In March 1907 Katherine Mansfield’s mother, Annie Beauchamp, held a garden party at their residence, 75 Tinakori Road, Wellington, New Zealand. On the same day, a poverty-stricken neighbour was killed in a street accident.
In 1921, on her 32nd birthday, Katherine Mansfield finished “The Garden Party”. She had taken a month to recover from her previous story, “At the Bay“. She felt that “The Garden Party” was better than “At The Bay”, “but that is not good enough, either…”
Commentators have said that “The Garden Party” is one of Mansfield’s ‘cry against corruption’ stories. These stories convey outrage at a society with great inequalities, and where the privileged ignore the injustice, getting on with their own lucky lives in a self-imposed bubble.
“The Garden Party” is like Mansfield’s other Sheridan stories — keenly interested in human relationships and the impact of local conditions on the developing personalities of young people. These stories are also about how the present affects the past and the future. Mansfield doesn’t give us all that much information about the socio-economic status of the Sheridans, but critics have looked at the Burnells in comparison to the Sheridans and concluded that the Sheridans are a middle-class family on the rise.
The Sheridans employ household servants — a cook, a gardener. Then there’s the marquee man, the florist, Godber’s man and carter. What must it be like to live with servants in your home at such close range? I’ve worked previously as a cleaner. I wasn’t cleaning houses, but academic offices (while I was a student myself). Something weird happens when you encounter the person whose private space you clean — they ignore you. Some people are very friendly, but others would like to pretend you don’t exist. For some it is supremely uncomfortable to think someone comes in and does your dirty work. When you’re the person who cleans up, you know what’s in the bins, you know where crumbs are dropped, you know all sorts of things without even meaning to. Since the Sheridans are on the rise, the parents probably didn’t grow up with servants, or this many. They’ll have developed the skill of of being both mindful and careless of ‘the working-class gaze’. Especially so in their more intimate moments, for example when Laura expresses affection for her mother. “Don’t do that — here’s the man.”