In a German Pension – Katherine Mansfield

One of the first times that I thought (forgive me) that I might actually have some sort of literary astuteness was in relation to Katherine Mansfield.  Our Vicar’s Wife and I were off to a lecture day at Oxford on Modernism – this was two or three years before I started studying university – and I’d been reading a Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield that my friend Barbara had given me.  I’d never heard of Katherine Mansfield before, and I immersed myself in the book.  Most I loved, some I didn’t so much, but there was one I definitely liked best – and I read it out loud to Mum as we drove from Worcestershire to Oxford.  It was ‘The Garden Party’.  Little did I know that it was her most famous and acclaimed short story; I didn’t even know it was the title story for one of her collections.  When I found out, I thought – huh, maybe I can tell when something is good and when it isn’t.

Excuse that slightly trumpet-blowing story (it doesn’t feel trumpet-blowing, since it’s about me-a-decade-ago, a very different person to me-now) because it does have some relevance to my post.  When reading that Collected Short Stories, the stories which didn’t particularly grab me were those from In A German Pension (1911) – Mansfield’s first book.  A few years ago I bought a beautiful Hesperus edition (tautology, of course – all of their books are beautiful) and I decided that it was about time that I gave In A German Pension another go.  I was actually a little pleased to see that my opinion hasn’t really changed.  It doesn’t prove that I was right a decade ago, but at least it means I’ve stayed fairly consistent in my tastes.

In A German Pension is chiefly interesting as a suggestion of what Mansfield would become – the markings of her extraordinary talent are there, but she is not yet a writer confident of her own particular abilities.

The stories were inspired by Mansfield’s time spent in Europe, and are mostly from the perspective of a wry English woman, crowded with absurd characters and baffled by their foibles and anxieties.  Foolish people lecture one another, a dressmaker is mistaken for a baroness, young women flirt and retreat.  It all feels very Edwardian.  What strikes oddest is the way in which Mansfield tries to be funny.

At that moment the postman, looking like a German army officer, came in with the mail.  He threw my letters into my milk pudding, and then turned to a waitress and whispered.  She retired hastily.  The manager of the pension came in with a little tray.  A picture postcard was deposited on it, and reverently bowing his head, the manager of the pension carried it to the Baron.

Myself, I felt disappointed that there was not a salute of twenty-five guns.
This is all well and good – but it is not where Mansfield excels.  The dry, sardonic quip, the understatement, is a far cry from the subtle, clever examination of sorrow or guilt or self-awareness that Mansfield paints in delicate shades in her finest work.  Instead there are caricature women criticising one another – the sort of ribaldry and comedy-writ-large which one would expect from Jerome K. Jerome, perhaps:

“Of course it is difficult for you English to understand when you are always exposing your legs on cricket fields, and breeding dogs in your back gardens.  The pity of it!  Youth should be like a wild rose.  For myself I do not understand how your women ever get married at all.”
As a brand of humour, it can be very successful – but it feels awkward from a pen that is already learning some sensitivities.  It’s certainly not bad at all – it is even good.  It’s just the wrong fit for Mansfield.

Only one story of the thirteen approaches her later triumphs, to my mind: ‘The Swing of the Pendulum’.  It’s about a woman who is about to be thrown out of her flat, since she can’t afford the rent.  A young man knocks at the door, looking for someone she’s never heard of – he seems to leave but, bored, she hopes he is waiting outside the door – and, a little later, he unsuccessfully tries to rape her.  More dramatic than some of her best stories, which focus on the minutiae of experience, but it does demonstrate the subtlety and perception that would later become the cornerstones of Mansfield’s writing.

She heard him walk down the passage and then pause – lighting a cigarette.  Yes – a faint scent of delicious cigarette smoke penetrated her room.  She sniffed at it, smiling again.  Well, that had been a fascinating interlude!  He looked so amazingly happy: his heavy clothes and big buttoned gloves; his beautifully brushed hair… and that smile… ‘Jolly’ was the word – just a well-fed boy with the world for his playground.  People like that did one good – one felt ‘made over’ at the sight of them. Sane they were – so sane and solid.  You could depend on them never having one mad impulse from the day they were born until the day they died.  And Life was in league with them – jumped them on her knee – quite rightly, too.  At that moment she noticed Casimir’s letter, crumpled up on the floor – the smile faded.  Staring at the letter she began braiding her hair – a dull feeling of rage crept through her – she seemed to be braiding it into her brain, and binding it, tightly, above her head…
Of all the writers taken too early, I think Katherine Mansfield’s death at 34 is the most tragic, and the most frustrating.  Her talents were not in decline – indeed, in the two years before she died of tuberculosis she wrote not only her best stories, but the best short stories I have ever read.  Who knows what she could have written had she lived another 30, 40, 50 years?  Still – in those 34 years she achieved quite astonishing brilliance and beauty with her writing.  If In A German Pension isn’t quite up to the level of her best work, then at least it serves to show us, a little, how she got there.

Lazy Girl

Three years ago, I read and love Jerome K. Jerome’s The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886) – brief thoughts here. At that point Hesperus were also promising to republish Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl (1891) by ‘Jenny Wren’ (a pseudonym, of course) but it never appeared… and then, years later, it did! And my brother bought it for me for my birthday. I read it quite some time ago, and of course forgot to write about it (I need to come up with an abbreviation for that, I say it so often. My online reading group have similarly come up with acronym HIU for ‘have it, unread’ since we were writing this about nearly every book anyone else mentioned.)

Jenny Wren’s riposte to Jerome is in much the same vein, albeit from the female’s perspective rather than the male’s. It doesn’t have quite his edge of brilliancy, but her views on love, bills, afternoon tea, children and dogs etc. are all diverting and fun. I can best explain by example, and here she is on the topic of train journeys:
Then again your fellow passengers are not always all that can be desired. Often they are neither pleasant in themselves nor interesting as a study. I travelled with an awful old lady the other day. She had six small packages with her in the carriage, besides her handbag and umbrellas and half the contents of an extra luggage van. The long-suffering porter who had looked after her boxes and finally put her in the train was crimson with his exertions. The generous lady, having searched several pockets before finding the necessary coin, bestowed on him a threepenny piece for his trouble! “Thank yer, mum,” he went off muttering grimly, “I’ll bore a ‘ole in the middle and ‘ang it round my neck.”

This good dame never ceased to worry all through the journey. She pulled her things from under the seat and put them up in the rack, and then reversed their locality. At each station she called frantically to the guard to know where she was and if she ought to change. Finally, when we reached our destination, it was proved that she had taken her ticket to one place and had her luggage labelled to another; and there she was, standing on the platform gesticulating violently, while the train was steaming off with her belongings. What happened I do not know, for I was hurried off by my friends; but I should think it would be long before she and her luggage met again.

Fortunately she never knew how near she was to her death. If ever I had murderous intentions in my heart, it was on that journey north.
I wonder if E.M. Delafield ever read this?

It’s all joyful nonsense, of the very best sort – and I think would be enjoyed by anybody who likes to laugh at the silly foibles of life, preferably those evinced by other people. I can imagine each chapter of this book being a separate newspaper column, and they’re diverting in the way that the funniest section of a Sunday newspaper magazine is diverting. And with the added advantage of being from the 19th century, you can even feel fairly cultured whilst you read them.

Pastors and Masters

So far, bought nothing in 2010… but to be honest I haven’t had any temptation, since I’ve spent most of the New Year in bed so far, while my research work stares at me from across the room. Still, not feeling too awful right now, and hopefully I’ll be back on my feet before long. In fact, I feel well enough to try and catch up on reviewing some of the books I read in December…

First up is Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which Hesperus Press very kindly sent me. As you’ll have spotted in my recent purchases, I have enough ICB to last me a while – but I had to support Hesperus as they’re the only people keeping ICB in print in the UK. (Having said that, the New York Review of Books Classics series does have two in print, and they’re stocked in some bookshops in England – like the Persephone Bookshop off Notting Hill Gate, for example). Pastors and Masters is ICB’s first ‘proper’ novel, from 1925, and unlike the others I’ve read, doesn’t take place in a big, sprawling family. Instead, we are in a boys’ school, witnessing the interactions of teachers up and down a slightly bizarre hierarchy. Though there are also a lot of boys, they don’t get much dialogue, and hence not much of the novel concerns them – for even in her first novel, ICB privileged dialogue over description, though not to the same extent as in her later works.

Mr. Merry, the central schoolmaster, is prone to the deliciously and infuriatingly sarcastic speechs which ICB scatters throughout her books: ‘And get to your seats without upsetting everything on your way, will you please? Oh, who would be a schoolmaster? I should not be doing my duty to you all, if I did not warn you all against it. And I suppose it is a good thing to have the east wind from an east window blowing in upon forty people, thirty-nine of them growing boys, before their breakfast on a March morning? And… one, two, three, four, five, six, seven… it takes eleven boys to shut a window, does it? And I suppose I cannot make a few remarks, without having you all fidgeting and gaping and behaving like a set of clodhoppers instead of gentlemen? Get to your work at once, and don’t look up again before the gong.’ Though he feels himself in charge, there are also junior masters and those who own the school and their wives and governors and parents and… I must confess I got a little confused as to who was whom (or whom was who, or something). ICB’s character delineation matured in her later novels, I think. The plot running through this novel, aside from the everyday activities of the school, is that two of the teachers have written books, and intend to publish. I shan’t spoil the storyline, but it is rather more cloak and dagger than some of ICB’s later novels, and involves more Agatha Christie-esque guess-work – but alongside this, ICB’s style is unmistakable, though not wholly developed. I would describe Pastors and Masters as ICB-lite, if you will. Recognisable enough to please the ICB fanatic, but also sufficiently like a more ‘normal’ novel for those who find her style affected. It’s short, funny, and – though by no means her best work – I would recommend it to those who want to give ICB a go, and don’t feel up to one of her longer novels. If you like this, there’s a lot more to explore – if you don’t, at least it has one of Hesperus’ beautiful covers!

A Shot in the Dark

The other day I mentioned, amongst my goods from Liverpool, A Shot in the Dark by Saki. This is a beautiful Hesperus edition, which initially I bought just because my collected Saki is unwieldly, and I wanted to have some in a pocket edition. (I should add that it’s actually Mum and Dad’s collected Saki, which I’ve ‘borrowed’… call it short-circuiting my inheritance) But then I discovered, upon reading the introduction, that A Shot in the Dark is a collection of works discovered after the Complete Ed. was published – i.e. they’re not in there.

A few are familiar. ‘The Miracle Merchant’ is essentially Clovis story ‘The Hen’ dramatised; an earlier published version of ‘Tobermory’ is included; ‘A Sacrifice to Necessity’ is very, very similar to ‘The Stake’. But A Shot in the Dark isn’t just for Saki completists – some stories have lain undiscovered. ‘Dogged’, which was published in St. Paul’s magazine in February 1899, is thought to be the very first story Saki had published – and has never been anthologised or collected before. And, what’s more, it’s probably the best one in this collection. To be quite so witty and brilliant from the off is a little astonishing, not to say irritating to us lesser mortals.

‘Dogged’ is about a mild-mannered man being cajouled into buying a dog at a church bazaar: ‘A rakish-looking fox terrier, stamped with the hallmark of naked and unashamed depravity, and wearing the yawningly alert air of one who has found the world is vain and likes it all the better for it’. The dog manages to take over his life, and the story is representative of Saki’s merciless style and exaggerated incident.

I’ve already eulogised about how wonderful Saki is – see this post – but I never got around to writing about Beasts and Superbeasts, which I read last year. I can’t imagine why it didn’t make my Top 15 of 2008 – I must have been feeling serious when I composed that list, as it is the funniest book I’ve read in a long time. His tales dabble in the absurd, the commonplace, the mystical, the down-to-earth – but always with a great understanding of humanity (especially children) and a fondness for hyperbole which I love. If PG Wodehouse had written short stories, and had a very slightly crueller sense of humour, these would be the result.

If you’ve never tried Saki, do so immediately. Even if you don’t like short stories usually, I can’t imagine anyone disliking these – if you’re the sort of person who keeps a book in the loo (and I am) then Saki could work a treat. If you think you’ve got a Complete Saki, then you’re missing this selection – which comes with an interesting Introduction by Adam Newell and Foreword by Jeremy Dyson. Rectify the omission as soon as possible.

Heirs and Graces

My little spread of book titles from the other day will give me the opportunity to spend the next while talking my way through them… first up is Vita Sackville-West’s The Heir, which was first published in 1922 and was reprinted by the wonderful Hesperus. I can’t find it on Amazon, nor is the Hesperus website working at the moment, but do look out for their copy (I found mine in Blackwells) as it’s beautiful even by the standard of Hesperus’ beautiful covers.

The Heir is only 90 pages long – which, as we discussed a while ago, is greatly in its favour as far as I am concerned – and originally came with the subtitle ‘A Love Story’. The love story in question is between the heir (Chase) and the house he inherits. Flicking through, I can’t find the name of the house, so perhaps it doesn’t have one – but Vita’s son believed the novel to be written as an act of catharsis at not being able to inherit Knole, the house she loved and is incorporated into Orlando.

I’ve now read three books by Vita Sackville-West – No Signposts in the Sea, which wasn’t exceptionally good; All Passion Spent which was great, and now The Heir. VSW’s writing, especially when on a topic she clearly cares about, is beautiful – and the gradual realisation on Chase’s part that he loves the house and the villagers… why do my descriptions of books always seem to become schmaltzy? The Heir isn’t at all – it’s honest and witty and touching and good.

Happy Families

The third Hesperus review this week (and don’t forget my competition draw) is from the pen of Elizabeth Gaskell – I can proudly state that I was one of those smug people who’d read Cranford before the Dames Eileen and Judi received their scripts. That’s not all, I had Wives and Daughters under my belt, as well as a couple of short story collections. No matter that I got Wives and Daughters confused with Sons and Lovers on occasion (titles only, you understand) and had avoided all the grim-oop-North novels, I think I could count myself a Gaskell aficiando. Or at least admirer.

So I swooped on Cousin Phillis like a swallow, er, swooping somewhere. If not simply for the author, also for the beautiful cover, and the fact that Jenny Uglow (a Gaskell biographer) wrote the Foreword.

Paul Manning is the first person narrator, who goes off into the countryside to make the acquaintance of distant relatives – Mr. and Mrs. Holman, and their young daughter Phillis. Their simple kindness wins over both Paul and the reader – Gaskell’s portrait of uncomplex country folk with hearts of gold has none of the absurdity of Dickens, nor a hint of patronisation, but comes across as both genuine and touching. When Manning’s sophisticated and admired colleague, Holdsworth, makes a lengthy visit, the trails of quiet passion and potential romance become far from simple, and leave a subtle and subdued heartache for more than one.

Cousin Phillis is a gentle tragedy without a baddie, a perfectly structured depiction of friendship, family, honesty and romance which is all the more moving for its verisimilitude. It is the sort of situation Gaskell would often frame in her short stories, though never so toucingly. Another Cranford this is not, neither in scope nor tone, but I can only agree with Uglow when she calls it a ‘perfect miniature nestling among the great Victorian three-volume novels’. Yesterday we saw that the Russians could do concise – who knew the Victorians could too? At this rate we’ll find a short sentence by Henry James.

Russian Around Hesperus

Isn’t this the most wonderful thing for Hesperus Week? Thank you so much Peta (aka The Bookling) for emailing it to me. I’m not sure of its provenance, but thank you to anyone else if Peta wasn’t the creator, and thank you to Peta if you were!

There is still plenty of time to enter the draw for a free Hesperus book of your choice, but Hesperus Week continues with a foray into Russian territory. It was one of my most shameful literary lackings that I hadn’t read any of the Russian writers – it’s possible I skimmed a Chekhov once, I don’t recall, and I might have read a modern Russian (or perhaps Hungarian…) but I’d not read any of the Russian Master Novelists, and that was very remiss. So when Ellie from Hesperus sent me a little bundle a while ago, I was delighted to see she included The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky. How did you first enter the Russian world? Or are you a stranger to it too?

Oh yes, this is what I’d always thought the Russians would be. They leap out of their chairs, they leap back as quickly – everything is exclaimed and announced, and mood swings come quicker than a pregnant acrobat. And with names like Alexei Ivanovich Velchaninov and Pavel Pavlovich Trusotsky, for what more could I ask?

I jest. Beneath these flourishes, and indeed through them, lies a touching and well-told tale of intrigue and mistrust, love and malice, innocence and memory. Velchaninov keeps noticing a man in a crepe hat following him (or is it vice versa?) and the first few chapters create an increasingly taut and haunting tension as to what this mysterious figure could want. Don’t read the next paragraph if you want to keep it all a secret.

He eventually reveals himself as the husband of Velchaninov’s ex-lover, and brings with him a small child. The rest of this novel/la (short only by Russian standards) presents a wavering web of the emotions between these figures, and the absent lover Natalya Vasilyevna. (On a side note, someone asked the other day for the definition of ‘novella’ – good question! More or less a short novel – but without the strutural singularity and unity which characterises the short story. But it is a norotiously difficult term to place.)

Occasionally frenetic, The Eternal Husband is also a thoroughly The blurb puts it best – Dostoevsky is ‘engaging with his favoured themes of tortured minds and neurosis, and treating them in a captivating and highly revelaing way.’ I didn’t always find this an easy book to read, by any means, but I think it’s a good ‘way in’ if, like me, the Russians are foreign territory for you.


No, today’s title doesn’t suggest a foray into the world of female impersonation (for the record, Simone is my preferred equivalent) but rather the beginning of what I will whimsically call Hesperus Week!

Hesperus have been mentioned a few times on here before, but it’s worth doing again. A while ago they sent me four books, and I gobbled up Jerome K. Jerome’s The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow very speedily, loving every word. It’s taken me a while to read the other three, since I decided I’d finish them all before I wrote about them individually. Before I get onto the first of those, I’ll remind you a little bit about Hesperus Press. They specialise in reprinting the neglected works of famous authors, and also translations of modern foreign novels. It is the former in which I am especially interested, with authors including Austen, Woolf, Bronte, Alcott, Pope, Balzac, Dickens, Defoe… etc. etc.

On the train to London I read L. P. Hartley’s Simonetta Perkins. My first experience with LPH was The Go-Between, which I read last year and was a very close contender for my favourite ten books of 2007. Simonetta Perkins was also an absolute delight, told with panache and a wry wit. The novella opens with Lavinia Johnstone perusing a book in Venice, a book which makes bold statements such as “Love is the greatest of the passions; the first and the last”. She cannot agree, having turned down several suitors and felt little more than irritation towards them. It is not long, however, before the romance of Venice persuades her otherwise – but she is attracted in an inconvenient and unsuitable direction. Through this slim volume Hartley explores a hypothetical relationship of unequal power, obsession and self-exploration. Think the scenario of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the hands of an author who is Lawrence’s opposite.

What of Simonetta, you ask? Well, she takes a while to appear in her own novella, but is quite significant and intriguing when she does.

Hartley’s work is subtle, sensitive and, above all, extremely funny. We can laugh at Lavinia because she laughs at herself, and not compromise pathos. For example, Lavinia’s proper, dignified, insensitive and gently xenophobic mother warns her against letting any situation, especially of the male variety, get the upper hand of her: ‘[Lavinia] sighed, realising from past experience how improbable it was that any situation would put itself to the trouble.’

Do go and enjoy Simonetta Perkins – there is a wonderful novella waiting for you.

Idle Pleasures

As promised, I started off my Hesperus pile with Jerome K. Jerome’s The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and it did not disappoint – in fact, it’s gone straight into my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. Doesn’t get much better here on Stuck-in-a-Book.

I read Three Men in a Boat last year, but deemed it too well-known to get on my list – and it came in at no.10 on reads of 2007. Actually, I’m surprised it wasn’t higher – I must have been feeling in an arty mood when I compiled the list. I haven’t read many authors who rival Jerome’s insouciant good humour and entirely maliceless send-up of everyone around him. The send-up works because the figure of fun he most mocks is himself.

Idle Thoughts, first published in 1886 before he even considered men in boats, is arranged as a series of comic essays, each titled ‘On —-‘, be it Babies, Being Hard Up, or Cats and Dogs. I’m going to go all out and say that he might be parodying Montaigne, but having not read any Montaigne, it’s a bold claim. What I do know is that these pieces of writing are hilarious – but in the subtle way which the Victorian comics seemed to find so easy. (Cf: Grossmith, George and/or Weedon). Nothing much is said, but it is said very amusingly. Jerome wanders around the topics introduced with anecdotes, musings and wry observations. It’s a bit like the higgledy-piggledy nature of Three Men in a Boat, only structured by themed chapters rather than a central thread of plot.

The best thing I can do is quote Jerome – here’s his Preface:

One or two friends to whom I showed these papers in MS having observed that they were not half bad, and some of my relations having promised to buy the book if it ever came out, I feel I have no right to longer delay its issue. But for this, as one may say, public demand, I perhaps should not have ventured to offer these mere ‘idle thoughts’ of mine as mental food for the English-speaking peoples of the earth. What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct and elevate. This book wouldn’t elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading ‘the best hundred books’, you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.

Do go and buy it. I’m rather excited by the 1891 riposte, Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl, by ‘Jenny Wren’, which will be republished in March…


Thank you very much, lovely people at Hesperus Press, for sending me a pile of books the other day. You are nice folk. I’ve seen a few other people review The Calligrapher’s Night by Ghata, and Wings by Mikhail Kuzmin, so I decided to go for Sarrasine by Honore de Balzac. As usual, imagine the accent.

Hesperus’ copy, pictured, has both ‘Sarrasine’ and ‘A Passion in the Desert’. The latter is a short story; ‘Sarrasine’ is one of those short-novella-long-short-story things which only seem to happen in Europe, and hasn’t been given a proper name in English yet. It is a framed account of a sculptor, Sarrasine, and his infatuation with La Zambinella. With surprising consequences. Sounds a little lurid, doesn’t it, but of course it isn’t – Balzac’s narrative is thick, rich prose which one can sink into and admire, without being put off. The descriptions are delicious, especially the first page, which depicts an extravagant crowd at a party.

‘… The raised voices of the gamblers at every unexpected throw, and the ringing sound of the pieces of gold, blended with the music and with the murmur of conversations. The crowd, which had been intoxicated by everything the world had to offer in the way of seductions, was stupefied by the perfumed vapour and general drunkenness that was affecting their crazed imaginations.’

Better than ‘went to a party; everyone was wasted’, isn’t it?

At the risk of belying my moniker at the bottom of this entry, let me quote Kate Pullinger’s Foreword: ‘The theorist Roland Barthes’ book S/Z is entirely devoted to a detailed semiotic examintaion of Sarrasine. I first came across the story not through Barthes (however much I’d love to claim the contrary)…” Well, Kate, I’m one step ahead of you – whilst ploughing through my first year module ‘Text, Context, Intertext’ (TCI to its friends), I read Barthes lengthy, wordy and largely incomprehensible book. In doing so, I ought probably have read ‘Sarrasine’, which is quoted in its entirety, in little chunks – but I started skipping these in the end. In a toss up between Barthes and Balzac, I know who I’d choose – though one of Barthes’ terms is nice, and very useful. It’s ‘the casuistry of discourse’ – when the text is trying to limit what it tells you, without lying. Think detective novel – the book can’t say “And Mr. Peterson killed Miss Knight with a dagger in the study” if the unveiling of Mr. Peterson is the denouement – but it also can’t say “Mr. Peterson was on a train to Moscos when Miss Knight was stabbed”, unless he has a complex system of pulleys. The ‘casuistry of discourse’ is in play when the novel writes “Miss Knight was killed”. Not lying; not giving the game away. Haven’t you always wanted a term for that?

Barthes entitled his book S/Z because Sarrasine would normally be Sarrazine, or something like that, and this is all to do with castration (pretty much everything is to do with castration for Barthes) – but I think S/Z is a very useful model for a transatlantic audience such as I have… as this little sketch demonstrates…