- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

Katherine Mansfield completed "The Garden Party," the masterful short story for which she is best known, on Oct. 14, 1921, her 33rd birthday. Less than a year and half later, she was dead of tuberculosis and Virginia Woolf was writing in her journal "Katherine's my rival no longer … I was jealous of her writing the only writing I have ever been jealous of."
Though her work is often included in short story anthologies, Katherine Mansfield is not widely read today. She was a New Zealander who spent most of her adult life in Europe as part of the literary and artistic set to which Virginia Woolf belonged; D.H. Lawrence counted her among his closest friends. The fiction and criticism she wrote for small literary magazines were admired; many contemporaries saw her as a major talent. But illness and early death kept her output small. Woolf's reputation soon quite overwhelmed Mansfield's.
Now a fresh collection of her stories has been issued by Persephone Books, Ltd., a small, independent publishing house in Britain launched in the year 2000 (by a highly literate mother of five as an antidote to the empty nest) to bring out "forgotten fiction and non-fiction by unjustly neglected authors," most often women. The books (some 25 have been produced thus far) are sturdy paperbacks in elegant grey and cream colored covers with new prefaces by contemporary writers and carefully selected endpapers and bookmarks reflective of the periods the books evoke. (Though not sold in U.S. bookstores, the books can be ordered on the Internet from [email protected])
"The Montana Stories" presents completed works as well as fragments Mansfield worked on during the last 18 months of her life when, in the hope of improving her health, she was staying in a Swiss town called Montana-sur-Sierre (and now called Montana-Crans.) The stories are arranged chronologically with the Preface and Notes adding quotations from letters and journal entries from the same period.
Some of the stories evoke domestic subjects a softhearted father's reaction to punishing his young son, the exhilaration of a girl at her first ball, a young couple on their foreign honeymoon exulting in their happiness. The finest story of this sort is "At the Bay," a 50-page impressionistic portrait of a large family at the beach. It is divided into 12 loosely connected sections, each evoking a member of the family at a different moment of the day and beginning with a poetic description of very early morning. "Ah-Aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing …" The term "bush" is a tip-off that we are in a distinctively New Zealand setting, with "a flock of sheep pattering by" followed by "an old sheep-dog, his soaking paws covered with mud … his nose to the ground, but carelessly, as if thinking of something else."
The gardens around the bungalows are filled with fuschia, nasturtium, "manuka" trees, "fluffy toi-toi," and eucalyptus. There is humor in the description of the women of the household's collective sigh of relief when Stanley, the stuffy husband, son-in-law, brother and father finally leaves the cottage for work; sweet sentiment in the nap-time conversation between little Kezia and her grandma; sharp observation in the depiction of a woman on the beach, "parched, withered, cold … stretched on the stones like a piece of tossed-up driftwood"; poignant loneliness in unmarried Beryl's nighttime longing. And, at the end, the sound of the sea again, "a vague murmur, as though it waked out of a dark dream. All was still."
Other stories are sharper. In "Marriage a la Mode," Mansfield deftly describes a husband bewildered by his wife's changed attitude towards him after she acquires a group of lively but shallow, bohemian friends. She brilliantly contrasts William's earnest, inarticulate longing for his wife's attention with her quick dismissal of him: " … she held up her hairbrush" 'Please! Please don't be so dreadfully stuffy and tragic. You're always saying or looking or hinting that I've changed …'" When the husband finally offers a heartfelt, written expression of love, his wife's moment of hesitation between it and her friends' sneering is chilling.
In an unfinished story about a nervous widowed mother and her daughter traveling in Europe, "The Doves' Nest," a light, amusing tone coexists with the serious undercurrent of the young girl's longing, "a yearning what was it? it was like a yearning to fly." When the mother's companion asks Millie why she should wish to visit America, Millie says playfully, "The ice-cream. I adore ice-cream." But what she is thinking is that "one wants to go everywhere." In the last fragment of the collection, an older woman, traveling with her aged father feels "an ache in her bosom. Wings were tight-folded there. Why could she not stretch them out and fly away and away?"
That Mansfield herself struggled with competing feelings while working on these stories and fragments is clear from the well selected Notes that accompany them. Just after arriving in Montana, she confided to her journal that she felt unwell and that it hardly seemed worth it to write. "I don't want to write;" she noted. "I want to live."
In a letter to a friend she admitted to liking "awfully unfashionable things … I like sitting on doorsteps, and talking to the old woman who brings quinces, and going for picnics in a jolting little waggon [sic], and listening to the kind of music they play in public gardens on warm evenings … I'm in love with life, terribly."
But almost every day Mansfield wrote, pushing through moods of discouragement and bitter self-criticism. It's "better," she wrote of a draft of one story. "But that is not good enough, either … " Of another she wrote "Oh God, I hope it gives pleasure to someone …" And towards the end of her time at Montana, sitting alone one evening admiring the mountains, she wrote that she had been thinking of "death. Of all there was to do of Life, which is so lovely and of the fact that my body is a prison. But this state of mind is evil. It is only by acknowledging that I, being what I am, had to suffer this in order to do the work I am here to perform."
This tension between life and death, alluded to in several of these pieces, is the essence of "The Garden Party," the story that gave its name to Mansfield's major collection published during her lifetime. Drawing on memories of a party from her childhood, she describes the exquisite freshness of a New Zealand summer day, the thrill a young girl, Laura, feels in the preparations for an elegant party, her excitement in noting (and deciding to reject) "these absurd class distinctions" that separate her family from the workmen who come to set up the tent. When death intrudes into this perfect day, Laura's instinct is to acknowledge the significance of what has happened. She is stunned to find that her mother's attitude, a combination of class prejudice and emotional denial, is quite different. Only her older brother sympathizes when Laura attempts, unsuccessfully, to put into words her sudden appreciation that, while awful, her unexpected confrontation of death was also "simply marvellous."
Katherine Mansfield worked hard during the last days of her own earthly sojourn to bring us this luminous piece and the others in "The Montana Stories." One's reaction on finishing them is, quite simply, gratitude.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.

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