Katherine Mansfield, one of the greatest of modern short-story writers, began writing at an early age. Born in New Zealand, Mansfield went to England in 1903. There, in 1911, when she was twenty-three years old, she published her first volume of stories, IN A GERMAN PENSION, a series of sketches based on her experiences in Germany. These stories, often sharply and crisply satirical, portray many of the Germans as a gross people, preoccupied with mountains of food and long detailed discussions of their digestive processes but covering their grossness and vulgarity with a thick coating of sentimental allegiance to the spirit or the soul. With acid sharpness, Mansfield’s stories demonstrate this combination of vulgarity and sentimentality. They also deride the Germans for other qualities: the lechery of the old man after he has protected a young English girl, cringing respect for the silent man with a title, the modern woman with her talk of art who completely neglects her children.
Although these stories are sensitive and moving portraits of people and their society, they show that Mansfield had not yet found her own style. Crisply and economically told, they are not always completely realized in their effects, however, and are often without that sharply focused point of view that this writer later developed. Despite these early shortcomings, her criticisms of Germany were so telling that when war broke out in 1914 she was urged to have the stories reprinted by another publisher, the first having gone bankrupt. Nevertheless, she refused to take advantage of the 1914 attitude toward Germans, and the volume remained out of print until after her death.
Mansfield’s next published story, PRELUDE, is set in New Zealand; it centers around a family called “Burnell,” a set of characters she also used in a number of later stories that, like PRELUDE, are undoubtedly autobiographical to some extent. The Burnell family consists of three young daughters (one of them, Kezia, withdrawn and sensitive, one prissy and domineering, one slow and clumsy), their sensitive mother who hated bearing children, their energetic and successful father, their competent grandmother, their pretty maiden aunt who is lonely and waiting for a man who never comes. PRELUDE is a series of scenes showing the interactions of these characters on one another against a domestic background. The scenes are given in turn from the point of view of Kezia, the mother, and Beryl, the lonely spinster aunt. Although the work is full of perceptive passages, sensitive descriptions of nature and of flowers, and a warm understanding of people, the device of the multiple point of view never really unifies the story. PRELUDE remains a series of brilliant but scattered perceptions.
Mansfield’s talent had genuinely developed by the time she published the volume called BLISS AND OTHER STORIES in 1920. Her range of subjects had become wider: marriage, people alone in London and trying to make their way in a difficult world, family relationships, little ironic episodes. Furthermore, her technique had become much surer and more effective. The title story of the volume is an effective tale of a modern woman, sensitive and withdrawn, married to a vital and energetic man. The woman finds herself attracted, as she has never been to her husband, to a mysterious and enigmatic Miss Fulton. While giving a dinner party, with...
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