Prelude; and At the Bay

by Katherine Mansfield

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“Prelude” describes a move that the Burnell family makes from one house to another. With most of their possessions already in transit, the Burnell women are in a buggy that is packed so tightly that there is no room for Lottie and Kezia. Mrs. Fairchild decides to leave the children with a neighbor until they can be brought later by the grocery man in his wagon. For Kezia and Lottie, the journey to the new house begins at night when everything familiar is left behind, and the carriage rattles into unknown country and along new roads and steep hills, down into bushy valleys and through wide shallow rivers. As they reach the great new house, it appears to Kezia as a soft white bulk stretched on a green garden.

When they enter the house, Kezia’s lamp reveals wallpaper covered with flying parrots. The dining room has a fireplace, and this center is occupied by the family. The windows are bare but, by the next morning, Beryl will have hung red serge curtains. From this point on, there is a careful room-by-room description of the house. There are four bedrooms upstairs. The servants sleep downstairs in rooms just behind the kitchen. From the windows of the kitchen it is possible to see the washhouse and scullery. The nursery has a fireplace and a table where the children have their meals. The drawing room is described after it has been put in order. As Beryl and Mrs. Fairchild establish daily routines, there emerges a complete floor plan of the house and yards. The windows and the views from them orient the house to the garden and to the light of the sun and the moon. Packing cases disappear, beds are made, pictures are hung, the kitchen is made neat, and everything is put in pairs and on shelves. Daily life is organized into patterns.

Plans, also, are made: Mrs. Fairchild will make jam in the autumn; Stanley speaks of bringing men home from the office for Saturday lunch and tennis. The children are sent to play in the garden, their play becoming an imitation of life in the house, but that play is only a prelude to their experience when they leave the garden and go down to the creek, for the garden, which is detailed with as much care as the house, is the prelude to the dark bush that lies beyond it.

Kezia explores the well-laid-out, neatly arranged flowers and orchards, always aware of what lies beyond, of what is on the other side of the drive, the dark trees and strange bushes, the frightening side. Driving through the bush at sunset, Stanley is overcome with panic that does not subside until he has been reassured by the sound of Linda’s voice that everything is in order. It is in Linda that the two realities find accommodation, life seen as a necessary prelude to death.

Although it is not stated in the story that Linda is pregnant, there is a suggestion that she either is or soon will be. Stanley’s gift of oysters, which Linda puts aside, is recalled when the servant girl reads in her dream book that a party in a family way should avoid eating a present of shellfish. Removed, unconcerned in the caring for the children and the household, Linda’s one function seems to be a creative one. While her mother and sister busily put the household into order and tend to the children, Linda is most often apart, alone in her room, alone in the garden, away from the dinner table when the family is...

(This entire section contains 782 words.)

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eating, at the end of the drawing room when Beryl and Stanley play cribbage. Mrs. Fairchild and Beryl dress conventionally, but Linda does not dress as the other women do. Instead, she is draped in a shawl or a blanket. The romantic aura thrown about Linda suggests another aspect of the feminine mystique bound up in birth-giving, from which arises the shadowy figure of the mother-goddess who is intimately connected with the moon and the earth.

Stanley, on the other hand, is identified with the sun. On the first morning in the new house, he stands in the exact center of a square of sunlight. This initial identification takes on greater proportions as the household comes to life and everything revolves around him and the urgency of his departure. The horse and buggy must be readied; he must make his daily journey, timed with the appearance and disappearance of the sun in the sky. All day, the activities of the house will prepare for his return, and when he comes home, everything is bathed in bright, metallic light.