Katherine Mansfield Selected Stories
Katherine Mansfield Selected Stories, 2002, Oxford World’s Classics
Mansfield’s Selected Stories brings together her finest work; from early stories inspired by her time in Germany to those written during the final, prolific twelve months leading up to her untimely death at just 34. Whilst critical recognition of Mansfield’s contribution to literary modernism came after her death, during her lifetime her writing was highly regarded by such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence.
The short story genre was especially important to literary modernism, as writers sought new ways of responding to a rapidly changing world and the devastating loss of life during World War I. Mansfield exploited the format brilliantly, drawing on the ideas of the Impressionists and symbolist poets to create fleeting images of worlds where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are less clearly defined. Born in Wellington, New Zealand Mansfield was acutely aware of the privileges of her class. Yet, in stories such as ‘The Garden Party’ and ‘The Life of Ma Parker’ she used her status as an outsider to the London literary scene to offer compelling critiques of class privilege. The themes of isolation and spiritual loss are never far from the surface in Mansfield’s worlds and stories such as ‘Miss Brill’, ‘Mr and Mrs Dove’ and ‘Bliss’ reveal her ability to capture moments of painful self-realisation and poignancy. Sadly, epiphany rarely leads to change for Mansfield’s characters. In ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ sisters Constantia and Josephine, on realising their lives have been wasted in attending to the whims of their recently deceased father, find this awareness too painful to even acknowledge. And so the story ends as they bury it – a forgotten moment never to be spoken of. Mansfield’s concern with the limitations imposed on her gender surface elsewhere, particularly in ‘Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding’ and ‘The Woman at the Store’, both of which paint uncomfortably forthright pictures of marital life.
If you prefer your fiction to come packaged with happy endings and loose ends neatly tied then this collection is best left on the shelf. Otherwise, it is essential reading for any serious student of literary modernism or, indeed, anyone with a passing interest in the writing of the period that sought to capture the fragmented and uncertain human experience during the early decades of the twentieth century.