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.

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.

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

Je ne parle pas français by Katherine Mansfield

Leonid Pasternak Boris Pasternak Writing 1919

Je ne parle pas français” (I don’t speak French) is a 1918 short story by Katherine Mansfield. Nothing much ‘happens’, but the character of Raoul Duquette is a comedic archetype seen in contemporary creations such as Dwight Schrute from The Office.

Connection To Mansfield’s Own Life

Hard to fathom today, but the obliquely gay subject matter of this story would have shocked a 1918 readership. John Middleton Murry therefore printed it privately. When it was published for a wider audience in 1920, it was only after heavy censoring. Mansfield hated the cuts, which amounted to bowdlerisation.

THE BOWDLERISATION OF Lgbtq TEXTS

Bowdlerisation is the act of editing a work in an attempt to make it ‘more suitable’ for its intended audience. The word often used to describe adult literary works subsequently adapted for a young reader. 

But bowdlerisation can be carried out for other, political reasons. For instance, a lesbian love story might be bowdlerised by removing the lesbian elements, gender flipping it, avoiding the obvious, or by cherchez l’homme (tracing any woman’s motivations back to her supposed desire for a man). Emily Dickinson’s letters to Sue Gilbert were bowdlerised by Dickinson’s niece, Martha, who deleted sentences such as ‘be my own again, and kiss me as you used to’. Note that Martha published her famous aunt’s bowdlerised love letters in 1920 — the exact year “Je ne parle pas francais” was released to the public.

Katherine Mansfield’s private letters have been subjected to these strategies, along with Frances Hodgkins, Ursula Bethell and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Owing to the obliqueness required by the era, this short story has been interpreted in different ways by various commentators:

  • a reflection on the impact mass media has on reality, or how people decode reality. (Mass media was nascent at the time, so Mansfield demonstrates quite some insight into the impact it would eventually have on us all moving forward.)
  • a story about the menace of pretence. Power without value can be attractive and value without power can be debilitating.
  • a bemused exploration of pop genres e.g. the sensational vs the sentimental

Some commentators have suggested that Katherine Mansfield would have identified in turn with Duquette and with Mouse. Like Duquette, Mansfield was a theatre creative, liked to hang out in cafes observing humanity and was a member of the rainbow community (bisexual? pansexual?). And she had certainly experienced the emotions we might expect Mouse to experience in this story, alone in another country where she doesn’t speak the language, disconnected from everything she knows to be home.

By the way, Mansfield did speak French. She would speak schoolgirl French with her sisters, thinking no one else in their company could understand what they were saying. (Others very often could — French has been studied by academic streams in New Zealand high schools for generations.) If you don’t speak French: This is how to pronounce the title.



Download full text of “Je ne parle pas francais” by Katherine Mansfield (doc)

What happens in “Je ne parle pas français”?

This is not a high concept log line: A man sits in a French cafe, musing about the time he met Mouse, the nickname of a love opponent. The story is revealed to us slowly, and we the narrator’s background, dovetailing his setting present with past events. Meanwhile, we are expected to read behind the lines. As the past dovetails with the present, the reality of Duquette’s desires/plans bifurcates from the story he’s telling us.

So what’s between the lines? Duquette has fallen in love (or lust) with an Englishman named Dick. They hang around together but then Dick returns to England, shocking Duquette by dismissing the close relationship Duquette thinks they’ve shared. But Dick returns to Paris later, this time bringing a woman with him. Dick does not know what to make of this. Is she a cover or is she his lover? Duquette is ultimately unable to code Dick as a straight guy and invents a narrative in which Dick flees his girlfriend, unable to pursue a romantic relationship with either a man or a woman, returning instead to his mother.

Stories in which a character sits around and observes are difficult to pull off. The longer the story, the harder it is to pull off, and I think these stories are much better suited to the short story form than to the novel. Today readers have less patience for the flaneur, which basically describes Duquette. Standing around in a cafe is inherently boring, so any ‘action’ in a story like this derives from the backstory. The cafe scene bookends the love tragedy of Dick and Duquette, and offers readers an insight into Duquette’s character, showing us that he is not reliable. When he offers commentary on the cafe and its characters, he’s telling us far more about himself.

Narration

“Je ne parle pas français” is an excellent example of ‘unreliable narration’. Via the technique of internal monologue, more is revealed of the viewpoint character than the character understands about himself. Raoul Duquette is a comedic character lacking in self-awareness, though I believe he’s keeping details to himself for safety reasons. (It was not safe being rainbow in early 1900s Europe.)

Whenever Mansfield made use of irony it was narrative irony. She created a gap between what the reader understands and what the viewpoint characters understand. This narrative irony is one way of creating dramatic irony. Mansfield made use of it right from her earliest work — “In A Cafe” uses the same form of narrative irony and was written at the age of 19.

Mansfield had already created unreliable narrators in the earlier German Pension stories. But Raoul Duquette is more subtle and complex than the young, naive Englishwoman who narrated those. By the time she wrote “Je ne parle pas français” Mansfield had mastered the technique of narrative irony.

Mansfield wrote in first person more often in her earlier, less sophisticated stories. Her best work tends to be third person. This is her most sophisticated story written in first person.

STORY WORLD OF “JE NE PARLE PAS FRANCAIS”

The bookend setting of the seedy Parisian cafe juxtaposes ironically with the meat of the story — the imaginatively romantic melodrama of Duquette and Dick’s love life.

There is also juxtaposition in the public/private spaces. The cafe is a degraded public space whereas the meat of the story takes place in private. (The secret story happens entirely off the page.)

This story is all about the public/private/secret divisions which segment our lives. If you’re writing a story with this division at its heart, think about how your settings might underscore the theme.

Was Mansfield a country mouse or a city mouse? In “Vignettes“, city life is seen as liberating. But in the later “Je ne parle pas français”, city life is seen as sophisticated in a corrupt sort of way. Ina daydream, Duquette pictures himself and Mouse living a simple life away from the city.

Mansfield’s feelings about the city had clearly changed in the 10 years between those two stories.

What was happening in Paris around 1918-1920? World War I was over and people weren’t expecting another one in their lifetimes. Overall, this was a time of hope and jubilation. Paris celebrated the win with a big parade. Food rationing had ended. The demolition of the Theirs Wall began in 1919. This had been built around the city in the 1840s. The fortification would gradually be replaced with low-cost housing. In 1921, the Paris population reached its historic high. The city’s economy boomed until the effects of the Great Depression hit 10 years later, in 1931. Katherine Mansfield didn’t live to see the Depression. She died in 1923.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “JE NE PARLE PAS FRANCAIS”

SHORTCOMING

What are we encouraged to feel about Raoul Duquette?

He is drawn to melodrama.

He wins us over with a mixture of flamboyant cynicism, faux-self awareness and cutting observations.

Yet he has delusions of grandeur, considering himself the demiurge of his own paracosm (which he doesn’t realise is a paracosm, conflating his construction of reality with veridical truth).

Duquette habitually creates roles for himself and others. We must mindfully sit on the fence about Dick (and about Mouse). We never meet Dick except via the erotically motivated Duquette, so Dick could be anyone at all. We can’t trust Duquette to describe him.

IMAGINARY AUDIENCE

Today we might casually diagnose Duquette with narcissism, though I prefer to think in terms of ‘imaginary audience’, which is much more common, and perhaps a feature of youth in general.

The imaginary audience refers to a state where an individual imagines and believes that multitudes of people are enthusiastically listening to or watching him or her. Though this state is often exhibited in young adolescence, people of any age may harbour a fantasy of an imaginary audience.

Wikipedia, Imaginary Audience

Extended Metaphor OF THE STAGE

For Duquette, life is a stage. This creates a microcosm in which the drama plays: the play within a play, involving Mouse and Dick Harmon.

“Je ne parle pas français” uses language in order to expose language, constructs a form (the recalled memory, which shapes the whole story as an extended “as if”) that will also function metaphorically — as an embodiment, here, of the menace of pretence. To recognize that power without value can be attractive and that value without power can be debilitating is, in other words, a concrete challenge to language as well as an abstract problem in morality. And “Je ne parle pas français” is not alone in probing this issue. The value of language is one of the most pervasive motifs in Mansfield’s writing, and questioning the consequences of language can be one of the most unsettling results of examining her formal practice.

Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by William Herbert New

The stage metaphor in turn leads us to a deeper theme regarding the two lives we lead — the life of performance and artifice vs the authentic life. Japanese culture has everyday words to describe these two selves — omote and ura, ‘face’ and ‘mind’ (in old Japanese). English lacks vocabulary to describe this dichotomy, except in academic circles.

I would use the word ‘solipsistic’ to describe Duquette. He walks into the cafe as if he is the only real human — everyone else is a prop. When he thinks of others, he casts them in stories. First the straw floor of the cafe reminds him of the nativity scene, then he refers to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with the phrase “dying fall”. In the first scene of Twelfth Night a lovesick count named Orsino is listening to music that has a “dying fall.” Today musicians might use the phrase to describe a diminuendo or decrescendo. This dying fall foreshadows the melodramatic ‘swan song’ mentioned later in the story. Like the story of the swan who sings beautifully before keeling over, dead, Duquette is comically melodramatic, and the stand-out unexpected detail from this story is the line about the dead kitten:

No paper or envelopes, of course. Only a morsel of pink blotting-paper, incredibly soft and limp and almost moist, like the tongue of a little dead kitten, which I’ve never felt.

The structure of the bit reminds me of the line: “A theologian is like a blind man in a dark room searching for a black cat… which isn’t there.”

DUQUETTE, DWIGHT & HUMOUR

But of all the contemporary characters that spring to mind, Duquette reminds me (at a non-surface level) of Dwight Schrute from The Office (American spin-off). Both characters ‘save time’ when asking questions. The following is from Mansfield’s story:

Query : Why am I so bitter against Life ? And why do I see her as a rag-picker on the American cinema, shuffling along wrapped in a filthy shawl with her old claws crooked over a stick ?

Answer: The direct result of the American cinema acting upon a weak mind.

Dwight Schrute also says, “Question” before asking questions. Though Dwight is a hopelessly naive lover of high fantasy, I imagine he might feel similarly dismissive of cinema. Like the comedic character of Duquette (and also Walter Mitty), Dwight Schrute fancies himself the central character of his own private narrative. In Dwight’s case this manifests in him coming to the rescue of people who don’t need saving, but all in the aid of proving his own worth, mainly to himself.

Duquette saves no one and he knows it, but the similarities continue. Like Duquette, Dwight Schrute has little affection for cats. (Dwight puts Angela’s beloved cat in her freezer, which ends their romance.) A dead cat to Dwight is the same as an alive one. Both characters are melodramatic but without the sentimentality you might expect to go with. But as you read, notice how Duquette makes a show of sentimentality. He’s not genuinely sentimental, in my opinion. Some commentators have dismissed Mansfield for writing cloying, twee little stories but those commentators have failed to grasp the subtle irony.

Duquette and Dwight’s lack of sentimentality derives from self-absorption. Though this is also Duquette’s line, I can imagine Dwight Schrute saying, “I have no patience with people who can’t let go of things, who will follow after and cry out. When a thing’s gone, it’s gone. It’s over and done with. Let it go, then! Ignore it, and comfort yourself, if you do want comforting, with the thought that you never do recover the same thing that you lose. It’s always a new thing. The moment it leaves you it’s changed.” This philosophical stance foreshadows the end of Mansfield’s story: There will be no Anagnorisis for the character, in true Literary Impressionist style. (The literary Impressionists thought Anagnorisiss were contrivances, since people don’t easily change.)

Like Dwight (and also Michael Scott, his boss), we laugh at Duquette because his comparisons run to the absurd, even if the beginning of a paragraph makes superficial sense: “Why, that’s even true of a hat you chase after”, Duquette continues, “and I don’t mean superficially—I mean profoundly speaking…”

Humour derives from the bafflement of the reader, discombobulated owing to the lack of apparent segue. (Another comedy series that takes The Ridiculous Comparison to its extreme is Welcome To Night Vale.)

I don’t want to make too much of the Dwight Schrute/Raoul Duquette comparison. On the surface they are unalike. After all, Duquette is a Frenchman and a dandy living in the early 1900s. Schrute is an Amish-background contemporary American office worker who farms beets and plays competitive ping pong.

But to conclude to topic of Duquette’s Shortcominges, the extent of Duquette’s moral shortcoming is kept as a humorously conveyed reveal for the end of the story. He has the ability to not care too much about the welfare of others.

DESIRE

Duquette wants to be a part of something big. Not only that, he wants to be at the centre of it. He wants the attention of others. This is connected to his needs and shortcomings — these two aspects are inextricable in the best stories.

Clearly, he also wants love. Or sex. We don’t know because he’s not letting on. Maybe just the latter.

PSYCHO-SEXUAL VAMPIRISM

There’s a trope known as the ‘psycho-sexual vampire’. Raoul Duquette is a good example, being a voyeur who ‘feeds’ on the emotions of others. Moreover, he wants to manipulate the reader by taking us into his confidence (ostensibly) and creates complicity. Unless we step back and say, “Hang on, is this guy telling me the truth of the situation?” we’re likely to be fully taken in, Lolita style.

Psycho sexual stories are about the psychological aspects of sex. A Nazi sympathiser was one of the first writers to create the vampire as a symbol of the psycho sexual impulse. His name was Hanns Heinz Ewers. Partly for the Nazi reason, his work isn’t very popular today. Check out Alraune (1911) if you’d like to go there.

But let’s go back a little earlier, to a work ahead of its time. Carmilla is a gothic novella written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, published 1871-2. The plot of this older story revolves around a beautiful female vampire’s attempts to seduce a frail young girl. It’s a rare lesbian love story. In fact, the vampire part only comes in at the end, when Laura realises ‘Carmilla’, who has been trying to seduce her, is in fact succubus type creature and must be killed. The psychological complexity of this vampire story is what makes Le Fanu’s story ahead of its time.

“Je ne parle pas français” is not a supernatural horror at all, but Raoul Duquette shares commonalities with the horror vampire of the age. I would love to know if Mansfield read Carmilla. There’s a good chance she did, being well-read, being in love with women, and with Carmilla being the stand-out vampire story of the age until Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (The sexual aspects of Carmilla in turn influenced Dracula.)

But historically there are very few gay vampire stories featuring two male characters. I wonder if Mansfield saw a gap that needed filling, inspired by Le Fanu’s work. There’s nothing supernatural about “Je ne parle pas français” — supernatural wasn’t Mansfield’s thing. But remember, Le Fanu’s story didn’t have much supernatural about it either, despite the vampire. In Carmilla, as in Mansfield’s story, we have one character who is in touch with her sexuality (Carmilla/Duquette) while the other pulls away (Laura/Dick). This oscillation between attraction and repulsion drives the Erotics of Abstinence audiences continue to enjoy today in stories such as Twilight.

OPPONENT

Duquette’s romantic opponent is Dick, who may or may not have a handle on his own sexual orientation, who may or may not be into men, and the situation becomes triangulated with the arrival of (female) Mouse.

Duquette doesn’t really acknowledge at any point that Mouse is his opponent. He doesn’t seem to know why he didn’t help her out. Instead he considers ‘Life Itself’ his opponent, an ‘old hag’, because life doesn’t abide by confirming Duquette’s own view of himself. (Except very occasionally, like when he walked into this cafe today and felt he was at the centre of something big.)

PLAN

Like any gay man in an era when sexually transgressive acts are illegal, Duquette dissembles by avoiding a direct declaration of his desires, let alone exactly how he will get what he wants. At the turn of the century, ‘homosexuality’ was only just beginning to be conceptualised as an identity rather than simply an (illegal) act. But he clearly figures if he and Dick only spend enough time together than their relationship would naturally progress… somehow.

“After that I took Dick about with me everywhere, and he came to my flat, and sat in the arm-chair, very indolent, playing with the paper-knife. I cannot think why his indolence always gave me the impression he had been to sea … I sometimes wondered if he wasn’t completely innocent.”

In the early 1900s, one’s sex life was a private matter. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy (in her 1996 essay “But we would never talk about it’: The Structures of Lesbian Discretion in South Dakota, 1928-1933”) has said, in regards to determining individuals’ biographies, that if people seemed to deny their orientation in earlier eras, this ‘should be interpreted as an assertion that their sexuality was not a public matter, rather than as a denial that they have a sexual interest in [the same sex]’.

gay language

I would be interested to know if ‘has been to sea’ is a euphemism of early 1900s Gay Polari. Are there contemporary examples in pop culture, for instance from the song “Beautiful Boys” by CocoRosie about Jean Genet, ‘tattoos of ships and tattoos of tears‘. Across time, the navy and ships are connected to gay culture.

Gay love on ships goes back way further than The Village People — matelotage was a gay marriage of sorts practiced by male pirates from the 17th century. Pirates were themselves transgressive, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising that they had a higher tolerance for other transgressive ways of living.

The phrase ‘Parisian, a true Parisian’ is almost certainly code for a gay man, with associations of a gigolo of duplicitous nature and the kind of effete man with literary pretensions. (Historically, marginalised groups required to wear public masks for their own safety have also been simultaneously persecuted for ‘lying’ about themselves.)

BIG STRUGGLE

Dick flees from his woman companion and runs back to his mother from Paris, unable to face getting into a relationship with Mouse, or perhaps with any woman. In Duquette’s head this has been a Romeo and Juliet-esque suicide with all the imagined melodrama around that.

The story that takes place inside Dick’s head shows that the character is playing into a narrative — and cultural phenomenon — which began in the 1800s and which continues dangerously into the present:

As gay identity spread, so did the notion that gay men were more prone to suicide. Late-19th- and early 20th-century writers picked up on the association between homosexuality and suicide … when gay characters’ deaths are portrayed lovingly, romantically or cathartically today – such as the suicide of Virginia Woolf in the novel The Hours (1998) or of Michael Corrigan in the TV drama House of Cards (2013-15) – it is worth noting these are echoes of a literary device that first sounded in Weimar Berlin. And to acknowledge that, so long as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers see characters who look and talk and think like themselves, and who then kill themselves, suicide will continue to suggest itself as a plausible course of action.

Sam Haselby, Aeon

Of course, we don’t know Dick is gay and he does not in fact die in the story. He simply goes home to England, using his mother as an excuse to end the relationship with Mouse, whatever that entailed. But this dominant cultural narrative is why Duquette has jumped to the suicide conclusion, and why Mansfield would have used it.

Herein lies a downside of internal monologue, in which there’s no unseen narrator to moderate a flawed character’s problematic ideologies: When Mansfield creates the gay-suicide scene she inevitably creates yet another narrative in which a gay man hates himself and dies as a result. With internal monologue (and similar narrative techniques e.g. stream of consciousness) writers are always hoping for the best of readers.

ANAGNORISIS

There is no room for epiphany in this circular text, whose protagonist is condemned to sterile repetition of cultural cliches.

Maurizio Ascari

By the time we reunite with present-world Duquette, still in the cafe, has he experienced any epiphany owing to his association with Dick and Mouse? Any increase at all in his self-awareness? Well no — he may have developed as a human being had he done something self-sacrificial such as look after an English woman alone in Paris — a woman he considers his love opponent and therefore unworthy of his time.

But he doesn’t help her at all, breaking his promise to her. (He didn’t have to promise in the first place — it only made him look good in the moment.) After a double carriage return Mansfield writes with a brilliant touch of humour: “Of course you know what to expect. You anticipate, fully, what I am going to write. It wouldn’t be me, otherwise.” Mansfield has trusted us to understand this character over the course of the story. Duquette is not only an unreliable narrator and an unreliable person in general. Looking back we do see all the clues.

Clues create the symbol web. For instance, Duquette hasn’t paid for either of the mirrors in his house. Mansfield makes much use of mirrors (and windows) in her stories. If Duquette hasn’t paid for the mirrors in his own house, he clearly has little purchase on who he is as a person. There’s nothing subtle about this message: Reader, you can’t trust the guy reflected in these (unpaid for) mirrors. Why does Duquette even tell the reader he hasn’t paid for them? My read is that he’s secretly proud of his ability to get by in life on the smell of an oily rag, living a champagne lifestyle on beer money. Duquette is probably a working class boy who, through wit and positioning, is hoping to insert himself less precariously into the upper-middle class. In this respect I’m reminded of Miss Delysia La Fosse from Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Delysia is a woman who has married into money, but her impoverished background is kept as a late reveal. The pretty young woman who marries into royalty by behaving in appropriate ways and looking nice in upper-class garb is an archetype as old as myth and fairytales. Duquette will have read them, I suspect.

Delysia La Fosse from Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

NEW SITUATION

Duquette still thinks of Mouse whenever he hears certain tunes playing in cafes. But he has already told us he doesn’t live with regret. This feels like a contemporary response. Had he lived in the year 2012 he might be preaching, “YOLO!”

Let’s not gloss past that attitude uncritically. For what is a life sans regret? Regret is a necessary precursor to self-reflection. If we subscribe to an ‘You Only Life Once’ philosophy, we’re in danger of becoming a self-centred population of Raoul Duquettes.

Header painting: Leonid Pasternak Boris Pasternak, Writing, 1919

Prelude by Katherine Mansfield

Albert Chevallier Tayler - The Quiet Hour

Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although “The Doll’s House” is populated by the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” are so closely aligned to “Prelude” that these two stories might be considered a diptych. “New Dresses” is thought to have explored an earlier version of the Burnell family dynamics.

Commentaries on this story fall into two main categories:

  1. Over multiple viewpoints we are shown that Kezia still has the future before her. (Sometimes Beryl is thought to have the future before her.) But Linda, in contrast, has no future at all. In this reading, Mrs Fairfield is seen as a warm and encouraging grandmother. In this reading we can find numerous examples of preludes: The family’s move is a prelude to a new kind of suburban living, the children’s prelude to adolescence, Beryl’s prelude to spinsterhood, Mrs Fairfield’s prelude to death. Unfortunately Linda gets no prelude. She’s done. This explains why she’s a little down, I guess.
  2. In the feminist reading, Mansfield uses imagery to reveal the power struggle between men and women. Kezia is all caged up. Linda is trapped within marriage, but going through an hysterical rebellion. Stanley exerts dominion over not just the house he bought, but also wants to expand to buying a pew at church etc.

For me, “Prelude” is chiefly about all the various ways in which people live in their own fantasy worlds. Each of the characters in this story has a different relationship with reality, whether it’s make-believe games or pranks played by children, a romantic fantasy played out by a young woman, the slightly crazed imaginings of a ‘desperate housewife’, or the delusions of grandeur enjoyed by the man of a busy household.

Read “Prelude” online at The Katherine Mansfield Society.

Plotwise, “Prelude“, features the Burnell family, who are moving from the city of Wellington into the nearby country. Mansfield’s own family made a similar move when she was a child, perhaps to escape a bacterial infection which was killing lots of people in central Wellington in the late 1800s. She probably drew on memories of that time. Mansfield called her house in central Wellington ‘a horrid little piggy house’. It was small and plain compared to the house they moved into. (If you visit this original house in Wellington today, you may be surprised at how small it is by modern standards.)

The story is not of an individual character but of an entire cast. Imagine the story as a stained glass window:

[Mansfield’s] intention is not to focus the material in a certain single character and thus achieve unity of vision. She centers the material upon all characters and thus obtains a number of visions which exist not in a hierarchy but in an anarchy. The very sectioning of the stories indicates the author’s intentions of avoiding characterisation. Each section is a piece of coloured glass, and all the pieces exist together not in subordination but in juxtaposition. Out of each piece comes a shaft of light, the point of view of a character.

Yuan-Shu Yen

Mansfield’s earlier version of “Prelude” was called “The Aloe”. An aloe (which flowers only once every 100 years) makes a symbolic appearance in this short story. Mansfield liked symbolic trees. A beech tree is symbolic in “The Escape” and the pear tree is symbolic in “Bliss“.

The aloe plant has a tall, thick, swollen stem with long, sharp thorns.

Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.

In this story the aloe has been said to symbolise:

  1. Separate things merging together: past and present, Kezia and Linda.
  2. Linda’s sexual fears
  3. Thorns represent the destructive powers of sex and the dominant role fulfilled by the male head of household
  4. Power (for Linda) to escape (corresponding with money for Beryl)

In her revision, Mansfield also made her plot less ‘obvious’, leaning more heavily on symbolism to suggest and, in short, turned the story into something far more muted than before. Between revisions she had lost her brother in the war. In the revision, Linda is now pregnant with a male child. Some readers have speculated that this is perhaps in honour of Mansfield’s deceased brother.

What Happens In “Prelude”



Mansfield wrote that she was having a difficult time defining this story. “What form is it?… As far as I know, it’s more or less my own invention.”

A narrative camera follows various members of a household as they move from the city to the country then settle in (or not, as the case may be).

Writing Techniques of Note

  • Characters are mentioned before we meet them in person, which helps ground readers within the wider network of characters. We also look forward to meeting them properly when we do finally see them in action. We know quite a bit about the grandmother before we’ve met her, for instance: She’s probably closer to Kezia than Kezia is to her own mother, as Kezia watched her pack. The grandmother packed carefully, and Kezia knows there will be nothing left in her room — a careful sort of woman who perhaps grew up with little in the way of possessions. She’s a longtime friend of the kindly store man and we see her scrabbling about in the distance trying to look after Linda, who is ‘prostrate’ on the dray. (A dray is a two-wheeled cart.) We also hear about Pip and Rags, so we know they are cousins before we meet them properly.
  • Read “Prelude” as an excellent example of a story which achieves “The Overview Effect” (seen also in We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen, Matchless by Gregory Maguire and Happy Valley Season One.)
  • Mansfield was expert at expanding short periods of time so they felt much longer.
  • Mansfield explores various forms of ‘fantasy’ in this story, and how some fantasies are fun, others self-sabotaging, still others a little disturbing.
  • She aligns child characters to adult characters — one daughter is like her mother; another is more aligned with her auntie.
  • The narration is expertly done, with a very TV-like feel to it (even in the days before TV) — the camera moves from one scene to another, and each scene includes a different ensemble of cast members. Mansfield learned these tricks earlier than most writers because of her involvement in theatre.

“Prelude” is full of fleeting images signalled by words like ‘looked’, ‘seemed’, and ‘as if’. Reality in “Prelude only exists as momentarily perceived by the characters, as it seems to them at a particular moment. Kezia sees the aloe as old and withered; her mother sees it as cruel, invincible, and as a means of escape and she lies about the blossom period. Characters in “Prelude” have a solipsistic, momentary, fragmentary view of reality. There is continual irony as different characters misunderstand each other, fail to communicate or remain trapped in solipsistic isolation from each other.

Julia van Gunsteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

STORY STRUCTURE OF “PRELUDE”

PART ONE

In which the Burnell family set off by cart to their new home in the country, leaving the younger two daughters behind.

  • There is no room for Kezia and Lottie in the buggy because the buggy is full of household stuff. Eldest daughter Isabel is riding in the front, which she seems proud of. The mother is revealed to value her possessions more than she values her children. (The possessions are considered ‘absolute necessities’ whereas the youngest two girls are optional.) So Kezia and Lottie are left with a neighbour, Mrs Samuel Josephs, who seems to be suffering from allergies or adenoids (conveyed via spelling in her dialogue).
  • Kezia and Lottie eat tea with the high-spirited neighbour kids in the nursery, who trick Kezia into thinking there will be strawberries and cream rather than bread and dripping to eat. Kezia feels humiliated. This is the first time in the story a character doesn’t make a clear distinction between what is real and what is imagined. Young Stanley’s joke is a bit of child’s play rather than the work of a practised fantasist, but contrasts with how adult Beryl makes up her own story of a more pleasant life, aiming to dupe only herself. (Mansfield isn’t bothered about distinguishing between young Stanley next door and Mr Stanley Burnell — such coincidences happened in real life.)

PART TWO

In which Kezia says goodbye to her early childhood home and looks through symbolic windows.

  • Kezia ventures back to their old house to explore. Their home is now empty. For Kezia, the house has a ghostly, scary feel about it. The colours of the scene are golden and blue with dots of red. The flowers through the window look a lot more colourful again. Lottie comes to collect her.
  • Later, when the evening chill has set in, the girls are taken to their new country house by the kindly store man in his wagon. I’m struck by how fatherly the store man is, and how he tucks up their feet in a piece of old blanket and lets them snuggle in close. This was a time before people realised that some adults cannot be trusted alone with young children — even ‘old friends’ you buy grapes from. And so he was trusted completely. The role of men must have changed over the past century — it seems to me from the store man example that men were both removed from their own children but more able to express tenderness towards other people’s without arousing suspicion. Later: ‘Tenderly the storeman lifted her, set her cap straight, and pulled down her crumpled clothes.’

PART THREE

In which Lottie and Kezia travel to their new house and explore. Meanwhile, the adults argue a little and canoodle.

  • The girls notice the night scene as they travel to their new house — they’ve never been out so late. They notice the speckling sky, the moon and the harbour. They see green lights coming out of the ships carrying coal, and the lighthouse on Quarantine Island. (I believe this is now known as Matiu/Somes Island (with both its Maori and European name.) The girls see the Picton Boat, which features in “The Voyage“. (For all we know, Fenella is riding that ferry right now, and her grandmother is climbing onto the top bunk of their cabin.)
  • By the time they get to the house, Lottie is asleep on her feet. Kezia is trusted to carry the lamp. (This is a time before electricity.) Children can’t easily be trusted with lamps because there’s always a danger of setting the house on fire.
  • At the new house, Linda Burnell has got a headache, and is described as a melodramatic queen.
  • Stanley Burnell’s character is summed up in one brilliant snippet of dialogue. When offered tea he replies, “Well, you might just give me five-eighths of a cup,” showing his pernickety, fastidious personality.
  • Beryl and Stanley are having dinner. There are more adults than children living in this house. Beryl is Linda’s unmarried sister. Stanley calls his wife ‘darling’ and Beryl by her given name.
  • Isabel’s character is also introduced succinctly — she boasts about eating a whole chop, bone and all. When chastised for boasting, she is offended that she has been accused of boasting. For a child, there are few things worse than feeling misunderstood. (Funnily enough, she’s not accused of lying. Beryl’s fond of fabrications herself, so although a child couldn’t possibly have eaten a chop, bone and all, Beryl doesn’t chastise her for that.)
  • Beryl and Stanley have a bit of a faux-lovers’ tiff about the moving in arrangements.
  • Then Linda and Stanley share an intimate moment until they are interrupted by their eldest daughter.

PART FOUR

In which everyone at the new house goes to bed.

  • The children are taken to bed by their grandmother.
  • There are no sheets on the beds at this point. The scratchy blankets make Kezia imagine she’s playing a game of Cowboys and Indians.
  • The girls fall asleep to new sounds they’re yet to get used to. This is always the way in a new house — you hear every little thing the first night, then after that you sleep more soundly.
  • Lottie and Kezie pray, then fall sleep in the same bed with their little bottoms barely touching.
  • The scene switches to Beryl undressing for bed. Whereas Kezia imagined Indians, Beryl imagines being watched by a lover outside her window. In bed, she imagines being swept away by a rich suitor fresh off the boat from England.
  • The scene switches again to Stanley and Linda’s bedroom. Stanley is talking business with an uninterested wife who clearly leaves all economic matters to her husband. (Women had only quite recently won the right to vote in New Zealand at this time.)
  • The scene switches to Pat the handmaid, who has his own small room behind the kitchen. He is described as ‘a hanged man’. He owns an empty bird-cage.
  • We get one single sentence about the servant girl who, like the woman who cared for the daughters all afternoon, ‘has adenoids’. (I wonder if she actually had hay fever, which would have been exacerbated by all the extra pollen of the surrounding bush, or perhaps she was sensitive to dust mites, stirred up in the move.)
  • The grandmother goes to sleep with Kezia. She removes her false teeth. In those days in New Zealand, women commonly had all of these teeth extracted (sans pain relief) before their wedding days, to save their husbands needing to spend money on tooth maintenance. The girls’ fathers thought they were doing a favour to their future sons-in-law. This happened to my own grandmother and to her sister, who both had all of their strong, white teeth removed once they left school.

PART FIVE

In which the Burnell children play make-believe outside while their mother languishes passively in bed, waiting for something — she doesn’t know what.

  • The morning vista is described as red and green, wet and a little windy. Typical Wellington weather. The various birds sound loud.
  • Linda dreams of birds, prompted by the birdcall outside her new window. She is dreaming of her late father. A baby bird becomes a baby human, which scares her. This dream gives us some insight into how Linda feels about motherhood. (It scares her a little. For her, motherhood is abject.)
  • Stanley goes about his morning exercises, in which he looks ridiculous. He gets himself caught up in his shirt and remind Linda of a turkey.
  • Linda remains in bed, Stanley leaves for work and the children are required to play outside. They play an imaginary game involving mud pies.
  • Linda seems to be hallucinating, imagining the furniture and furnishings coming alive. Her hallucinations seem to keep her company, which makes her seem very isolated and lonely within her own busy household.

PART SIX

William John Hennessy - The Pride of Dijon 1879
William John Hennessy – The Pride of Dijon 1879

In which old Mrs. Fairfield washes the breakfast dishes and Kezia explores the garden

  • We get a bit of the old woman’s back story — she lived in Tasmania as a young woman, and as a young mother.
  • We learn that she takes comfort in household routine and order. If Mrs Fairfield were a fabric she’d be a checked cloth. She likes the ritual of tea, and still mothers her married daughter. Linda associates her mother with everything being in pairs.
  • The story shifts to Kezia after Linda thinks of Kezia being ‘tossed by a bull’.
  • Kezia has explored the yard and managed to get lost.
  • Mansfield describes the garden, though not fully from Kezia’s point of view, because I doubt a child that young would know the names of all the plants. However, the description of the ‘little white ones’ which are ‘far too full of insects to hold under anyone’s nose’ does sound like Kezia’s voice. ‘Cabbage roses on thick stalks, moss roses, always in bud, pink smooth beauties opening curl on curl, red ones so dark they seemed to turn black as they fell, and a certain exquisite cream kind with a slender red stem and bright scarlet leaves’ sounds like an unseen narrator, but then we’re back to Kezia’s point of view at the conclusion of the description with ‘all kinds of little tufty plants she had never seen before’.
  • Kezia rolls down the slope and makes herself giddy.
  • Kezia makes a ‘surprise’ for her grandmother, puts a selection of petals and flowerheads inside a matchbox then ‘tricks’ her grandmother into opening the box for a match. The grandmother plays along, as she always does. This detail strikes me as very much what little kids do with adults who will pay them attention. (I once tricked my own grandmother with an eraser which looked and smelled like three squares of chocolate, but she didn’t twig to the joke and bit down hard. She wasn’t impressed at my ‘deceit’. At four of five years of age, I had thought it was obviously an eraser! The eraser bore the deep imprints of her dentures for the remainder of its lifespan.)
  • On the way back to the house she notices a plant she’d never seen before. Her mother tells her it’s an aloe.

Edward John Poynter - In a Garden
Edward John Poynter – In a Garden

PART SEVEN

In which Stanley comes home after work in a state of cherry-eating bliss, and tries to sweep his low-affect wife up into his enthusiasm for the new house. In the second part of this section we accompany as she plays the guitar, interrupted by the servant girl.

  • On his way home, Stanley picks up luxury, celebratory items: oysters, pineapple, cherries. Meanwhile, his servant attends to him as if he’s a baby, trucking him up in the brown rug.
  • Ironically, Stanley thinks there’s ‘nothing servile about him’, despite him being the ultimate servant, attending to his master’s feet. Stanley is happy to believe Pat is content doing his job. (Pat is a new servant, hired for their move to the country.) He thinks of giving him some of his cherries, but realises he’d ‘better wait a little longer’, subtext reading: He does know that he needs a relationship of master-servant from the beginning, or their dynamic will be too odd.
  • Stanley looks forward to arriving home at his new house in the country. He thinks of it as a kind of utopia. He feels ecstatic, akin to Bertha Young in “Bliss“. (And since you’ve read “Bliss”, you’ll know that these ecstatic feelings can never last.)
  • In common with his children and wife, Stanley is inclined to see objects as something else. He sees the cherries as ‘a perfect little pair of Siamese twins.’
  • Stanley imagines himself in church, singing very well. He imagines talking to his wife about work, and it’s evident that Stanley doesn’t understand his wife’s lack of interest. This is a man incapable of taking another’s point of view, he’s so full of self-importance.
  • Stanley’s deep desire is to provide for his family. He produces the oysters and pineapple ‘as though he had brought her back all the harvest of the earth’. 
  • Linda isn’t very impressed, referring to them as ‘silly things’. Her mood is out of sync with Stanley’s. She refuses to eat the cherries he bought for her because she doesn’t want to ruin her appetite for dinner.
  • Linda and Stanley go upstairs together. Stanley remains happy; Linda shivers from the heavy dew. She closes the bedroom window. (Pathetic fallacy — Linda withdraws from her husband.)
  • Beryl sits on a hassock (a big cushion, often used for kneeling during prayer) and plays guitar. She has created an imaginary audience for herself. Rather than getting caught up in the music, Beryl is all about how she appears to others.
  • But she is interrupted by the servant girl, who has a ‘crimson face’ (to contrast with her own white hue).

George Henry - The Tortoiseshell Mirror 1903
George Henry – The Tortoiseshell Mirror 1903

  • At the end of this scene she smiles into the mirror because smiling makes her look adorable, but the act of smiling itself makes her genuinely happy, or so we are told. The ending of this section is reminiscent of the end of “Her First Ball“, or “The Doll’s House“, in which young female characters almost seem to make a decision to be happy, as if making the decision is all it takes. It’s like they’re all read self-help books fro the 1990s, which tended to emphasise ‘the power of positive thinking’. (Those ideas have now evolved into ‘action, not thoughts’.) What sort of self-help ideas were doing the rounds in New Zealand at the turn of the 20th century, I wonder? Beryl may not have been up with current trends in psychology, but Katherine Mansfield certainly was. In 1890, William James (brother of Henry James) published The Principles of Psychology. We can safely guess Mansfield read this unexpected bestseller because she quoted from James (a different work of his) in a 1920 review of The Captives by Hugh Walpole. What did James believe about psychology? His ideas were ahead of his time:

James hypothesised that the relationship between emotion and behaviour was a two-way street, and that behaviour can cause emotion. According to James, smiling can make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad. Or, to use James’s favourite way of putting it: “You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of the bear because you run from it.”

The Guardian

PART EIGHT

In which the children annoy the dog and play make-believe outside.

  • The children include a pineapple into their make believe because Stanley brought one home last night. What else have they taken directly from life? Their attitude towards the servant class, undoubtedly. Mansfield teases this aspect of the Burnell children out in “The Doll’s House”, and here we see them observe that servants are not to be talked to. This is the child, make-believe version of the scene of Stanley in the cart, wishing to give Pat a cherry, but knowing he cannot, not without upsetting the social order.
  • The Burnells’ cousins arrive. Pip and Rags Trout are distinguished by their personalities — Pip is a boisterous boy (adhering to everyone’s idea of what a little boy should be), whereas Rags is more transgressive, and would like to play with dolls. Pip has a dog which, by modern standards, he is abusing somewhat, by creating concoctions then feeding that to the dog.
  • The new garden is described as ‘bonzer’. ‘Boncer’ is a New Zealand/Australian word no longer used, meaning wonderful. (I have heard ‘bonzer’ to mean the same thing — is bonzer an evolution of ‘boncer’?) Others have suggested different etymology, with an Australian focus:

Bonzer is an adjective meaning ‘surpassingly good, splendid, great’. The word is also used as a noun meaning ‘something (or someone) that excites admiration by being surpassingly good of its kind’, and as an adverb meaning ‘beautifully, splendidly’. Bonzer is possibly an alteration of the now obsolete Australian word bonster (with the same meaning) which perhaps ultimately derives from British dialect bouncer ‘anything very large of its kind’.

ANU

  • The children negotiate their make-believe games, with Isabel wanting to play boring games in which she is in control of the others, and Kezia rebels, remembering unpleasant incidents from previous occasions.
  • Pip ties a kerchief around the dog’s head, with the aim of flattening his ears against his head in the way of proper fighting dogs.

Section eight emphasises the centrality of mimicry.

Two of the characters have status-making titles (Mrs Jones and Mrs Smith). Gwen is just Gwen. The children don’t know whether she should be introduced to a Visiting Lady or not. These are children still trying to nut out the complicated rules of etiquette in upper-middle class New Zealand society.

When the Trout boys turn up the game changes into a different variety of competition.

Pip is like Stanley, and is keen to draw attention to himself. He boasts about his athletic prowess.

Isabel wants to play hospitals. By doing so she can salvage a role that will give her some importance, even in male company. She wants to be the nurse, who holds some degree of feminine power. She tries again by suggesting a game of “Ladies”, in which she will be the mother.

Kezia doesn’t want to play Ladies. She has no enthusiasm for a game which simply mimics boring old ordered society — she’d probably prefer more of a carnivalesque adventure.

These games are not simply proto-adult games — clearly, the children are already part of the same big game of jostling for hierarchy in every mundane aspect of their social lives.

Ditto for sexuality. These kids are already sexual, albeit in a typically childlike sense. The games of Hospitals and Ladies hint at childhood sexual curiosity. Talk of the fictional Mrs Smith and her children shows these real children haven’t quite got a handle on how babies are made. They haven’t got the facts of life straight. They’re factually unsophisticated but not textually unsophisticated. They have taken on board the overall resentment around Linda’s pregnancy. The fictional baby is cast out of the buggy as the children are cast out of their home.

PART NINE

In which Pat kills the duck and the children are disturbed by it. (I find the image a little disturbing myself.) This scene is clearly a rite of passage for the children, part of their ongoing education in the cycles of life: birth, death, consumption, revival and so on.

  • Pat the handyman kills a duck for dinner. First he collects the children so they can watch the spectacle. Some critics consider this a scene redolent with sexual symbolism, given the scene that came before.
  • They all go to the steam. Pat pretends to feed one grain, then catches it when it comes close. He has tricked the duck. (Much earlier in this story, Kezia was also taken in with a food trick. No wonder she affiliates herself with the duck.)
  • The children each have a different reaction to the duck, who continues to run after the head has been decapitated.
  • Pip is delighted.
  • The younger, more sensitive cousin Rags wonders if the duck’s head might still be alive. He hasn’t fully comprehended the nature of death and how it all works.
  • Kezia stops thinking about the dead duck when she realises Pat wears earrings. She didn’t know men could wear earrings. (In fact, men have been wearing earrings for much longer than women.) Pat’s sexual ambiguity distracts Kezia from wanting things as they had been  before.

PART TEN

In which Alice prepares afternoon tea and is irritated by Beryl.

  • The reader sees that Alice and Beryl are cut from the same cloth, each living in their own kind of hopeful fantasy world. But Alice doesn’t like being micromanaged when doing her job of putting out afternoon tea, and Beryl has already shown to consider herself above Alice, so the two will never know each other.
  • Also like Beryl, Alice has the facility to change her mood by simple will. She quickly recovers her temper, not by smiling in the mirror, but by imagining she’s said what she wanted to say.

PART ELEVEN

In which Linda goes out to view the garden. She takes special note of the aloe, which she earlier told Kezia only flowers every 100 years.

  • Alice has cooked the duck and presents it to Stanley for carving.
  • Point of view shifts to Stanley, who does not trust anyone else to cut meat, especially not women. He pretends he doesn’t know the duck is a ‘home product’ and asks anyway. This is Stanley’s form of fantasising. He likes to play out being Father as if on a home stage, and in a play the father would ask such a thing, for the benefit of an unseen audience. He’s similar to Beryl in this respect.
  • The family eats ‘tea’ (the New Zealand word for the evening meal) in the drawing-room.
  • Stanley regards Beryl as similar to himself in her fondness for food.
  • Beryl moves the lamp so that she is bathed by its light, rather than Linda. This is a rather literal way of saying that Beryl is enjoying her brother-in-law’s attention and needs to be noticed.
  • Linda feels separated from them both as Beryl and Stanley play cribbage together.
  • The reader notices how Beryl is similar to her mother, having ‘two pairs’ (Mrs Fairchild was earlier revealed to prefer everything in pairs.)
  • Beryl is happy to let Stanley win the game, since he is competitive (and petty) by nature. Because cribbage is made up of pairs of pegs, she can imagine for this short while that she is paired up with Stanley.
  • We learn that the furniture in the house belonged to old Mrs. Fairfield. I suspect this is where the family’s money has come from, and that Stanley has married into it, hence his competitive spirit, and the need to prove himself in the business world. (Because he’s so ridiculous, and because Linda takes no interest, I wouldn’t be surprised if in twenty years’ time he’d lost the entire family fortune.) In “At The Bay” we learn that Stanley does earn a good income — double that of his brother-in-law, Jonathan Trout.
  • Two big moths fly in through the open window. This symbolism is used elsewhere throughout storytelling, including near the end of Six Feet Under, in which the character of Nate desperately tries to get a bird out of the house. Like birds, moths have this gothic symbolism attached, and whatever it means, it never seems to mean anything good. It’s not clear which of the drawing room people tells the moths to fly out again before it’s too late. Or perhaps they simply thought it. (Katherine Mansfield put thoughts inside speech marks as well as speech.)
  • On the balcony, Linda speaks to her mother ion the boat she imagines in the sky, “Don’t you feel that it is coming towards us?” I’m reminded very much of the scene between Bertha and Pearl in “Bliss“. One woman tries to make a connection with another as they both look at foliage.
  • Linda and grandma go to inspect the aloe to see if it’s about to flower or if it simply looks like it under moonlight.
  • Linda has a anagnorisis about living life to the fullest. In contrast, her mother has been thinking about jam. They haven’t been on the same page at all.

PART TWELVE

In which Beryl writes a letter to a friend saying that the family has been in the new house for a week and that Stanley will  bring two young men home with him for lunch and tennis.

  • The first section of part twelve is epistolary, taking the form of Beryl’s letter.
  • A week has passed since the beginning of the story.
  • Bertha imagines she’s now ‘on the shelf’ with no marriage prospects and a year away from being a most awful frump. This is a form of side shadowing, and leaves the reader with one possible New Situation, and because it’s extrapolated by an unreliable, melodramatic character, we are also able to formulate our own endings for this family. (Mine is that Stanley sent them bankrupt, which would force Beryl into a less-than-satisfactory marriage of convenience. She would spend the rest of her life in fantasy, perhaps too old to have her own children by that point.)
  • At first we don’t know who the letter is to, but we can tell it’s to another female friend. She talks about dressmaking. Then we are told the name of the recipient is Nan Pym, described as ‘a solid kind of girl, with fat hips and a high colour’ — exactly the sort of friend Beryl would seek out, reminiscent of a Kim and Sharon sort of ‘friendship’ in which Beryl is the designated beautiful one and Nan her sycophant.
  • ‘It was her other self who had written that letter. It not only bored, it rather disgusted her real self.’ Has Beryl known all along that she has two distinct and separate selves, or is this something she realises just now, looking at the letter which feels very much not of herself?
  • Beryl examines herself in the mirror, as if to try and work out which part of her is her ‘true’ self. She regards herself, grading herself on beauty, pulling each feature apart as if distinct from the rest of her. Then she realises what she’s doing and feels disgusted by herself.
  • She reflects on the night before, when she put her white hand next to Stanley’s brown one, hoping he’d notice the difference in shade (I doubt he did), and again she disgusts herself. She concludes that if she was leading her ‘own’ life rather than living with her mother and married sister, then this false self would disappear.
  • Kezia interrupts her in the bedroom to tell her to come down for lunch and one of Stanley’s friends has arrived. This snaps Beryl out of her maudlin mood and she regrets crumpling her skirt by kneeling next to the bed. (She’s switched back to her usual false self. The real-er self was the insecure self. I feel Beryl is almost certainly on the narcissistic spectrum.)
  • Has Kezia been listening in on Aunt Beryl? She tells her toy cat to “look at yourself”, as Beryl has just been doing, thinking herself in private.
  • Kezia has done something mildly naughty, dropping the top of the cream jar onto the floor. She tiptoes away ‘far too quickly and airily’. Just like her auntie, Kezia is learning to draw a distinction between her natural, childlike self and the self she feels she must present to the world.

STORYWORLD OF “PRELUDE”

The mention of certain plants in the Burnells’ new garden offers a distinctively New Zealand location.

Beyond the house, the family’s domestic space is clearly demarcated by the cultivated garden, with its deliberate arrangement of familiar British plants emphasising the total dependence of the family’s economic and social status, as well s its value system, on the colonial centre. The domesticated space of the garden exists in sharp contrast t the recently settled land beyond it, which is glimpsed only rarely, but in which we find depicted the often brutal realities of the agriculture and dangerous manual labour  that are necessary to maintain the economic structures which permit the colonial family’s starkly incongruous existence in the midst of such terrain.

Richard Brock

The era was xenophobic. This story includes dismissal of all things Chinese but romanticises the “tomahawk” and the “Indian brave”.

THE SETTING AS ALIVE

As Kezia and Lottie approach their new house, they experience it like this:

…they were clanking through a drive that cut through the garden like a whiplash, looping suddenly an island of green, and behind the island, but out of sight until you came upon it, was the house. It was long and low built, with a pillared veranda and balcony all the way round. The soft white bulk of it lay stretched upon the green garden like a sleeping beast. And now one and now another of the windows leaped into light. Someone was walking through the empty rooms carrying a lamp. From the window downstairs the light of a fire flickered. A strange beautiful excitement seemed to stream from the house in quivering ripples.

TIME

In common with contemporary short story writers such as Alice Munro, Mansfield had the ability to write a story over a condensed period of time (here it’s seven days) but convey to the reader that it takes place over a much longer period of time. She does this by juxtaposing the various experiences of time:

  • In the story, time is measured by the clock. ‘The clock ticked in the warm air, slow and deliberate, like the click of an old woman’s knitting needle…’
  • The characters are each caught up in their daily routines, mostly unable to look beyond any given moment, though the grandmother thinks back on her time in Tasmania. Looking back in time is often the preserve of the elderly in storytelling. Younger characters, especially adults with young children, are rarely afforded time to reflect outside the immediacy of their daily lives.
  • Beryl is a classic Katherine Mansfield fantasist, unencumbered by children or by housework (she only dishes it out). She has the ability to move forward into an imagined future.
  • Three generations living in the same house suggest a longer time in history.
  • Mansfield includes symbolism of nature, of the movement of planets rotating around the sun, of the aloe which flowers only once every 100 years, affords the reader something akin to The Overview Effect, experienced most acutely by astronauts who view Earth from space for the first time.

The Moon gives a feeling of legend to the story.

  1. The moon is seen by Kezia when it is in its first quarter, low in the sky, rising over the ocean
  2. In section four, Beryl undresses in the moonlight: high in the sky
  3. Later, Linda watches two moths flying round and round bringing ‘the silence and the moonlight in with them on their silent silent wings’.
  4. Linda stands with Mrs Fairchild in the garden under the gibbous moon.

So, the movement of the moon is tied to the various phases of women in the household, providing an overriding sense of time and a feeling of swelling growth.

The Sun

As the women are connected to the moon, Stanley is connected to the sun. Mansfield had already made use of this same symbolism in her short story “Sun and Moon“. On his first morning in their new house he stands naked in the exact center of a square of sunlight. Everything revolves around him. Everyone rallies around him as he departs for work with much nervous energy. His departure and arrival is timed with the sun; he leaves at sunrise and comes home at sunset.

GEOGRAPHY OF THE STORYWORLD

The Burnell family moves:

The dining-room window had a square of coloured glass at each corner. One was blue and one was yellow. Kezia bent down to have one more look at a blue lawn with blue arum lilies growing at the gate, and then at a yellow lawn with yellow lilies and a yellow fence. […]

She knew there was nothing in her grandmother’s room; she had watched her pack. She went over to the window and leaned against it, pressing her hands to the pane.

Kezia liked to stand so before the window. She liked the feeling of the cold shining glass against her hot palms, and she liked to watch the funny white tops that came on her fingers when she pressed them hard against the pane. As she stood there, the day flickered out and dark came. With the dark crept the wind snuffling and howling. The windows of the empty house shook, a creaking came from the walls and floors, a piece of loose iron on the roof banged forlornly. Kezia was suddenly quite, quite still, with wide open eyes and knees pressed together. She was frightened.

The windows were open; a jar of wild flowers stood on the mantelpiece, and the lamp made a big soft bubble of light on the ceiling.

When Linda shut the window the cold dew touched her finger tips. Far away a dog barked. “I believe there is going to be a moon,” she said. […] She shivered; she came away from the window and sat down upon the box ottoman beside Stanley.

Tea was served in the drawing-room, and Beryl, who for some reason had been very charming to Stanley ever since he came home, suggested a game of crib. They sat at a little table near one of the open windows.

  • From family spaces into private rooms
  • From reality to fantasy, with dreams forming a montage with reality. This focalises characters’ attention on more than two points of time at once.

In this way, time and place are one and the same.

Orderly Progression/Sequential Time vs Chaos

On moving day everything is ordered. Linda Burnell waves her white hand, directing where furniture is to go.

Orderliness continues as Kezia explores the house and the discarded objects brought together by chance.

This is disrupted as darkness descends outside the window and Kezia starts to panic.

The juxtaposition between orderliness and chaos continues throughout the story, for example with Stanley and his daily routines contrasting with his inner turmoil when things don’t go exactly to plan.

HOW STORYWORLD OF “PRELUDE” EXTENDS CHARACTER

Prelude” is an exploration of character; the story is mainly of interest due to the complexities of human emotions rather than due to the plot itself. The characters are able to exist as children and adults at once, with the past, present and future merging into one at certain points.

Each of the characters in this story tries to escape the narrow boundaries imposed by society. At any particular moment in time, a larger meaning can be discovered.

When Kezia explores the new house she explores it in an orderly way. The reader learns the lay of the house at the same time Kezia does. She notices neatly arranged flowers and carefully planted orchards. But around this orderly garden is a bush — dark and frightening. (This makes use of fairytale symbolism of the forest.) From her safety within the family garden she sees the tangled trees, the cream flowers buzzing with insects; she smells strange aromas. Kezia understands, as do the other members of the family, that beyond the garden brimming with life lies a dark forest – a prelude to death.

DEFAMILIARISATION

“Prelude” is a good example of the technique of ‘defamiliarisation’. This is when a writer takes what should be a familiar context (in this case a family home) and turns it into something uncanny. Mansfield does this by telling one story through multiple characters. She juxtaposes the perception of Linda and Stanley Burnell (in the morning scene). Stanley begs for forgiveness; Linda wonders what for. When two characters perceive a situation very differently, the reader experiences a more transient reality.

THE CHARACTERS OF THE “PRELUDE” FAMILY

Stanley Burnell

The household revolves around the comings and goings of Stanley who travels a path like that of the sun. He wants to do the best for his family, but mainly to increase his personal prestige. His days and weeks are planned: morning swim, trip to the office (6.5 miles), weekends take care of basic human needs; tennis on Saturday, church on Sunday, companionship with Linda in the evenings and on Sunday afternoons.

Stanley is a comical man-child; master of the house yet looked after by others. He panics when approaching the house after work and feels anxious in the mornings.

Stanley is proud of his ability to chop the duck meat into neat little pieces. Linda finds this frightening. She would like to hand him her feelings, done up ‘in little packets’. This is why the duck is said to symbolise Linda’s feelings, mainly feelings of hatred.

Linda Burnell

Linda’s life revolves around Stanley’s. Although Linda loves Stanley, she is frightened by him. He jumps at her, barks loudly, watches her with ‘eager loving eyes’. She produces his children, and in this era, childbearing was not considered a choice. Unlike her husband, Linda does not accept her role. Nor does she focus on day to day routines. She has a broad concept of life. She asks more fundamental questions and is conflicted by the will to survive and death, which occupies her mind equally. Life is seen as a necessary ‘prelude’ to death – hence the title.

Linda has had three children and her health has suffered. Stanley wants a son. Although it does not say explicitly in the story that Linda is pregnant, it is suggested that she is, or soon will be. Linda puts aside the oysters given to her by her husband; Alice reads that women in the family way should avoid ‘a probable present of shell fish’.

Apart from childbearing, Linda’s function seems to be a creative one. Mrs Fairchild and Beryl get the house in order while Linda lounges about the place – alone in her room or in the garden, away from the dinner table when the family are eating, at the other end of the drawing room when Beryl plays cribbage with Stanley.

Linda does not dress as other women do; instead, she appears in the story draped in a shawl or blanket. Her outdoor clothes are a cape and a hat with a plume, ‘mysterious as ever’ (writes Beryl). Her clothing gives Linda a romantic aura. She is like a mother-goddess, intimately connected with the moon and earth.

Like Mansfield herself, who always knew that her lungs were weak, and that tuberculosis would eventually be the end of her (because a doctor told her family this once), Linda Burnell has been told that she has a weak heart. Each birth has put strain on her heart — whether real or imagined — and in a pre-contraceptive era, Linda’s feelings towards her ‘Newfoundland dog’ of an enthusiastic husband are understandable. Further relations with her husband could quite literally kill her.

There were all her feelings for him, sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest. She could have done her feelings up in little packets and given them to Stanley.

The notion that one can feel more than one way at once towards the same object at the same time is in line with the school of psychology Katherine Mansfield was following closely at this time. (The idea of multiple selves, one at a surface level, the other at a deep level, and constantly changing from moment to moment.)

For Linda, the fecund garden around them reminds her of her own fecundity — she resolves to keep having children and not guard herself so preciously. This seems to be her Anagnorisis at the end — what’s life for if not to live it fully?

Mrs Fairchild

Linda’s mother juxtaposes with her daughter by calmly and passively accepting life, people and herself. Time is simple. She accepts that the aloe flowers once every hundred years. She accepts simple things in life, for example that the currants in the kitchen garden were put there for humans to utilize. She has a long past and doesn’t look far into the future – possibly because she is growing elderly and the future may only extend to a matter of months. Instead, she busies herself with pressing tasks – looking after the extended family, arranging jam jars.

Like Beryl, Mrs Fairchild dresses conventionally but with accoutrements specific to her. When washing the dishes:

She wore a grey foulard dress patterned with large purple pansies, a white linen apron and a high cap shaped like a jelly mould of white muslin. At her throat there was a silver crescent moon with five little owls seated on it, and round her neck she wore a watch-guard made of black beads.

A watch-guard is a short chain or ribbon, which usually attaches a pocket watch to a man’s vest. Here it refers the same style of beading, but utilised in a woman’s necklace.

Mansfield connects Mrs. Fairchild to the kitchen, painting her as part of it.

When she had finished [the breakfast dishes], everything in the kitchen had become part of a series of patterns.

This is a woman who takes comfort in routine and order. I imagine this is how she gets on in a household headed by Stanley Burnell.

[Linda] thought her mother looked wonderfully beautiful with her back to the leafy window. There was something comforting in the sight of her that Linda felt she could never do without.

Kezia Burnell

Linda and Kezia are linked strongly together.  Kezia is presented as an apparition of Linda’s past – Linda as a little girl. They share the same fears. Their dreams are interchangeable. Both mother and daughter interact with a mirror in the house, each rejecting the image as a reflection of themselves. They both know that the reflection in the mirror is not real.

A major part of the story revolves around Kezia’s preoccupation with death. When the duck is killed she is at first excited by its death, but realises the finality and asks for its head to be put back. This doesn’t change the fact that she takes strange delight in death.

Imagery of restriction and closure recurs in Kezia’s life through a series of references to boxes and buttons. First she and Lottie are displaced by the ‘hold-alls, bags and boxes’. Their coats are fastened with ‘brass anchor buttons’. When Kezia leaves the Samuel Josephs to take one last look at their old house the Venetian blinds are down, but not quite closed. She chooses some mementoes to take with her — beads, a needle, a pillbox and a stay-button — all items of containment. Her youth doesn’t free her from psychosexual and social restriction.

At her new house, she finds a ‘high box border’ and the paths have ‘box edges’. She sits down on one of the box borders but doesn’t find it comfortable. She compares it to the frames around the outside of Stanley’s pictures.

Kezia can still think of a matchbox as a container for a surprise to give to her grandmother. She also thought the pillbox would be good as a container for a bird’s egg. She’s thinking about the future potential of these containers, and also thinking about the future of her own social containment.

The 1980s Thanksgiving comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a completely different kind of story, but Del’s trunk is a constant reminder for the annoyed Neal that he is trapped on public transport — with this annoying man — when he’d rather be at home with his family.

Beryl Fairchild

Beryl’s name is symbolic — without having found a husband she lives as a child in her natal home. She is somewhat of a beauty (from her own perspective — we get no outside take on this).

Commentators have said that Katherine Mansfield constantly felt like an outsider, partly self-imposed, partly because she lived in Europe but grew up in far-flung New Zealand. The character of Beryl is also an outsider:

  • She writes a letter for nobody else to read.
  • She is alone in her room, cast away from all the other characters in the house.
  • She is escaping into her writing, placing the real social world on the other side.

Beryl longs for a lover but doesn’t know how to go about finding one. She figures living in the country is going to isolate her further. Apart from the men Stanley chooses to bring home for lunch and tennis –- men who Beryl has already rejected — she’ll have little opportunity to meet a husband by chance. She’s going to have to be more proactive from here on in, organising more of a social life, deliberately putting herself in marriageable circles by asking for Pat to take her into town by cart. At this point, Beryl could be accused of imprisoning herself, living in a fantasy world of her own construction, preferring to be admired by imaginary men who will never let her down than interacting with real men who might.

Characters looking into mirrors are sometimes utilised by storytellers to describe psychology. (When used only to describe how someone looks, this technique can feel like a bit of a hack.) Mansfield uses characters’ reactions to their own reflections to juxtapose them, and to explore various ways in which people view themselves — as authentic, or as inauthentic. Unlike Kezia and Linda, Beryl does not see that her image in the mirror is not real. She sees her real self as a shadow. For Beryl, it’s her reflection in the mirror that is real. Beryl’s ur-Fairytale is the step-mother of Snow White stories, refusing to acknowledge what she sees in the mirror, imagining all sorts of scenarios which are wholly made up in her head.

Stuck in an adolescent mindset, Beryl is yet to find her own identity, seeing herself only in relation to her mother. She defines herself in terms of a man’s desire and needs to be adored. Beryl has learned that her value derives mainly from how she appears as an ornament to men.

She knows she is ‘always acting a part’ and sees herself doing things in her imagination, often imagining how other people perceive her. Beryl shares this in common with other young female characters such as Rosabel from “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (a very early Mansfield short story) and Miss Brill.

Beryl flirts in a subtle way with Stanley, partly because he’s safe.

“By Jove, this is a pretty pickle. Eh, Beryl?”

Beryl, sipping tea, her elbows on the table, smiled over the cup at him. She wore an unfamiliar pink pinafore; the sleeves of her blouse were rolled up to her shoulders showing her lovely freckled arms, and she had let her hair fall down her back in a long pig-tail.

As her brother-in-law, she can’t imagine him ever reciprocating.  So in absence of her own suitor, she dresses for her sister’s husband. (In more ways than one, “The Tiredness of Rosabel” was an earlier iteration of Beryl’s story in the “Prelude” trilogy. In each, a single woman imagines herself with another woman’s man, leading a different life. This is an example of literary side shadowing.)

Isabel Burnell

Whereas Kezia is learning to distinguish her female self from that of the other women in the family, Isabel clearly models herself on Beryl — or at least, what she perceives her aunt to be. Isabel is the power-seeker and drinks most desperately “from Beryl’s cup” (despite the fact it’s Kezia who literally drinks from Aunt Beryl’s cup). The adults describe Isabel as more grown up than any of them, and in some ways they may be right. She reveals herself to be a tattle-tale:

“I don’t want to tell you, but I think I ought to, mother,” said Isabel. “Kezia is drinking tea out of Aunt Beryl’s cup.”

But she’s probably also a little incensed that Kezia is playing ladies and is aligning herself with her aunt.

The competition between Isabel and her younger sisters turns sibling rivalry into a mimicry of how the adults tug at each others’ boundaries.

Alice The Servant-girl

This is how Beryl condescendingly thinks of Alice, who Mansfield makes sure to give her own personality. Because of her social position, she’s forced to keep her thoughts to herself, but simply thinking them gives her great comfort.

Alice was a mild creature in reality, but she had the most marvellous retorts ready for questions that she knew would never be put to her. The composing of them and the turning of them over and over in her mind comforted her just as much as if they’d been expressed. Really, they kept her alive in places where she’d been that chivvied she’d been afraid to go to bed at night with a box of matches on the chair in case she bit the tops off in her sleep, as you might say.

She takes great interest in dreams, and their predictive powers. But she hides her dream book from Beryl.

Alice has more in common with Beryl than Beryl will ever know.

Alice is afraid of sleeping next to a box of matches in case she bites the end off in her sleep. Remember Kezia’s relationship to containment? Alice is a grown version of a contained woman, perhaps afraid that she might snap at any moment.

IMAGERY IN “PRELUDE”

If the narrative method of “Prelude” is perceived as rendering the fragmentary experiences, thoughts, feelings, dreams and fantasies of the many different characters in the twelve fragments, then the images within the story become components of psychological revelation. They describe not only the manner in which Linda, Stanley, Beryl, Mrs Fairfield, the children Kezia and Lottie perceive the external world, but also reveal the quality of the mind at that moment. Imagistic patterns portray the different psychological states of the characters, of the innocent children, (for example Kezia) of the initiated woman (Beryl), the afflicted mother (Linda), the reconciled grandmother (Mrs Fairfield), and the energetic businessman (Stanley). Their interrelationship is characterised by isolation and loneliness. Their worlds are silent and fragmentary. Very rarely do the characters conduct any meaningful communication with one another. Linda seldom talks to anybody. She spends her days dreaming and ruminating in secret. Beryl is a little more communicative, but keeps her intimate thoughts to herself. Kezia is most of the time entirely alone. Mrs Fairfield, the grandmother, lives in memories of the past. Only Stanley, bumptious and crude, does not seem to have an inner mental life. Truly meaningful communication occurs only between Mrs Fairfield and Kezia when they talk about death.

A most revealing moment comes when Mrs Fairfield and her daughter Linda are linked by perceiving the aloe under the moonlight. There is a variety of restricted visions in various perspectives and if the narrative method of “Prelude” is perceived as rendering the thoughts, feelings, experiences, daydreams and fantasies of the different characters, then the images within the story become components of psychological revelation. The images describe and suggest not only the way in which the different characters perceive the external world but also the quality of their minds at any given moment. Imagistic patterns change according to the different psychological states, motivations, desires and thoughts of the characters.

Let us now examine the images used in relation to Linda, Kezia, and Mrs Fairfield more closely, as they are the only characters that perceived the aloe. In the first fragment, the imagery reveals the narrator’s and Linda’s vision of the Burnell’s departure to their new house. There’s not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia. The two children have to be left behind to be picked up later. Instead ‘the absolute necessities’ are transported. The irony of the situation causes Lind to laugh with a laugh bordering on the hysterical. In Linda’s vision even the children ‘out to stand on their heads!’. But Mrs Josephs, the neighbour, ‘like a huge warm black silk tea-cosy’, comes to the rescue by taking temporary care of the children. The narrator articulates Linda’s thoughts and her vision of the outside world. Linda is pregnant yet appears to hate her children. She looks upon them as pieces of furniture. The imagery reveals Linda’s grappling with reality and her confusion. The fragment already gives the reader a premonition of Linda’s discontent with her life. In the second fragment, the narrator focuses on Kezia. Her perspective is articulated in atmospheric blurred contours. There are ‘long pencil rays of sunlight’ and ‘the wavy shadow of a bush outside danced on the gold line’. Kezia sees ‘a little Chinese Lottie through the multi-coloured glass-window’. She sees everything tinted by the glass. Kezia’s analytical power is still that of a child, unable to tell appearance from reality. The blue lawn and the yellow lawn observed through the different coloured panes of glass are two different lawns. The white Lottie becomes Chinese when her vision of the yellow Lottie conflicts with Kezia’s everyday vision of her sister. Her mind is momentarily off balance and she needs to restore her normal vision by looking through the ordinary window.

— Julia van Gusteren, Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism

Header painting: Albert Chevallier Tayler – The Quiet Hour