Friday, 14 November 2014

Book Review: The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield early twentieth century brought forth some important woman writers whose innovative approach to writing has left such a lasting impact on literary production that the effects are noticeable up to this day. They not only continue to be widely read, but their work also keeps inspiring ever new generations of authors. One of them is Virginia Woolf, of course (»»» read my review of Jacob’s Room). Another one of those much revered modernists is Katherine Mansfield, the master of short story from New Zealand. Her last collection published during her (short) lifetime is The Garden Party and Other Stories which combines fifteen more or less cursory portraits of the everyday lives of well-to-do people, their children and servants in their habitat.

Katherine Mansfield, in full Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp Murry, was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in October 1888. Already as a teenager she wrote for a high school magazine, but it was only in 1906, upon her return to New Zealand after three years at Queen’s College in London, that she began to write and publish short stories. Already two years later she moved back to London where she led a turbulent bohemian life and became friends with D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In 1911 the author brought out her first short story collection In a German Pension. After having published only in journals for several years, she put together a collection titled Bliss and Other Stories which came out in 1920 and which was followed by another collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories, in 1922. Katherine Mansfield died from extrapulmonary tuberculosis in Fontainebleau, France, in January 1923. The short story collections The Doves' Nest and Other Stories (1923) and Something Childish (1924) as well as a volume of Poems (1923) and a collection of her book reviews titled Novels and Novelists (1930) were published posthumously by her second husband, John Middleton Murry.

The collection The Garden Party and Other Stories opens with At the Bay about wealthy families passing an idyllic and idle summer day in their holiday colony. Only the second is the title story which shows young Laura Sheridan and her well-to-do family on the day of The Garden Party. The beautiful morning is shadowed by the fatal horse accident of a young carter from the poor cottages at the foot of the hill where the Sheridans’ house stands, but Laura’s compassion and wish to stop the party out of respect for widow and children is only called extravagant by her elder sister Jose. Also her mother sees no reason to cancel everything and even seems amused by her daughter’s idea. She gives Laura a new hat in the hope of distracting her, and indeed, the young woman soon forgets about the “dead man just outside the front-gate”. The guests arrive, the music plays and everybody has a good time until the party is over. In the following story middle-aged and unmarried Josephine and Constantia Pinner, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, keep feeling under the heel of their despotic and miserly old father even after his burial. The protagonist of Mr. and Mrs. Dove proposes to a young woman who never can help laughing at him. In The Young Girl a beautiful seventeen-year-old is terribly annoyed with her existence. The story that comes next talks of the hard Life of Ma Parker that nobody except herself knows because the old servant has learnt to keep up a strong appearance. The couple of Marriage à la Mode leads a weekend relationship which estranges hardworking William from his wife Isabel who enjoys the “shallow, tinkling and vain” pleasures of bohemian life in the country. The Voyage is set aboard a ship taking Fenella to her new home at her grandparents’ after her mother died. The protagonist of Miss Brill is an aging spinster in Paris who attends Sunday concerts in the public gardens to observe life around her like she were in theatre. Her First Ball revolves around a young girl whose initial tension and serious thoughts are soon chased away by the joys of dancing. In The Singing Lesson Miss Meadow expresses her desperation about a broken engagement through the voices of her pupils. The Stranger is about the long-married Hammonds who have been separated due to the wife’s visit to their daughter overseas and who are reunited at last. Bank Holiday depicts a fair where people amuse themselves. The central figure of An Ideal Family is old Mr. Neave who feels worn-out, but wife and daughters refuse to notice. The final story of the collection is titled The Lady’s Maid and shows the lifelong devotion, even sacrifice of a woman to her lady who just died.

Under the title The Garden Party and Other Stories the author herself combined fifteen studies of mainly bohemian life in New Zealand, England and France. In none of the stories there happens much or extraordinary. The focus is clearly on the respective protagonists and on how they perceive their existence within the limiting framework of their own class. If there is happiness, it’s only the shining appearance kept up for the public, but under the surface there are suffering and/or boredom. Many of the well-to-do women feel trapped in a life that destines them to taking care of house and family, while leaving them little else to do but indulge in empty pleasures and cultivate their egotism as well as idiosyncrasies. Some of the girls at least sense the dullness of the lives that lie ahead of them, if they haven’t experienced it already, and yet they aspire to it because the threat of ending as a spinster, thus a social outcast is even worse. Wives, daughters and above all servants with an exaggerated sense of duty feel that they have no right to a life of their own which makes them bottle up their emotions and thoughts within themselves, even the greatest pain and grief. Criticism of society is hardly concealed in the sometimes bleak stories although it rather shines through the lines and the plots instead of being outspoken. In fact, much is left unsaid and yet the author manages to create powerful moods around her protagonists. Therefore some of the stories have a particularly strong impressionistic touch. Katherine Mansfield also uses a very clear and precise language which echoes her poetry and makes the entire collection a mere pleasure to read.

For me The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield has been an enormously enjoyable experience and I regret not having discovered her work earlier in my life. Not everybody may share my enthusiasm because the author’s world is no happy one and her stories don’t flood over with action and romance, either. However, I’m convinced that those who like me love quiet and thoughtful reads will at least appreciate her stories. Therefore I warmly recommend this original collection first released in 1922.

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