Today I want to tell you something about a book I’ve recently read: The Garden Party and Other Stories, a collection of short stories by the New Zealander author Katherine Mansfield. Published in 1922, it represents one of the masterpieces of Modernist production. I must admit I didn’t know it: I had never studied it at school nor at university. It was a dear friend of mine who gifted me the book, giving me the opportunity of discovering this amazing author. I shall be grateful forever!
The collection contains 15 tales. Each one of them lasts only a few pages, but they are more than enough for the writer to depict a cross section of someone’s life. Mansfield succeeds in taking what I would call a “photo” of a particular situation, with a delicate but effective style.
The main characters have mixed backgrounds, men, women, young and elder people who live peculiar moments. Among all the tales, two of them have particularly caught my attention: Miss Brill and Marriage à La Mode.
Miss Brill tells the story of a woman who goes to the park on a Sunday afternoon. She sits on a bench and takes a look at people around her. At a certain point, a couple of young lovers sits next to her and she listens to their comments. What she hears leaves her in discomfort and embarrassment. What I enjoyed the most about this story is the main character: it’s quite unusual to see a middle-aged/elderly woman (her age is not clear, but we understand from the text that she’s not young anymore) as the protagonist. Moreover, I loved Mansfield style and the capacity of conveying the woman’s feelings. The sense of unease and decay is described with many elements, from the lady’s thoughts to her clothes. As I said before, a few pages are all the author needs to express everything she wants.
Marriage à La Mode, on the other hand, tells quite a different story. It focuses on a married couple, William and Isabel. They have moved from a little house in London to a bigger one in the countryside. There she met new, rich acquaintances and grow apart from her husband. Isabel ignores William, who starts feeling like a burden, an obstacle to her wife’s new life. He keeps on trying to tell her she’s changed, but she refuses to start a real dialogue with him. At the end, it seems we can see a turn in Isabel’s mind: but will she be capable of putting her frivolous friendships aside to talk to her husband?
What I found particularly interesting here is the fact that, in most of the stories – be them written on paper or acted in films or TV series – we see it is the husband who grows apart from the wife, bored after some years of marriage. The wife, frustrated, tries to catch his attention again or develops other interests and gets some distance from the man, too. With Marriage à La Mode, things go the other way around: it is Isabel who is tired of William and never wants to be alone with him. Actually, this is the case in other stories from the collection; I believe it is a reflection of Mansfield’s own life, as she had many relationships and even got married a couple of times. Still, she could never be faithful to her husbands and kept seeking other companions. She even left her first husband the same day they got married, meaning she probably felt the institution of marriage as something suffocating.
Even if I chose to focus on two stories, I believe all the others are worth our attention. As I said, I think Mansfield style is unique and I love the way she can describe deep feelings in a few pages. I can also say she inspired me to write: my tale At the window from my collection takes something from Miss Brill’s story, as the main character is a girl who only stares at people all day long. Of course, the story develops in a very different way, but I can definitely say Miss Brill and my main character, Sarah, are related. If you are interested in finding out more about my book, click here to read the post I wrote about my stories.
So, tell me: have you ever read The Garden Party and Other Stories? Did you know Katherine Mansfield? Tell me your thoughts with a comment below!