Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party and Other Stories


Portrait by Anne Estelle Rice, painted in Cornwall in 1918: offered to the National Portrait Gallery in 1932, the trustees rejected it and it was bought by the National Art Gallery of New Zealand in 1940. In 1999 a photograph of KM was hung in the NPG.

Katherine Mansfield said to an old friend, sadly, at the end of her life, that all she had produced were « little stories like birds bred in cages ».
She was a colonial and her banker father was a self-made man, so that she fitted all too well into a certain ready-made stereotype « provincial », « trade ». She felt very close to Virginia Woolf,who had influenced her writing. She was inspired by the world she had left behind, the New Zealand of her childhood and adolescence : nearly half of the stories have a New Zealand setting, including « The Garden Party ». Her brother, Leslie, «Chummie» was killed in a grenade accident during the war. He was one of the reasons why she turned more and more to New Zealand memories, and he is also a character in some of those stories : a new-born baby in « At the Bay ». Mansfield seems to have felt that her own vocation as a writer was vindicated in Leslie’s death, she could immortalize their shared childhood world somehow, carry on the family « line » in the way only an artist can.

Claire Tomalin describes Mansfield’s writing very well : « The particular stamp of her fiction is the isolation in which each character dwells… there is no story in these stories, and no exploration of motive. The most brilliant of them are post-impressionist…grotesquely people and alight with colour and movement ». Indeed, it is obvious at the very beginning of « Bank Holiday » : « A stout man with a pink face wears dingy white flannel trousers, a blue coat with a pink handkerchief showing, and a straw hat much too small for him, perched at the back of his head. He plays the guitar. A little chap in white canvas shoes, his face hidden under a felt hat like a broken wing, breathes into a flute; and a tall thin fellow, with bursting over-ripe button boots, draws ribbons–long, twisted, streaming ribbons–of tune out of a fiddle. They stand, unsmiling, but not serious, in the broad sunlight opposite the fruit-shop; the pink spider of a hand beats the guitar, the little squat hand, with a brass-and-turquoise ring, forces the reluctant flute, and the fiddler’s arm tries to saw the fiddle in two. ». What is not said is frequently as vital as what is said : she takes possession of their silences. Death is more or less openly a theme in the Garden Party stories (in The Stranger, The Garden Party, The Daughters of the Late Colonel etc.). She created a kind of continuity between her short stories, with some allusions, created the unreal process of reading and re-reading. I really love « the Garden Party » which is, I think, her masterpiece : story, style, autobiographical echoes… All is gathered to make a master-piece. I also recommend « Mr and Mrs Dove » , where she examines the idea of marriage and gender relations through the male and female perspectives, an uncommon point of view for the time period.

« All that I write -all that I am – is on the borders of the sea. It is a kind of playing » Katherine Mansfield.

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