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.