Where We’re Coming from: Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories & Dismayed by Too Much News

I have gone through phases where I read only  Katherine Mansfield, and phases where I find her unreadable.

On a third reading of Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories (1920), I once again admired her spare, elegant style. With grace and sharp wit, she  pays homage to Chekhov’s stories and plays, and her detailed descriptions  of nature and interiors of houses are beautiful and revealing. 

Mansfield (1888-1923) grew up in New Zealand, later lived in London, and also traveled widely and lived in Europe. She married John Middleton Murry, a critic and editor, and socialized with D. H. Lawrence (who portrayed her as Gudrun in Women in Love), Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and the Bloomsbury group.  She died  of tuberculosis in 1923.

She is often compared to Virginia Woolf, her great rival and sometime friend.  I have never understood the comparison.   Mansfield’s realistic stories are wryly understated and lyrical, while Woolf’s prose is brilliantly poetic and often experimental.   

Mansfield is particularly astute at describing women and the parties they give.  In “Bliss,” Bertha Young, a 30-year-old wife and mother, is inexplicably excited before a dinner party. “…she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, or throw something in the air….”   She walks around the house checking details:  she has bought a big cluster of purple grapes that matches the dining-room carpet; and a bowl of vivid colorful fruit makes her ecstatic.  As she dresses for the party, she looks forward to the arrival of her mysterious new friend, Miss Fulton, to whom she is very attracted. Her husband grumbles about Miss Fulton, saying she will put on weight like “all blondes.”  Bertha shows Miss Fulton the garden and feels utterly appreciated.  But a scene at the end of the party shocks her out of bliss.

I am also a fan of “Pictures,” in which Mansfield describes the life of a middle-aged woman who is fallin into poverty.  Miss Ada Moss, a contralto singer with no work, lies in bed in her room in Bloomsbury, craving a big breakfast she cannot afford.  Her landlady comes into the room and threatens to evict her if she doesn’t pay the rent.  Ada isn’t overly-worried, but shea spends the day going from bar to bar, and theater to film studio, trying to find work as an actresss, snubbed because she is middle-aged.  Finally, she sits down for a cup of coffee.  If she is to live, she  must do something.  This story reminds me  of Storm Jameson’s excellent novella “A Day Off,” about another down-and-out middle-aged woman.

I also loved “Revelations,” in which a wealthy self-indulgent woman spends the morning in bed with a headache .  She feels indignant that no one recognizes her pain, and that her husband invites her to lunch when she is suffering.  Finally, she takes a cab to her hairdresser’s where she often goes when she feels blue.  But everyone is silent at the salon, and she doesn’t get the attention she wanted.  Her  inability to deal with real problems underscores her shallowness.

I do love the stories, and doubtless will reread the others later this summer.  


TOO MUCH NEWS. I can only keep up with one tragedy at a time.

Although the pandemic is still very real, the newspapers have moved on to the George Floyd protests. I worry not only about the racist police brutality, but also about the spread of the virus in crowds.  

On one particularly horrible night of TV news, three reporters, speaking on Zoom or Skype, were fervently condemning one of Trump’s tweets.

I burst out laughing.  “Three grown-up white men on Skype, criticizing Twitter:  do they ever wonder how they reached this point of unreality?”

I had to turn the TV off because I was hysterical.

The unreal is more real than the real these days.  Twitter isn’t real, is it?  How can anyone take it seriously?

We’re living in a novel by John Brunner or Philip K. Dick.

6 thoughts on “Where We’re Coming from: Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories & Dismayed by Too Much News”

  1. I read Mansfield short stories during the final year of my degree. I haven’t been back to them for some time but my favourite one was the one that ended with the young man and the egg. Do you know the one I mean? I don’t want to say too much in case I give the ‘punchline‘ away.

  2. Ellen emailed this comment:

    “I agree the reporters could have used their brief spotlight for something more crucial: there were over 100 direct attacks on reporters over the 4 days and nights, many from the police. That’s what actuated their vehemence; perhaps they didn’t want to call attention to how Trump has made their job perilous when he has done so much harm to others.’

    1. I did hear about some of these attacks, even in our small city. Without our local newspapers, we would know about nothing happening in our own area, and there would be no investigations of the state politicians, reporting on the protests, etc. And so we’re terrified that that the newspapers will fold, as some already have done during the pandemic.

  3. I’m a Mansfield fan too. Her diaries, notebooks and letters: all of interest. Some years ago I watched a documentary (PBS maybe?) and just loved that too. I think that’s what originally led me to her stories, certainly she wasn’t someone studied up here.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I usually watch the American news just twice in a week, but now I’m watching every day. The threats of militarization are of serious concern. This question that’s been floated since 2016 — Is this how democracy dies? — takes on a new and sharp relevance.

    1. It’s mysterious how we learn about authors. I read her for the first time in high school. Of course these days we don’t have the bookstores that automatically carry Mansfield, so she may be harder to find.

      I enjoyed the letters!

      And, yes, it is a tragic time.

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