Contains spoilers for some of the stories. This review was written as I read along, so there’s no structure to it. It’s a recording of my impressions and thoughts throughout the reading process. My general thoughts about the collection as a whole are at the end.
At the Bay *****
Mansfield is an incomparable master of language. She uses it as a brush. She has this magical power to evoke crystal clear mental images in the reader’s head and a thorough submergence in the atmosphere in her heart, all accomplished by means of a few brush strokes (a select few similes and metaphors picked with surgical precision). The descriptions of the bay scenery strongly reminded me of To the Lighthouse by another Modernist and an admirer of Mansfield, Virginia Woolf. This story is an impressionist glimpse of a New Zealand resort in summertime and the passions and dreams that drive the people living in it. There’s a little scandal, a couple of unconventional women, some philosophy and poetry, a touch of social justice musing, amusing (as opposed to boring, as is usually the case) descriptions of children’s play, and it all comes together in a full-blooded picture of the small community. It’s exactly what I love in a short story – lifting the curtain to see just enough of a complex and rich setting to imagine and co-write the full picture along with the author. Here’s an example of the author’s easy natural description skill:
A heavy dew has fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall; the silvery, fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks, and all the marigolds and the pinks in the bungalow gardens were bowed to the earth with wetness. Drenched were the cold fuchsias, round pearls of dew lay on the flat nasturtium leaves. It looked as though the sea had beaten up softly in the darkness, as though one immense wave had come rippling, rippling–how far? Perhaps if you had waked up in the middle of the night you might have seen a big fish flicking in at the window and gone again.
And here is an example of her effortlessly interjecting a larger-than-life and absolutely contemporary-sounding philosophical issue into a seemingly unassuming sketch of a lazy summer in a holiday colony:
„It seems to me just as imbecile, just as infernal, to have to go to the office on Monday,“ said Jonathan, „as it always has done and always will do. To spend all the best years of one’s life sitting on a stool from nine to five, scratching in somebody’s ledger! It’s a queer use to make of one’s . . . one and only life, isn’t it? Or do I fondly dream?“ He rolled over on the grass and looked up at Linda. „Tell me, what is the difference between my life and that of an ordinary prisoner? The only difference I can see is that I put myself in jail and nobody’s ever going to let me out. That’s a more intolerable situation than the other. For if I’d been–pushed in, against my will–kicking, even–once the door was locked, or at any rate in five years or so, I might have accepted the fact and begun to take an interest in the flight of flies or counting the warder’s steps along the passage with particular attention to variations of tread and so on. But as it is, I’m like an insect that’s flown into a room of its own accord. I dash against the walls, dash against the windows, flop against the ceiling, do everything on God’s earth, in fact, except fly out again. And all the while I’m thinking, like that moth, or that butterfly, or whatever it is, ‘The shortness of life! The shortness of life!’ I’ve only one night or one day, and there’s this vast dangerous garden, waiting out there, undiscovered, unexplored.“ […] „Ah! “ cried Jonathan. And that „ah!“ was somehow almost exultant. „There you have me. Why? Why indeed? There’s the maddening, mysterious question. Why don’t I fly out again? There’s the window or the door or whatever it was I came in by. It’s not hopelessly shut–is it? Why don’t I find it and be off? Answer me that, little sister.“ But he gave her no time to answer. „I’m exactly like that insect again. For some reason“–Jonathan paused between the words–“it’s not allowed, it’s forbidden, it’s against the insect law, to stop banging and flopping and crawling up the pane even for an instant. Why don’t I leave the office? Why don’t I seriously consider, this moment, for instance, what it is that prevents me leaving?
The Garden Party ***
I found the titular story underwhelming. Perhaps a bit too obvious which separates it from Mansfield’s usual style IMO. The social theme was rather on the nose (again, compared to how she usually does things) but the hat as the symbol of the selfish force of human nature, as opposed to the altruist force, was I thought a rather fresh detail.
The Daughters of the Late Colonel *****
This one was a superb little glimpse into the curious ability of humans to get so used to confinement as to be comfortable in it and reluctant to leave it, even as they long for freedom in the depths of their souls. It’s not so easy to spread one’s wings after a lifetime of caged, scheduled existence, and this message is beautifully put across through the indecision, fears and insecurity of the two old maids who suddenly find themselves free of their father’s iron fist reign and don’t know what to do with themselves. All pertinent details of their former confinement are merely hinted at to leave the center stage for the heroines’ inner battle in their newly found freedom.
Mr and Mrs Dove ***
This is story of a Nice Guy (though he really did seem genuinely nice) and a cruel female who spurns his humble advances because she’s way out of his league. The things is, I usually scoff at these „poor“ fellows, but Mansfield managed to make me feel sorry for him… This is the power of literature, to tug on heartstrings you might not have used in a while… or even didn’t know you had, or had sworn off of. It expands one’s capacity for empathy, sometimes in surprising directions.
The Young Girl ***
is a classic study in teenagerhood in 4 pages. The psychological complexity and the empathetic depth of the writing are astonishing for such a short story, especially since, as we all know from experience, our stores of empathy turn out to be especially shallow when it comes to teenagers and their antics. The young girls is insufferable but when her mandatory bored facade falls off with her coat you can’t help but feel warm and protective towards her.
Life of Ma Parker ***
A tear-jerker. Ironically so, given the ending of the story.
Marriage a la Mode *****
This was one of the first stories of her that I read, when I got Mansfield’s Collected Stories, and it’s one of the best so far – a cross section of a moment in the process of slow alienation of husband and wife under the weight of their different dispositions and social ambition or popularity. Mansfield seems to have a soft spot for awkward people, people who are sentimental, which is always démodé, and unable to make themselves appealing to the fashionable circles who feed on wit, flashiness and natural charisma. The brief moment when Isabel’s buried sentimentality is shaken to the surface by her husband’s letter is incredibly poignant.
The Voyage ****
I have a suspicion the voyage is supposed to be between this world and the next. There are some clues to support it – there’s a death directly preceding it, the two characters are dressed in black, they cross black waters overnight – they go to sleep and wake up in their destination. The boat is described as more ready to sail in the starry sky than the sea, which introduces a celestial element. The swan-necked umbrella seems to be, in this interpretation, a sort of a coin to offer the boatman, as the grandmother is very keen on the child not losing it (additionally, Fenella also gets a shilling from her father and interprets this as a sign she’s going away forever); alternatively, it could be a piece of home to take to the new life. Swans are water birds which is in line with the general symbolism of crossing waters to a new bank. And they arrive to a wise old man in a long white beard (Fenella’s grandfather playing God) and above his head there’s a poem about the ephemeral nature of time. Yeah, I think I just convinced myself of this interpretation.
Miss Brill *****
Another brilliant story about a social outcast who will never be accepted into the throbbing heart of life by her peers. The empathy is more scarce here but you still can’t help but feel sorry about poor Miss Brill who made the mistake of assuming she had value…
Her First Ball***
It’s slightly similar to The Voyage, as I think it’s an allegory of a something bigger – this time, Time. The old gentlemen who sweeps Leila to the dancefloor and gives her a quick look into her future seems to be Time, whose transitory nature we sometimes feel most acutely in times of heightened excitement in happiness, i.e. when we most want to get hold of it, freeze the moment.
The Singing Lesson****
Another impressionist gem, in which the rollercoaster emotions in the teacher’s heart are externalised through the kind of music she chooses for her students to practise and the kind of expression she instructs them to utilise. Impressively conveyed through text.
A weird little story about a man obsessed with his wife to the point of being jealous of her helping a dying man – jealous enough to consider it impossible for them to ever be alone together again.
A brief sketch of a bank holiday with a fair in a small town.
An Ideal Family****
This story was the most cryptic of them all, at least to me. I can’t make sense of what the old man’s dream means, the significance of the endless going up and down stairs and his spidery, tired old legs, or why „an ideal family“ has a distinctly ironic tinge to it in the story. Do his daughters and wife only want him to retire so that it doesn’t look awkward when they have to explain to people? Do they only see him as a symbol of their status in life? I can’t make it out.
The Lady’s Maid***
Told entirely as a dialogue, with one side omitted, only implied through the reactions of the other; an entire life of hardship and injustice contained in the pauses and meaningful vocabulary of a late-night talk between two women.
The major recurring themes are of the transitory nature of time which flies by and leaves your life behind before you had the time to make sense of it; death (it seems to be tied to water and especially crossing water, as it emerges as a major theme in both stories in which water travel appears); love and alienation; social injustice; the fragile sense of self-worth of most humans and the myriads of ways it can be shattered; freedom and social confines; the subtle but relentless societal mechanisms that make people do certain things and move in a certain direction even when they’re not sure if they like it. Here’s a beautiful example of the latter, from The Daughters of the Late Colonel:
She remembered too how, whenever they were at the seaside, she had gone off by herself and got as close to the sea as she could, and sung something, something she had made up, while she gazed all over that restless water. There had been this other life, running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with Jug, and taking them back to get more things on approval, and arranging father’s trays and trying not to annoy father. But it all seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn’t real. It was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean? What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?
I love Mansfield’s style to bits. I love how she often doesn’t bother going the roundabout way of naming actions or feelings by their proper names, but just spells the sounds they make and the interjections they bring into one’s head: „Splish-splosh! Splish-splosh!“; „He knock-knock-knocked on the door“; „Pom! Ta-ta-ta! Tee-ta“, bursts the piano; „Good heavens! What had happened“;
I love how she employs graphics (italics, hyphens, creative use of spelling) to bring the sound as close as possible to the reader, to convey the variations in expression in a song or the peculiarities of a character’s speech; to make it all sound in the reader’s head. It makes the reading exciting, and rich. I love how she tells you nothing about her characters but lets them reveal not only their personalities but their identities too through their dialogues and internal monologues, so that you could find you’ve been reading with the wrong assumptions when you’re mid-way through a story.
The variety of storytelling techniques used for the different stories (At the Bay and The Daughters of the Late Colonel are told through glimpses of the character’s daily lives without a plot-driven connection between them; The Garden Party has a classic structure; The Lady’s Maid is a one-sided dialogue; A Bank Holiday is a sketch) is impressive, especially since Mansfield operates with all of them with equal ease.