through a fantasy portal (even when the story is not speculative in nature).
Trains are symbolically connected to fatalism. A fatalistic view of the world means you’re all about destiny, and subscription to the idea that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.
Trains are the perfect fatalistic symbol; there’s only one path for a train — its pre-laid tracks.
As a fatalist, you might be pessimistic or you might be optimistic. That aspect can go either way. (I find the idea terrifying — it would mean that choice is a complete and utter illusion… which it indeed might be. Still terrifying.)
Spring is the season of love.
The most thrilling day of the year, the first real day of Spring had unclosed its warm delicious beauty even to London eyes. It had put a spangle in every colour and a new tone in every voice, and city folks walked as though they carried real live bodies under their clothes with real live hearts pumping the stiff blood through.
A few details remind us of the era.
don’t eat anything out of a tin
Why does Henry entreat Edna not to eat anything out of a tin? These days, tinned food is about the safest food you can get. But canning hasn’t always been so reliable. In 1845, two state-of-the-art ships sailed from Greenland on July 12, 1845 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Fourteen days later, they were spotted for the last time by two whalers in Baffin Bay. What happened to these ships—and to the 129 men on board—has remained one of the most enduring mysteries in the annals of exploration. But as it turns out — spoiler alert — they were probably killed by botulism after eating poorly tinned food.
When done properly, canning has always been safe, but for the generations used to fresh food, it must have felt wrong to eat goods many months old. Why would anyone naturally trust it?
THE DOLL HOUSE UTOPIA OF LONDON
We already know that Mansfield had a fascination with doll houses. First there’s “The Doll House” (her most accessible work) and then there’s the edible little house in “Sun and Moon“. There’s no actual doll house in this story. But after Edna tells Henry that she’d like to remain in childhood for a good while longer, they turn London into their playground. They both seem to come from upper middle-class families, which partly explains why they see other people’s houses as ‘small’ but I think there’s more to it than that. To them, these houses are doll houses — designed for play — and Mansfield is also playing with scale.
The houses were small and covered with creepers and ivy. Some of them had worn wooden steps leading up to the doors. You had to go down a little flight of steps to enter some of the others; and just across the road—to be seen from every window—was the river, with a walk beside it and some high poplar trees.
“This is the place for us to live in,” said Henry. “There’s a house to let, too. I wonder if it would wait if we asked it. I’m sure it would.”
“Yes, I would like to live there,” said Edna.
Storytellers utilise a number of techniques for playing with scale. Angela Carter makes use of mise en abyme in her re-visioning of “Peter and the Wolf“. Children’s book creators often play around with oversized objects, to memorable and humorous effect. Then there’s The Overview Effect, utilised by Jon Klassen in We Found A Hat.
In “Something Childish”, the setting seems to have shrunk a little in relation to our two lovers. This reflects their emotional state. Nothing seems scary to them. They feel that together they can conquer the world. This perfectly describes the feeling of intense new love.
Beatrix Potter uses a very similar trick in “The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle“. It appears Lucie can drop a pebble down a chimney, even from the top of a hill. This is describing how Little-town looks tiny from the elevated vantage point, like a dollhouse. Lucie is about to enter a world of play.
THE LIMERANCE PHASE OF LOVE
“Something Childish” is a depiction of limerance — the state of mind of being freshly and wildly in love. Limerance is a chemical state and commonly involves the following:
- The object of your affection is angelic/perfect/above criticism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this other person.
- The object of your affection is very similar to yourself — ‘soul mates’. Everyone else is different from the two of you. No other person has ever fully understood you… until now. Finally you have met this one person who just gets you. No one will ever understand you as this person understands you.
- It was inevitable that you two should meet. Everything that has ever happened to you in life has brought you here to this moment in time. Meeting was fate. Even if you’re not an otherwise fatalistic person, it feels like this one thing was fate, even more so if you met by happenstance — being thrust into the wrong carriage after getting carried away in a book-stall reading a poem. The 2001 rom-com Serendipity digs deep into this idea, and like many rom-coms, makes the most of all three One True Love, The Perfection of Strangers and (of course) Serendipity love story tropes. In both the film Serendipity and in Mansfield’s short story, main characters test providence, telling themselves if love is meant to be, it will be.
[Henry] even prayed, “Lord if it be Thy will, let us meet.”
Did Mansfield buy any of these ideas? She lays them down so clearly, one after the other:
Just look at you and me. Here we are—that’s all there is to be said. I know about you and you know about me—we’ve just found each other—quite simply—just by being natural. That’s all life is—something childish and very natural. Isn’t it?”
“Yes—yes,” she said eagerly. “That’s what I’ve always thought.”
“It’s people that make things so—silly. As long as you can keep away from them you’re safe and you’re happy.”
“Oh, I’ve thought that for a long time.”
“Then you’re just like me,” said Henry. The wonder of that was so great that he almost wanted to cry. Instead he said very solemnly: “I believe we’re the only two people alive who think as we do. In fact, I’m sure of it. Nobody understands me. I feel as though I were living in a world of strange beings—do you?”
She lived in a pre-rom com era but were stories of the era full of these messages? I suspect these ideas have always been a part of our culture.
Take the schoolgirl practice of twisting off an apple stalk while chanting letters of the alphabet. This was a playground pastime when I was at school. Wherever the stalk came off, that was the initial letter of your future husband’s name. Naturally, certain stalks were plucked off with great strength, influencing fate somewhat.
Pulling petals off a flower while chanting, “He loves me, he loves me not” is a variant on a similar tradition — one which leaves love to fate.
It’s interesting that Mansfield wrote this story from the young man’s point of view. Henry looks with convincing sexual interest upon a young woman on a train. Mansfield was bisexual and therefore able to take on this viewpoint quite naturally, though women don’t need to be sexually attracted to women in order to understand Henry feeling. The dominant culture acculturates people of all genders to look at femme bodies in an objectifying way. It remains far less common for (straight) male writers to depict fictional women who lust after men. I suspect that’s because it’s much harder.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SOMETHING CHILDISH BUT VERY NATURAL”
This was the first time Mansfield used an episodic structure to represent emotional transitions. You’ll see it done to even greater effect in “Prelude“.
Henry is established early as a poseur with a single ironic declarative:
Henry was a great fellow for books. He did not read many nor did he possess above half-a-dozen.
But this is followed by an insight into his character which pulls him out of comic archetype:
By his clean neat handling of [books] and by his nice choice of phrase when discussing them with one or another bookseller you would have thought that he had taken his pap with a tome propped before his nurse’s bosom. But you would have been quite wrong. That was only Henry’s way with everything he touched or said.
That is the sort of character observation that elevates the story. Notice how Henry is described (told to us) via narration rather than shown. This is why advice to ‘show not tell’ is so flawed. The great writers do quite a bit of telling.
Henry is clearly experiencing lust, followed by limerance. This has supposedly been ignited by reading a poem which affected him so deeply he practically memorised it word for word.
Unfortunately he is impatient. He doesn’t realise he’s got his whole life ahead of him and there’s really no need for such haste.
“I have a feeling often and often that it’s dangerous to wait for things—that if you wait for things they only go further and further away.”
COMPARISONS TO CHARACTERS FROM DIFFERENT STORIES
Henry is the childlike and ineffectual character of the title. James Blunt’s hit song Beautiful obviously resonated with a lot of listeners, but also makes him a figure of fun; the man who falls in love with a girl on the train then falls into a depressive slump is not especially empathetic.
Criticism of Blunt’s song focused on his initial declaration of having a plan, then never carrying it out. This is because we still expect men to act on their romantic desires rather than sit back with the understanding that, actually, approaching women on public transport can be highly unwanted behaviour.
Commentators have said Henry of “Something Natural” seems to be a preliminary sketch of a character who later splits into Stanley Burnell of the “Prelude” stories (bluff, materially successful, loved but emotionally insecure patriarch) and Jonathan Trout, Stanley’s sensitive but self-defeated brother-in-law. (The female mirror characters of these men are Mrs Harry Kember and Beryl Fairfield from “At The Bay“.)
Henry of “Something Childish” is only 17 years old — much younger than we ever knew Stanley and Jonathan. By today’s standards he seems too young to be stuck in an office job. So many years stretch out before him.
Henry’s attention may seen beguiling. But does Henry really care about what Edna wants?
he saw how her hand in the grey glove was shaking. Then he noticed that she was sitting very stiffly with her knees pressed together—and he was, too—both of them trying not to tremble so.
She stood up to take off her coat and Henry made a movement to help her. “No—no—it’s off.”
Whenever he was with her he wanted to hold her hand or take her arm when they walked together, or lean against her—not hard—just lean lightly so that his shoulder should touch her shoulder—and she wouldn’t even have that.
The close third-person narration homes in on Henry to the extent that we don’t know what Edna wants at all. He seems so caught up in his own manic experience of love that Edna’s wishes exist far down the list. Henry harbours a classic sense of entitlement when it comes to ‘getting the girl’. All he needs to do is pick one, then persuade her that his selection is correct.
Edna is certainly an underdeveloped character. What else might she be afraid of?
HENRY’S EXPECTATION OF EMOTIONAL LABOUR
There seemed to be comfort and warmth breathing from Edna that he needed to keep him calm. Yes, that was it. He couldn’t get calm with her because she wouldn’t let him touch her.
Clearly, for the reader, Henry is moving in too fast. He expects instant physical and emotional intimacy from a girl he met on the train.
A while back someone on Twitter proposed a reason why women stereotypically seem to like ‘bad boys’ — something Nice Guys™ often have trouble with. Women don’t actually like the badness of ‘bad boys’. Within the fantasy space bad boys are attractive because they have zero neediness. And that is extremely attractive, because women are expected to provide all sorts of emotional and physical support. It’s exhausting, especially when it’s not reciprocated.
This particular fear is also known as ‘Fear of Engulfment’. There are many examples from the world of classic fairytales. The stand-out example is “The Frog Princess“, often recast in modern versions with the horrible ideology that ‘girls should always keep their word’, but originally told as an outward representation of a very real fear — a fear shared by young women, especially in a pre-contraceptive age — the fear of becoming pregnant, and being completely overwhelmed by it.
HATS AS MOTIF
What’s with Henry’s hat? Hats are a running motif throughout “Something Childish”. In general, hats denote status. But hats can also be used almost identically to a mask. By putting on a different hat we pretend to be someone else for a while. In this social milieu, hats were mandatory when out in public. One wasn’t fully dressed without a hat. Henry reminds us of this old custom when he expresses his dismay that he’s not wearing a hat. (He’s more upset to be denuded of it than the possibility of needing to buy a new one.)
“She must think I’m mad,” he thought, “dashing into a train without even a hat, and in the evening, too.” He felt so funny.
From the opening sentence, hats are given prominence — Henry feels his head has become too big for his hat.
WHETHER he had forgotten what it felt like, or his head had really grown bigger since the summer before, Henry could not decide. But his straw hat hurt him: it pinched his forehead and started a dull ache in the two bones just over the temples.
Has Henry been marked in some supernatural way? He seems to think so.
“And—I was rather glad to lose my hat. It had been hurting me all day.”
“Yes,” she said, “it’s left a mark,” and she nearly smiled. […]
Her marvellous words, “It’s made a mark,” had in some mysterious fashion established a bond between them. They could not be utter strangers to each other if she spoke so simply and so naturally.
Similar to “Prelude“, in which Kezia is constantly restricted and constrained by a series of motif containers, Henry’s hat reminds him of his constriction in general.
Mansfield’s diaries and correspondence show that she was familiar with this feeling. Returning home from school in London, she felt suffocated by her life in Wellington, which back then was a small town. Even when she moved back to England, life didn’t satisfy her. Soon enough she encountered restrictions of a different kind — financial ones. She must have had an epiphany at some point — the life she wanted was economically precariousness, and she could never have both kinds of freedom — financial and intellectual.
Henry doesn’t understand why Edna doesn’t want him to touch her. A lot of Mansfield’s characters live in a kind of dream fantasy, though Henry more accurately lives on an ’emotional cusp’.
“Something Childish” [like “A Dill Pickle“] invokes the formulas of fantasy (dream visions, a vocabulary involving smallness or largeness, an escapist version of nature, repeated motifs, and scenes of transformation, for example), and, as with “Ole Underwood”, the uncertainty about what “actually” happens and what happens “only” in the imagination leads to a decided ambiguity at the close of the story. Here ambiguity seems to be the intent, for that is obliquely what the (left-branching, deferring) opening sentence signals: “Whether he had forgotten what it felt like, or his head had really grown bigger since the summer before, Henry could not decide”.
— Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New
Under the surface: 17-year-old Henry works in business but wants to be free of it. He acknowledges the restrictions of social convention and appreciates the joy of not having to live by the clock.
In this particular story Henry has the burning desire to touch Edna, beginning with her hair. He wants to be with her forever.
Why did he want to touch her so much and why did she mind?
Edna and Henry are romantic opponents.
Edna also wears a hat. When she takes her hat on and off she is trying out different personalities, or different ways of being in the world. This is a girl very new to the world of adult women. It appears to me that she is indeed terrified of Henry — not of Henry per se — but of the way men see her. She has no control over this.
THE MOTIF OF THE SHADOWS ON THE WALL
As Henry and Edna explore London, using it as their playground, they experience the setting as a utopia but what of the big shadows?
It was too late for them to see the geese or the old men, but the river was there and the houses and even the shops with lamps. In one a woman sat working a sewing-machine on the counter. They heard the whirring hum and they saw her big shadow filling the shop. “Too full for a single customer,” said Henry. “It is a perfect place.” […]
And then we shall change our candles and she will go up first with her shadow on the wall beside her, and she will call out, Good-night, Henry—and I shall answer—Good-night, Edna. […]
The garden became full of shadows—they span a web of darkness over the cottage and the trees and Henry and the telegram. But Henry did not move.
There is a spoken word segment at the end of the soundtrack version of a song by Paris Wells, read by an elderly Jewish New York man who has since died.
My heart and brain concur.(You’ll find this line at 3:13 on the track “No Hard Feelings”.) In issue #383 of The Brag, Paris Wells explains this is poetry by a guy they met in a Jazz club in New York — “this old lovely Jewish guy in a wheelchair.” His name is Marvin Wildstein and she just had to put him in the album. (Here’s another of his poems.) Marvin died of pneumonia early April 2015.
I love but one more than you, the one I thought you were.
Marvin observes the (minimum of) four characters of every new relationship: The real people and their idealised doubles.
Paris Wells makes use of similar symbolism in her music video of the same song. The authentic version of herself sits in front of footage depicting herself and a boyfriend in the throes of limerance. Listen to the lyrics — a love letter to this past boyfriend. She tells him ‘I’ve lived two lives over yours’. Yet he calls her ‘kid’, suggesting she is younger than he is, in years.
What does she mean ‘two lives’? Initially she seems to be saying ‘I have more life experience than you despite our age’, but when coupled with Marvin Wildstein’s lines of poetry at the end, we might reconsider. Perhaps the ‘two lives’ refer to her idealised self, juxtaposed against her pragmatic self. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npZMHD-b6us
Back to Mansfield’s story. These doubles are the darkness creeping around the edges of a new and blissful attraction — at some level we know — we just know — that this person can’t be as wonderful as they seem.
And in cases where one person falls hard, leaving the other in a more pragmatic kind of love, that pragmatic partner knows — disconsolately — that the other is in love not with themselves, but with the other, idealised version.
This explains why it feels so horrible to be objectified, whether for your looks, your race, or simply because you are a certain look and demographic.
Yet it is also intoxicating to be objectified, especially when you are young and it is new. This is where Edna is at. But those shadows loom large.
Here’s another thing about trains — they are iterative in behaviour. Henry knows how he can meet this young woman again. The train runs at a certain time and he knows when the girl will be on it.
So he’ll arrange his life to coincide with Edna’s. After a while she’ll see that the two of them are meant to be together. He’s seen their future first — for her it’s simply a matter of time. That’s his plan, anyhow.
Were this story written from Edna’s point of view, how different might it be? She may well tell the creepy tale of a guy who she can’t shake. Is she perhaps even appeasing him? We don’t know — this is told through Henry’s rose-tinted version of events.
It would appear Edna enjoys Henry’s attention. No doubt about that. But she is only 16. She seems to be testing her own sexuality, testing it out on a stranger, seeing how far it can take her without actually going there.
One Sunday at a concert Henry tries to touch her. She leans away. Henry’s perplexed. Edna explains, ”Somehow I feel if once we…held each other’s hands and kissed…I feel we wouldn’t be free like we are—we’d be doing something secret. We wouldn’t be children any more…”
Perhaps at play are The Erotics of Abstinence, evident in stories from Pride and Prejudice to the Twilight series. But it started much earlier than that with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Don’t eat the apple! The apple becomes more delicious. Reverse psychology? Maybe. In almost any love story, love too easily won is not held so dear.
After Edna rejects Henry’s invitation into hasty partnership, he seems to decide to turn London into their playground. But he has the ulterior motive of showing Edna what seems to be a dollhouse, then trying to persuade her to set up house with him. Unfortunately he is a fantasist and has no money. And when Edna points this out, he comes up with another fantasy plan:
“But, Henry,—money! You see we haven’t any money.”
“Oh, well,—perhaps if I disguised myself as an old man we could get a job as caretakers in some large house—that would be rather fun. I’d make up a terrific history of the house if anyone came to look over it and you could dress up and be the ghost moaning and wringing your hands in the deserted picture gallery, to frighten them off. Don’t you ever feel that money is more or less accidental—that if one really wants things it’s either there or it doesn’t matter?”
Mansfield herself was a fantasist who indulged in exactly this kind of trick. As a high school student she dressed up as someone’s mother and actually came in for an interview, pretending to be interested in enrolling her daughter. I mean, that’s quite unusual, right? Especially for that era.
Henry’s view on money is also shown to be fatalistic — as if money is outside one’s control — it’s either there or it isn’t (exactly the sort of attitude that these days would lead Henry into significant credit card debt).
The first big struggle sees Edna running away from Henry crying.
“Henry!” She stopped suddenly and stared at him. “Henry, I’m not coming to the station with you. Don’t—don’t wait for me. Please, please leave me.”
“My God!” cried Henry, and started, “what’s the matter—Edna—darling—Edna, what have I done?”
“Oh, nothing—go away,” and she turned and ran across the street into a square and leaned up against the square railings—and hid her face in her hands.
“Edna—Edna—my little love—you’re crying. Edna, my baby girl!”
Via her dialogue, Edna doesn’t seem to know exactly why it is that she’s crying. Of course she doesn’t. She’s sixteen.
“Oh,” she sobbed, “I do hate hurting you so. Every time you ask me to let—let you hold my hand or—or kiss me I could kill myself for not doing it—for not letting you. I don’t know why I don’t even.” She said wildly. “It’s not that I’m frightened of you—it’s not that—it’s only a feeling, Henry, that I can’t understand myself even. Give me your handkerchief, darling.”
This is why Alice Munro loves to write stories of older women looking back. Older women have the psychological insight that sixteen-year-olds could never realistically achieve. Nor can Henry explain it, being just a year or so older.
Because of Mansfield’s narrative choice to keep close insight the heads of these two characters — despite initially offering us an astute narrative overview of Henry’s psychology via some unnamed omniscient presence — it is up to the reader what to make of all this.
What have these characters realised about themselves? About life?
Henry clearly doesn’t get it. He thinks it’s a single thing he’s done wrong rather than his overall approach. Apologising for the single thing would be far easier than changing entirely, so he grasps at concrete reasons:
“Edna—stop—it’s all my fault. I’m a fool—I’m a thundering idiot. I’ve spoiled your afternoon. I’ve tortured you with my idiotic mad bloody clumsiness. That’s it. Isn’t it, Edna? For God’s sake.”
Other commentators settle upon the following as Edna’s reasons for not wanting a relationship. She says,
“We wouldn’t be children any more silly, isn’t it?”
Clearly, Edna has the insight to know she doesn’t want to enter the adult world yet. But which part of the adult realm is she rejecting? I put it to you that it is specifically the expectation of emotional labour that she rejects. Men and children receive this labour from women; women give it. Those are the rules of patriarchy. But Edna does not have the words to express this. How could she? I’m using the language of modern feminism. The phrase ’emotional labour’ didn’t come about until 1983. (The term “emotional labor” is often used today to refer to women managing other people’s emotions. But the concept was meant to describe the way workers must manage their emotions while on the job, and the kinds of jobs where that behavior is expected.)
But the story continues after the initial Battle, when Edna doesn’t want to be touched outside the theatre. Significantly, Mansfield uses the word ‘playground’. They turn settings around London into their childlike play arena.
Henry is your archetypal needy Nice Guy and I can see exactly why Edna is cautious. He’s sensitive, attentive, offers to take her coat and brings her flowers. Yet he’s also ditched, flabbergasted. How can he be doing everything ‘right’ yet still not get the girl? This baffles him.
Hopefully it doesn’t baffle the reader, though. We are left to guess what Edna had to say in that telegram, though I think the shadow motif tells us all we need to make the extrapolation. Also, were you paying attention to Edna’s body language?
“Something Childish But Very Natural” has exposed the folly of dreams and romantic idealisation. A later story “The Little Governess” expands on these themes.
Brindle, Kym. “‘Mysterious Epistles’: Letters Home in Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories.” Journal of New Zealand Literature (JNZL), no. 38.2 (2020): 15–35. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26944126.
Header photo by Gemma Evans