“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” is an account of the activities and thoughts of two spinster sisters during the week after the death of their dictatorial father. Although the sisters think of themselves as having been extraordinarily busy that week, it is obvious that most of their efforts have been psychological. They have agonized over the one necessary decision—to bury their father—and they have accomplished that, not without misgivings. However, they are still unable to assert themselves, even in the most mundane areas of life.
The story is divided into twelve sections. In each section, Mansfield concentrates on one area of the sisters’ preoccupations, penetrating the mind of one sister or the other, or of both, alternately, reproducing their churning thoughts. Most of the sections take place on the Saturday that marks a week after his death; there are flashbacks, however, to the death, to the funeral, and to an earlier visit by a grandson.
Although the prime tyrant of the sisters’ lives was their father, the incidents related in the story show their fear of Kate, the bad-tempered young maid, of Nurse Andrews, and of public opinion. In the first section, they worry about the propriety of wearing colored dressing gowns and slippers during the mourning period, when Kate or the postman might see them. In the second section, they cannot summon up the courage to ask Kate for more jam or to restrain Nurse Andrews from gobbling up their butter. Later, although they have proved to themselves that Kate snoops in their bureau, and although they are the victims of her consistent impertinence, they cannot summon up the resolution to dismiss her.
If Constantia and Josephine Pinner are unable to confront people, they are even more emotionally crippled by the possibilities of demands on them for action. When the vicar of Saint John’s, Mr. Farolles, offers to bring Communion to them at their home, it is the possibilities that frighten them. What if Kate came in? What if the bell rang? What would they do? It is easiest to reject any new situation, rather than dealing with their fears of decision.
Naturally, the sisters are preoccupied with the death of their father; they find it difficult to believe that he is really dead and not somewhere waiting to criticize them. In the third section, they are haunted by the deathbed scene, particularly by the fact that he opened only one eye before he died. Accustomed as they are to assuming that everything their father did was significant, generally involving blame for them, the sisters cannot dismiss that single-eyed glare. In fact, they torment themselves with thoughts of his reappearing to scold them for burying him and to go into a fury about the expense of the funeral. A third worry involves disposing of the Colonel’s clothes. Two days after the funeral, Constantia and Josephine attempt to go through his possessions. Merely opening the door to his room without knocking takes almost more courage than they possess. Even Josephine, who seems to be the braver sister, cannot open the chest of drawers. Typically, the decision that Constantia makes, and which she considers one of the boldest of her life, is a denial of action: She locks up the wardrobe and thereby postpones real action. To Constantia and Josephine, however, it is like locking up their father.
Sections 7 through 9 have to do with two relatives, their brother Benny Pinner and their nephew Cyril Pinner. Evidently, both men have escaped the Colonel’s domination, Benny by going to a distant part of the British Empire and Cyril by spending...
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his time in London. Josephine and Constantia must decide which of the men should have the Colonel’s gold watch. Constantia’s imagination sends the watch by runner to Benny, but then she begins to worry about its getting there safely. Deciding to deliver it to Cyril instead, the sisters remember his last visit, when they sacrificed to buy him treats for tea, which he refused, and when Cyril unwillingly saw his deaf, irascible grandfather and escaped by inventing an appointment. Remembering only a problem about time, the sisters are certain that Cyril needs a watch.
After two sections in which the sisters admit Kate’s imperfections but cannot resolve to dismiss her, there is a long section containing a brief flicker of hope for Constantia and Josephine. When they hear the barrel organ, they realize that they are free to hear the music as often as they like. Their father is truly dead. The sun comes into the room, and both sisters begin to speak about the future. However, the sentences are never finished. Again, the thought that might have led to action is stifled, and as a cloud covers the sun, both the sisters say that they have forgotten what they began to say.