Overview of Mansfield's "Miss Brill"
Katherine Mansfield, born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, lived a short life, but she established a literary reputation at a young age. Her first published book, In a German Pension, was published in 1911, when she was only twenty-two years old. She became friends with some of the great literary figures of her day, including D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and married the writer and critic J. Middleton Murry.
Her stories are full of detail and small, albeit significant, incidents in her characters' lives. In an often-quoted letter published in The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, she says of "Miss Brill": "I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her, and to fit her on that day at that moment.'' Katherine Fullbrook notes in her biography titled simply Katherine Mansfield that "while the surface of her stories often flash with sparkling detail, the underlying tones are sombre, threatening, and register the danger in the most innocent seeming aspects of life."
"Miss Brill" is one of her finest stories, capturing in a moment an event that will forever change the life of the title character. Miss Brill is an older woman of indeterminate age who makes a meager living teaching English to school children and reading newspapers to an "old invalid gentleman." Her joy in life is her visit to the park on Sunday, where she observes all that goes on around her and listens to the conversations of people nearby, as she sits "in on other people's lives." It is when she tries to leave her role as spectator and join the "players" in her little world that she is rebuffed by that world and her fantasy falls apart.
On this particular Sunday, she has taken her fur necklet out of its box, brushed it, cleared its eyes, and put it on. She is glad that she wore it, because the air contains a "faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip." It is a beautiful day, the first Sunday of the Season, so everything seems nicer than usual. Even the band seems to play "louder and gayer."
Miss Brill is somewhat disappointed that there are only two older people near where she is seated. They do not speak, and her observations of the life around her begin in silence. It is clear at this point in the story that she considers herself a spectator, detached from the activities around her. She expects entertainment from the strollers and sitters, but she has been disappointed more than once. Last week, we learn, an Englishman and his wife held a boring conversation which drove Miss Brill to the point of wanting to shake the woman. But she didn't shake her, because that would have meant involving herself in the actions she so quietly observed.
Mansfield's eye for detail and the telling moment exhibits itself here as we, along with Miss Brill, watch the activities in the park: "… couples and groups [parade], [stop] to talk, to greet … children [run] among them, swooping and laughing." A "high stepping mother" picks up her child who has "suddenly sat down 'flop.'" It is a scene made up of details that we have all, at one time or another, witnessed ourselves. And that is all that Miss Brill does right now: witness the world parading past her.
But then she takes note of the people on the benches. She sees "something funny about nearly all of them." And as she looks at these "odd, silent, nearly all old" people who look as if they have "just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!" she does not see that she is one of them. Mansfield's prose gives us an objective look at the people and events around Miss Brill while at the same time allowing us to see the subjective interpretation Miss Brill makes of that world. We don't know what she thinks of herself, or even if she thinks of herself at all. But if she does, she must not see herself very clearly. She must not believe that she is old or odd or funny.
Now the band strikes up, and the procession continues with young girls and soldiers and peasant women...
(The entire section is 4,976 words.)