How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped by Katherine Mansfield

George Vicat Cole - Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance

“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1912. At its heart, “Pearl Button” is a story about a clash of two cultures seen through a child’s eyes.

This story plays out as a duality of restriction and freedom. The European settlers are restricted while the Māori people enjoy freedom. “Pearl Button” is the only story in which Mansfield wrote about Māori. Her treatment of Māori from a white perspective was typical for the era — a romanticized opposition between Western and non-Western cultures. Mansfield came back to the idea of colonial constriction in later stories but focused on white New Zealanders.

STORYWORLD OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

The Māori of New Zealand lived in a more communal way than New Zealand’s Pākehā immigrants. Pākehā arrived in Aotearoa and immediately started sectioning up the space — from land down to living quarters. While European settlers lived in little houses, Māori people did not live like this. The pā can refer to any Māori village or defensive settlement, and is the centre of a Māori community, extending the concept of family out beyond the traditional nuclear family by European concept. Mansfield grew up alongside Māori pā culture and would have noted the differences.

The story “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” juxtaposes two ways of living — the European way of living in segmented ‘little boxes’ versus the freer, more sensual Māori way of life, closer to nature. Pearl Button herself prefers the Māori way of life. Since Pearl is the focalising character, the reader is encouraged to share in her view.

There’s another kind of juxtaposition in this story as well, a really interesting one, and it was the first time she’d used it. “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” was the first time Mansfield used narrative parallax.

Mansfield’s ironic use of parallax to suggest that the man’s experience of the world is multifaceted also marks the particular modulation into a selective, restricted perspective, which is Impressionistic in concept. She employs this technique haphazardly, beginning with “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1910) and ending with “Miss Brill” (1920).

There is no consistent development. The method depends on a single device: the restricting of the perspective and knowledge of a focaliser-character into a broadening, more objective narrator’s one. He is not emotionally detached from the scene, but capable of perceiving it from a great distance. It often involves an initiation, a sudden awareness or enlightenment (epiphany) of some profound significance.

The imposition of narrative distance on a scene of intense emotional concern on the part of the participant(s) creates an irony of perspective which often suggests the isolation of individual human beings, their lack of consequence in the universal flux of life, their diminutive significance as seen from a superior vantage point and their defiant private inflation of the significance of their own lives and the events that surround them.

One of the best examples of this method can be found in “The Little Governess”, where the nameless, inexperienced young governess is made aware of her fellow-travellers, of herself, and reality outside her. At the end of the story she is isolated from everyone because of her own inconsistent behaviour. She feels hopelessly insignificant and deflated by events.

Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren

STORY STRUCTURE OF “HOW PEARL BUTTON WAS KIDNAPPED”

“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is basically a carnivalesque story. If this were a children’s picture book, the kidnappers might be an animal — let’s say a cat in a hat — and there would be no police officers bringing the child back — the parents wouldn’t notice she’d gone. In a carnivalesque story the child escapes into fun.

Of course, Mansfield’s story has that very dark layer because Pearl Button really is kidnapped within the world of the story. Pearl has an Unexpected Emotional Reaction. We expect children to be distraught when taken away from their natal homes. But what if a child is so young and so detached from their family that one family could easily be switched out for another? Isn’t this the horror that gave rise to an entire category of changeling stories around the world?

Throughout her ‘kidnapping’, Pearl experiences positive emotions that burgeon out of bodily experience. The women first see her in the joyful, childlike act of swinging on a front gate. They reciprocate her motions by ‘waving their arms and clapping their hands together’. Pearl’s responsive laughter reveals that her primary means of experiencing the world is through reactive and embodied emotion. Later, she will cry when tired and confused, laugh when entertained by funny faces, and scream when she sees the ocean. She learns to enjoy the sea by entering it with the trusted woman, whom she is hugging and kissing at the moment she sees the ‘little blue men’ coming to carry her back home.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

SHORTCOMING

Pearl’s problem is that she’s a little girl severely constricted by her European life. The story opens with her symbolic swinging on the gate.

Pearl clearly goes willingly with the women and never complains. We assume she wants to be there the whole time, though we might read the story a slightly different way — Pearl would have been taught not to complain. This is part of the restriction of being a girl in white society in that era. When she sat in the dust while eating a peach she might have complained when she spilled the juice on her petticoat. But she doesn’t complain — she instead just tells the women what has happened, and only because she is frightened of what comes next. Ruining pretty clothes is clearly a terrible misdemeanour where Pearl Button comes from.

DESIRE

In any carnivalesque story the main character (usually a child or child stand-in) only desires to have fun.

Pearl is itching to get out of that gate, out into the world where she can be closer to nature and run around with fewer clothes hampering her movements. Pearl doesn’t know this. She doesn’t know what she’s missing until she’s taken out of her European life, full of boundaries and restrictions.

OPPONENT

For plotting purposes, the opponent is the cadre of policemen who come to ‘save’ Pearl from her fun. The reader will likely feel the opponents are the abductors because popular ideology would have it that children should stay with their natal families at all costs. This feeling is even more true today than it was in 1912 when indigenous children around the English speaking world were regularly abducted from their families by white people (especially in Australia).

The story works with long-established tropes about the colonised racial other who experiences the world as a body rather than as a mind. The two women who encounter Pearl and bring her away with them are ‘big’ and walk slowly ‘because they [are] so fat’. These large feminine bodies are, like that of the grandmother in “The Little Girl”, extremely comforting for the young protagonist. Pearl ‘nestles’ into one woman’s lap, where her physical sensations bleed into a contented emotional state: ‘The woman was warm as a cat and she moved up and down when she breathed, just like purring […] Pearl had never been happy like this before.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

The intrigue of this story rests upon the reader feeling worried for Pearl. A long history of storytelling has taught us this much: A taken child is in danger. Think of the Greek myths, with those terrible women who eat other people’s babies because they can’t have children of their own. They wreak havoc by eating other people’s babies instead. Lamia is a standout example.

So the reader expects Pearl to come to harm, but Katherine Mansfield’s kidnapper is more of a nymph than an ogre; rather than devour the child, these proxy nymphs taker her away to look after her. Mythological nymphs are especially drawn to looking after children who have been abandoned by their mothers. Pearl Button hasn’t been abandoned, but when the Māori women find her, she is on her own, with no whanau in sight. An unusual situation for a child, according to a Māori worldview at the time.

To further the analogy of the Greek nymphs, the Māori end up by the sea. The seaside could be coded as a New Zealand equivalent of the river Ilissos, where nymphs like to frolic in the water and enjoy the shade. Importantly, Greek nymphs are not evil. They don’t even have any backstories of their own — they are about potential (young women waiting to be married).

PLAN

Pearl is too young to be a ‘planner’ as such. The adults have the plan — they let Pearl move about freely by stripping her of most of her constricting Edwardian clothing. They let her frolic on the beach and have the new experience of playing in waves. Through the focalised viewpoint of Pearl, it seems these abductors exist only to have fun themselves. We never learn why they’ve taken Pearl or if they ever intended to return her. I doubt the Māori characters who took Pearl didn’t see it as abduction, but rather a casual sharing of the parenting load, fully intending to return her at the end of the day.

BIG STRUGGLE

When the Māori mother undresses Pearl she is preparing Pearl for a metaphorical Battle. In a carnivalesque story there’s no Battle as such — instead the fun gets funner and funner, culminating in peak fun before something or someone intervenes to bring everything to an end. The child returns to their normal life in a home-away-home structure.

But there’s a structural difference between “Pearl Button” (a lyrical short story) and, say, The Cat In The Hat or The Tiger Who Came To Tea — carnivalesque picture books for preschoolers. “Pearl Button” stars a preschooler, but is clearly not for a preschool audience.

The difference is that Pearl has some sort of revelation. She doesn’t understand it, but she feels it at a sensory level. Mansfield makes use of the sea…

ANAGNORISIS

She made a cup of her hands and caught some of it. But it stopped being blue in her hands.

Throughout the story, Mansfield has mentioned colour over and over — Pearl notices the different colours of things. When witnessed as a whole, the ocean looks blue but not when she tries to hold a tiny portion of it in her hands. This detail stands in for a Anagnorisis — no doubt unformed and preverbal — after all Pearl is still a young child. What is the nascent revelation? That things look lovely from this distance (as a temporary visitor) but as soon as she gets right into it the illusion disintegrates. Her day of fun with the Māori families is about to come to an end.

It is in fact the sensory experience of the ocean that provokes the most feeling from Pearl. Its warmth, wetness and unique visual properties — ‘it stopped being blue in her hands’ — get her to shriek, exclaim and throw ‘her thin little arms round the woman’s neck’. During this time away from the restrictive civilisation of the ‘House of Boxes’, Pearl, unlike young Kass, does not have to fight a natural order in which feeling comes first.

Katherine Mansfield and Psychology

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate that the police will charge the abductors and Pearl will be returned to her family. I doubt she’ll suffer trauma because her big day out has been a lovely experience. But her freedom will probably be curtailed from now on. I doubt her mother will let her swing on the front gate without close supervision. She’ll be cautioned against talking to strangers. Pearl will be more fearful from now on. Her days of childlike bliss and innocence are over.

COMPARE

  • Another story in which Mansfield explores how affectionate physical contact plays into the emotional relationships between children and adults is “The Little Girl“.
  • “The Representation Of The Maori By European Artists In New Zealand, Ca 1890-1914″ by Leonard Bell elaborates on how native New Zealanders were fictionalised by colonial settlers.

Header painting: George Vicat Cole – Lannacombe Bay, Start Point in the distance

See Saw by Katherine Mansfield

See Saw by Frederick Morgan
“See Saw” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1919. The movement of a playground see saw shapes the story, balancing age against youth. Like “The Voyage” and “Sun and Moon“, “See Saw” juxtaposes children and adults. This story also juxtaposes flawed humans against the beauty of nature.

STORYWORLD OF “SEE SAW”

TIME

Katherine Mansfield is often called a modernist writer. The modernist movement happened from about 1900 until mid 20th century. One feature of modernist stories: the slightly unusual treatment of time.

Critics have talked about ‘the temporal unconscious’. This refers to how time manifests itself subliminally in literary works. In the antipodes (including New Zealand), it worked slightly differently. The modernist works that came from New Zealand and Australia and surrounds have been called ‘micromodernism’ (by Tim Armstrong). It’s to do with the sense of distance we have, growing up so far away from the imaginative ‘home land’ which, back then, was England.

When writers juxtapose children against elderly people, the effect is often this: We are both young and old at once. Young people are reminded that they too will be old someday. Old people rarely forget that they used to be young, often seeing themselves as permanently young as a way of avoiding thoughts of death. Alice Munro also achieves this effect by juxtaposing youth against age.

NATURE

Across Mansfield’s short stories, nature is depicted as a beautiful and serene phenomenon amid the calamities of human strife. Natural scenes juxtapose against the corruption of human action. Nature is often used to evoke a special atmosphere in order to create an Impressionistic Stimmung (mood). In “See Saw”, the narrator paints an unambiguously beautiful scene, but the characters don’t see it because they are engaged in the petty, annoying details of their lives.

SEASON

Spring.

So the story begins. Mansfield often opened a story with a word, clause or sentence which grounds the reader in time/space. Likewise, “Pictures” opens with ‘Eight o’clock in the morning’. “Daughters of the Late Colonel” opens with ‘The week after was one of the busiest weeks of their lives’. “The Lady’s Maid” opens with ‘Eleven o’clock, a knock at the door’.

Why is spring significant here? Spring means new beginnings, outdoor pursuits, a return to youth (or enjoyment of actual youth). All of these associations can of course be ironically inverted. If spring means youth, autumn means old age. The old people in this story are described as ‘old babies’. In spring, everyone can return to the playfulness of youth.

Grown-up people are often compared with children and children with grown-ups. This reveals contrasting joyful or painful emotions. Sad tones often dominate the scene, sometimes conveying a feeling of claustrophobia, when characters feel as if they are in prison or hospital, or like actors performing on a stare. People appear like actors, wearing masks.

— Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

STORY STRUCTURE OF “SEE SAW”

There is no literal see saw in this story. Mansfield’s titles often changed and didn’t necessarily point to the most important image or character but in this case, the title encourages the reader to wonder about its structural significance. Perhaps Mansfield chose this title hoping to show us that this story structure mimics the basic mechanism of a see saw, reciprocating motion:

  • The children play house while the old people talk about real life concerns
  • They alternate roles (wife and mother / husband and son)
  • And alternate between joy and anger

Edward Atkinson Hornel - The Seesaw 1905
Edward Atkinson Hornel – The Seesaw 1905

A story shaped like a see saw will be a story about juxtaposition, reciprocality and perhaps a change in emotional valence. What is Mansfield juxtaposing here? As mentioned above, she juxtaposes age against youth. But she’s also levelling them out. See saws don’t work if the person at one end is weightier. Despite a constant difference in altitude, the see saw carries to equals. Youth = age.

After Mansfield gives us a wide-angle view of the park in spring, the ‘teeter’ movement of the metaphorical see-saw begins.

  • Narration zooms in on two children.
  • Beneath a tree, two little children, perhaps five or six, have set up a make-believe house. They make a  make-believe pie. For that they need to create a make-believe fire, and they need sticks. Make-believe sticks will suffice.

The ‘totter’ takes over:

  • The scene shifts to the top of the hollow by the tree.
  • Two ‘fat old babies’, probably in their late seventies, plump themselves down on a bench.
  • They talk about a mutual acquaintance who has cut her finger, ‘not badly’.
  • A bird flies over with a ‘great jet of song’.
  • The elderly man stands and waves his hat in the direction of the tree. He doesn’t want bird muck on him.

The see-saw moves again:

  • The children’s make-believe fire is hot.
  • They get into an argument over whether dogs have kittens.

The see-saw moves again:

  • In a single sentence, the old couple get up and waddle away. (Babies also waddle, because of their napkins.)

SHORTCOMING

Compare “See Saw” To “Prelude“, in which old people also look like babies. In “Prelude” Mansfield inverts various expectations, not only the appearance of age, but men are equally sensitive as women and women behave like men. Linda, a mother, hates being a mother. Beryl says “I’m always acting a part”.

The girl in “See Saw” might easily be a child version of Beryl.

William Henry Knight - In Training for the Derby 1856
William Henry Knight – In Training for the Derby 1856

The elderly people get little joy from life; they are weary. Bird muck bothers the man. Make-believe food will not sustain them. Nevertheless, the old people occupy their spot on the other end of the see-saw that is life.

CHILDREN PLAYING MAKE-BELIEVE

The children aren’t worried about ageing. Yet they have clearly absorbed the language of the adults around them. The girl expresses mild but constant irritation at the boy, for failing to do his jobs properly, for failing to understand he’s playing a make-believe role. Mansfield’s scenes in which children play together often function like this. The children’s make-believe games in “Prelude” map clearly onto the social worlds of the adults. Like the Burnell children, these two are factually unsophisticated but not textually unsophisticated.

Unlike the Burnell children, these are working class kids, with the girl’s non-standard English to show that. She therefore mimics the workaday tasks of a busy, working class woman rather than worrying about how make-believe visitors are to be addressed (see “Prelude”). She asks the boy, “Is that a whole pennorth?” meaning “Is that a whole penny’s worth of sticks?”

DESIRE

The children want to play at making house — especially the girl, who is driving the game. The boy is sort of doing as he’s told.

The elderly people want to enjoy the mild weather of spring after a long winter shut indoors. But are they really enjoying themselves?

OPPONENT

The boy isn’t fully onboard with the girl’s make-believe world. He doesn’t have quite the same ability to retreat into his imagination. He quite literally thinks he needs to find sticks, until the girl points out that even the sticks could be make-believe.

The old people sit companionably but not exactly contentedly.

SETTING AS OPPOSITION

Mansfield’s opening suggested it’s spring and everyone should be enjoying the beautiful weather. Yet the two groups of characters are at odds with each other.  The children are somewhat irritated that they can’t even get an imaginary game to take off. They look at each other ‘in consternation’ when the fire won’t light using nails. Technically, the kids could make the game do anything they want. But their imagination is hampered. The girl is mimicking the consternation of an adult woman, too busy for frivolities. In this way, Mansfield equates youth with old age.

So despite the beautiful utopian park, where the weather is always springlike, this story is therefore an inversion of spring symbolism. The setting isn’t helping them to enjoy themselves at all. In some ways the setting is an opponent.

Characters are in danger of getting sprayed in bird muck, unable to enjoy the bird’s beautiful song.

The hollow used by the children seems fun as a mimicry of home, but these hollows are also described as ‘caves — caverns’ (note Mansfield’s emphasis via repetition).  Caves can be scary places.

PLAN

The girl sees her original game isn’t working so she changes the dynamics, showing a quite sophisticated ability to read the situation and adjust accordingly.

BIG STRUGGLE

Each of the two couples has their own minor argument. The children have the argument about whether dogs can have kittens (comical from the reader’s point of view). The elderly couple don’t argue as such, but the shared target of their reprobation is the woman who carelessly (to them) cut her finger at dinner with a knife.

ANAGNORISIS

The tragedy for these characters is that there is no anagnorisis.

NEW SITUATION

We extrapolate that if this beautiful spring day in this beautiful park can’t bring out the cheer in people then people are naturally grumpy.

Header painting: See Saw by Frederick Morgan

Carnation by Katherine Mansfield

Ambrosius Bosschaert Flower Still Life

Carnation” (1918) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in her Something Childish collection. I like this one very much a rare story of blossoming female friendship.

STORYWORLD OF “CARNATION”

Mansfield often opens stories in medias res and grounds us in the setting:

On those hot days

The entire story takes place in a French classroom at a girl’s school on a hot summer’s day. In Mansfield’s stories characters are usually unable to comprehend much beyond their own personal world, however beautiful the natural surroundings and its ‘Stimmung’ (mood). The characters in this story are presented to us wholly within the classroom and its immediate surroundings. There’s no sense of anything existing off-stage.

“Carnation” is a standout example of Mansfield’s synaesthesic sensibilities.

Synaesthesia is a neurological trait or condition that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren’t normally connected. The stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary reaction in one or more of the other senses. For example, someone with synaesthesia may hear colour or see sound.

The Independent

I wonder how Mansfield experienced senses. Across Mansfield’s corpus of writing she blends and fuses the senses to create a dreamlike space for the reader, and to emulate the trance experienced by a character.

John William Waterhouse - At the Shrine
John William Waterhouse – At the Shrine. Girls smelling flowers are a common subject in Victorian English art.

CONNECTION TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE

Mansfield learned French at school, though surprisingly for a world class short story writer, maths was her strongest subject. Students who are good at maths also tend to be very good at languages both maths and second-language learning rely on an affinity for patterns.

In New Zealand, French has traditionally been the language you take if you’re in the academic stream. Less academically inclined girls were channeled into the secretarial route. This remained true at least until my mother’s generation of girls (the 1960s). If you were in the academic stream you could be a teacher. Otherwise you could be a secretary or a nurse.  Girls were of course expected to marry men and become mothers, which turned them into women.

Mansfield’s high school experience preceded my mother’s by half a century and I can’t imagine how stifled she felt as a natural-born contrarian. She did come from a well-off family, and probably knew even at high school that she’d be looked after financially, at least in the basic sense. Her father provided her with 100 pounds per annum. This covered her absolute necessities, though didn’t forestall money worries in Europe.

Mansfield could never be persuaded to study what she didn’t want to study, but she must have enjoyed her French classes. She learned French to quite a high level. Kathleen and her sisters would speak French to each other in front of adult acquaintances and were no doubt insufferable, because they assumed no one else around them was smart enough or worldly enough to understand what they were saying.

John William Waterhouse - The Soul of the Rose
John William Waterhouse – The Soul of the Rose

STORY STRUCTURE OF “CARNATION”

SHORTCOMING

This is the Shortcoming of any teenager almost anywhere enforced boredom and constriction.

THE WINDOW

The two square windows of the French Room were open at the bottom and the dark blinds drawn half way down. Although no air came in, the blind cord swung out and back and the blind lifted. But really there was not a breath from the dazzle outside.

In Mansfield’s short stories, a constantly shifting perspective gives the reader a series of shocks, as one perspective shifts to another. In these stories, look for windows and mirrors. In “Carnation” the symbol happens to be a window.

Katie is experiencing nascent sexuality. Katie seems less mature than Eve I gather this from Eve’s name but also from Eve’s relationship to sensory enjoyment. Until Katie looks out that window, it’s almost as if she’s never allowed herself to enjoy looking at a man like that. Yet she’s not fully mature. There’s still a glass pane between herself and that other, adult world.

But it’s not just the man Katie enjoys. This isn’t an eros that focuses on the man he is incidental to her pleasure. Mansfield only describes the man’s body after describing all sorts of things in the environment, including the drops glancing off the wheel, the sound of the pump and so on. All of these things are quasi-erotic to Katie.

THE HATS

“Roses are delicious, my dear Katie,” she would say, standing in the dim cloak room, with a strange decoration of flowery hats on the hat pegs behind her…

Hats in Mansfield’s stories are repeatedly associated with systems of authority. (This is not stated but unarticulated) e.g. “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. In “Something Childish But Very Natural“, Henry’s story begins with him becoming separated from his hat in a different train carriage. This seems to relieve him of inhibitions. In “The Garden Party” the images of hats are incorporated in the action of the story not only because people wore hats in those days and put a lot of thought into them, but also because they are related to moral values.

What is the hat imagery doing here? Eve is ’embodying’ the flower, with all is overlapping sensory offerings. By putting on a hat covered in flowers she is ’embodying’ the sensory experience of flowers, perhaps. A floral hat is the inverse of stuffy, prim bowler hats and so on.

THE BIRD

When Mansfield compares people to animals, beasts, insects, water-creatures or birds, unpleasant emotions are revealed. Insects are helpless, snakes are cunning, spiders are hunting for prey. Rabbits are escaping. They all represent a cruel or suffering aspect of humankind.

Mansfield especially likes bird images. Bird comparisons comprise almost half of all the animal imagery. In some stories, birds represent freedom or happiness (because they fly and seem to sing joyfully).

The bird imagery in “Carnation” is an excellent example of how Mansfield makes use of birds. Katie’s laugh is compared to a bird, which Mansfield describes as scary:

And away her little thin laugh flew, fluttering among those huge, strange flower heads on the wall behind her. (But how cruel her little thin laugh was! It had a long sharp beak and claws and two bead eyes, thought fanciful Katie.)

Over the course of “Carnations” the character of Eve changes in Katie’s eyes, from a scary bird girl (more like a harpy) to a seductive bird girl (more like a siren).

by Viktor Vasnetsov
colour SYMBOLISM

Mansfield uses colour for more than simply describing something. Colour images fall into two basic categories:

  1. Colour images related to the visual experience of the character looking at it
  2. Colour images expressing the atmospheric mood or a character’s mental state.
[Eve] brought a carnation to the French class, a deep, deep red one, that looked as though it had been dipped in wine and left in the dark to dry. She held it on the desk before her, half shut her eyes and smiled.

The carnation is literally deep red, but what of Katie’s reaction to it? She feels it has been ‘dipped in wine’ an adult drink ‘and left in the dark’ where adult/secret acts happen.

Mansfield doesn’t use the colour red very often. Instead she uses purple, green and gentle colours such as mild yellows, greys and blues. She’s more inclined to focus on variations in light.

The colour in this paragraph is more typical:

Even the girls, in the dusky room, in their pale blouses, with stiff butterfly-bow hair ribbons perched on their hair, seemed to give off a warm, weak light, and M. Hugo’s white waistcoat gleamed like the belly of a shark.

So what of the red of the carnation in this story? There is clearly some burning passion going on, even if it’s without a specific target.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - In My Studio
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – In My Studio

DESIRE

The girls don’t want to study French. They want to kick back on this stifling hot day.

At first Eve seems to be going for some strange social capital. That’s obviously how Katie sees her, and we’re encouraged to see her through Katie’s eyes. The weird girl who eats flowers:

On those hot days Eve — curious Eve — always carried a flower. She snuffed it and snuffed it, twirled it in her fingers, laid it against her cheek, held it to her lips, tickled Katie’s neck with it, and ended, finally, by pulling it to pieces and eating it, petal by petal.

I remember the first time I saw someone eating petals. It was on the 1987 movie The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese epic. After the royals are evicted from the Forbidden City the empress is sidelined. The Empress becomes so disaffected the filmmakers depicted her eating the floral displays at her husband’s coronation as emperor of Manchukuo, before moving on to the more diverting pastimes of opium.

We know she did become addicted to opium.

The Last Emperor eat flower
The Last Empress eating the floral display

Don’t try eating poppies at home. Don’t try selling poppy seeds from a  Wellington dairy, either, unless you sell a commensurate amount of other baking materials.

Frederick Sandys - Love's Shadow (Proud Maisie) 1867
Frederick Sandys – Love’s Shadow (Proud Maisie) 1867

But carnations are actually edible, if grown organically.

When Eve eats the carnation, what’s that all about? This is part of Eve’s desire to eke every sensory pleasure from her environment. I believe she takes equal pleasure from seeing others do the same.

OPPONENT

The girls are divided in a binary way which feels reminiscent of an adolescent classroom, in which everyone experiences puberty in their own time.

Some of the girls were very red in the face and some were white.

Eventually the other characters are ‘killed off’, leaving innocent Katie counterposed to knowing Eve:

…most of the girls fell forward, over the desks, their heads on their arms, dead at the first shot. Only Eve and Katie sat upright and still.

Mansfield liked the technique of counterposing one character with another. In the same way, excited and searching Bertha is counterposed to the calm and contained Pearl Fulton in “Bliss“. Sabina is counterposed next to the pregnant woman in “At Lehmann’s“. In the “Prelude” trilogy Kezia is set next to Linda, Beryl and Mrs Fairfield. This method of juxtaposing characters’ attitudes and moods give structural unity to stories.

I see Katie and Eve as quasi-romantic opponents. Eve is the more stereotypical masculine figure, showing a sexually inexperienced feminine figure the pleasures of life. Katie is initially resistant, even to something as benign as a flower:

Oh, the scent! It floated across to Katie. It was too much. Katie turned away to the dazzling light outside the window.

The other Oppositional web is that which exists between the French teacher and his students, especially Francie Owen, who is decorating herself with ink. (I suspect if Mansfield lived today she’d be thoroughly inked in sleeves of floral tattoos.)

In Mansfield’s stories characters are often defying societal expectations in some way. Their French teacher is not a manly man, shown with the detail of the floral detail on his small, highly decorative book. The girls mock him, possibly because he defies their expectation of manliness:

How well they knew the little blue book with red edges that he tugged out of his coat tail pocket! It had a green silk marker embroidered in forget-me-nots. They often giggled at it when he handed the book round. Poor old Hugo–Wugo!

PLAN

The French teacher first wants the students to learn French, but there is resistance due to the heat of the day. M. Hugo acquiesces, and changes his lesson plan; now they will listen to him read French poetry.

The reactions to this news are various.

“Good God!” moaned Francie Owen.

So the ‘Plan’ in this story is driven by the teacher, but the teacher is soon released from his position as Oppositional character.

BIG STRUGGLE

The students listen to their French teacher read poetry. The narrative ‘camera’ zooms in on Katie, who looks out the classroom window and, with all of her senses fusing, she ‘experiences’ the body of the man pumping water outside, looking at him with The Female Gaze. Her experience of looking at him is close to orgasmic.

Now she could hear a man clatter over the cobbles and the jing-jang of the pails he carried. And now Hoo-hor-her! Hoo-hor-her! as he worked the pump, and a great gush of water followed. Now he was flinging the water over something, over the wheels of a carriage, perhaps. And she saw the wheel, propped up, clear of the ground, spinning round, flashing scarlet and black, with great drops glancing off it. And all the while he worked the man kept up a high bold whistling, that skimmed over the noise of the water as a bird skims over the sea. He went away — he came back again leading a cluttering horse.

She saw him simply — in a faded shirt, his sleeves rolled up, his chest bare, all splashed with water — and as he whistled, loud and free, and as he moved, swooping and bending…

The whole room broke into pieces.

This is the ‘Battle’ scene, and an excellent example of how Battle scenes don’t always look like big struggles/fights/skirmishes/arguments.

ANAGNORISIS

If we go outside the imagery of this particular story, In ancient Greek tradition, for instance, the carnation represented symbols of love.

What’s happening when Eve gives the flower to Katie? Eve is clearly an intertextual name, associated with temptation. Eve might be giving Katie an apple, in a gender-mix up of the Garden of Eden section of the Bible.

It seems to me that while Katie has been watching the man outside, Eve has been watching Katie. When Eve gives Katie the flower, it feels like permission to enjoy the experience of watching a man in that way. Eve is giving Katie the gift of the flower, but also the gift of permission to enjoy any sensory experience that comes her way.

Is it sexual? It’s proto-sexual enjoying sensory pleasures such as the feel of petals and water running across our feet is the first step to enjoying sexual pleasures.

NEW SITUATION

Mansfield’s stories tend to follow a regular pattern with the ‘positive’ theme dominant until the climax (the Battle). Then it comes into decisive conflict and is superseded by the negative theme. In other words, the story often takes a turn for the depressing at this point.

However, “Carnation” does not end like this. I see “Carnation” as a story about the blossoming and cementing of female friendship. When Eve gives Katie the carnation, they are experiencing an “I Understand You Moment”, a necessary component of every love story. (Without this moment the audience won’t believe that two lovers would be any good together.)

And “Keep it, dearest,” said Eve. “Souvenir tendre, [tender memories]” and she popped the carnation down the front of Katie’s blouse.

Keep what? Is Katie’s little epiphany permanent? I think so.

George Dunlop Leslie - Pot-Pourri
George Dunlop Leslie – Pot-Pourri

Though Katie may not understand why Eve gave her the carnation, she’ll always remember the moment. She may look at this particular carnation more carefully. She may enjoy its spicy scent and feel its velvety petals, all by way of learning to enjoy sensations, or perhaps by way of holding onto a childlike joy of sensory experience against the stifling environment of the teenage schoolroom.

Header painting: Ambrosius Bosschaert Flower Still Life from 1614.

Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield

interior of old fashioned train

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. The poem provides in a nutshell the emotional arc of Mansfield’s story:

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.

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 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” 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 TRAIN

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:

  1. The object of your affection is angelic/perfect/above criticism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this other person.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”

“Always.”

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.

Thomas Brooks - The Love Test
Thomas Brooks – The Love Test

NARRATION

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“.

SHORTCOMING

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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oofSnsGkops

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.

ENTITLEMENT

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

DESIRE

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?

OPPONENT

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.
I love but one more than you, the one I thought you were.

(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.

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.

PLAN

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).

BIG STRUGGLE

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!”

ANAGNORISIS

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.

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.

NEW SITUATION

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” has exposed the folly of dreams and romantic idealisation. A later story “The Little Governess” expands on these themes.

Header photo by Gemma Evans