Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was one of the pioneers of the modernist short story in English, taking her cue from Russian writers like Anton Chekhov. Below we’ve given a brief beginner’s guide to five of Mansfield’s very best short stories, with links to where each of them can be read online.
1. ‘The Garden Party’.
This 1920 story centres on the annual garden party held by the Sheridan family at their home, in New Zealand, Mansfield’s country of birth. One of the Sheridan children, Laura – a young woman on the cusp of adulthood – is looking forward to the party and is keen to become involved in the preparations.
However, while the Sheridans are preparing for their party, news arrives that a working-class man who lives in the poorer part of the village has been tragically killed when his horse reared up and threw him from his cart. Laura, filled with sympathy for the dead man and his family, pleads with her mother and siblings to cancel their garden party in light of the tragedy. How can they hold a garden party, with music and guests and laughter, when a family nearby are in mourning for the death of their husband and father?
The end of the story poses more questions than it answers, especially concerning Laura’s complex response to the man’s death. We’ve analysed this story, probably Mansfield’s best-known work, in a separate post.
This 1922 story focuses on two sisters, whose father has recently died.
It’s largely plotless: the sisters make arrangements for the funeral, recall a visit from their nephew while their father was still alive, and wonder whether to fire their maid. Part of the power of the story is its understated switching between moments of comedy (their nephew, Cyril, trying to make their irascible and hard-of-hearing father understand what he is saying) and pathos (the two unmarried and middle-aged sisters cut an almost tragic figure).
One of Mansfield’s earliest great short stories, published in 1918, ‘Bliss’ focuses on a young wife and mother, Bertha Young, on the day she organises a dinner party for friends. Her new friend, a beautiful socialite named Pearl, attends the party, and – as with Laura in ‘The Garden Party’ – Mansfield subtly hints at a complex range of emotions and moods felt by her female protagonist. Does Bertha fancy Pearl? Will she ever truly desire her husband?
But at the end of the dinner party, and the end of the story, Bertha will learn something which will throw her whole world into disarray. And you’ll fancy a bowl of tomato soup by the time you’ve finish reading, too…
Like many of Katherine Mansfield’s best short stories, the plot of ‘Prelude’ is gossamer-thin and light as anything: essentially, the twelve short scenes in this story follow one family, the Burnells, as they prepare to move out of their house.
Its title and multi-part structure may be a nod to T. S. Eliot’s modernist poem ‘Preludes’, published in book form a year before Mansfield’s story was published in 1918 – but Mansfield’s portrayal of a family saying goodbye to their home is a prime example of her own individual impressionistic style.
We have analysed this story here.
5. ‘At the Bay’.
Modernists liked setting their narratives over the course of just one day: Virginia Woolf wrote two novels like this (Mrs Dalloway but also, less famously, Between the Acts), while James Joyce’s Ulysses remains the most famous ‘one-day novel’. ‘At the Bay’ is Mansfield’s best-known take on this one-day span.
Like ‘Bliss’, this story sees the female protagonist, Beryl Fairfield, making friends with a woman, Mrs Harry Kember, who is considered ‘fast’ and ‘disgraceful’ by the other people at the bay. The story is worth reading for its insight into feminine consciousness (and, indeed, the unconscious – Beryl has some vivid and memorably described dreams).
All five of these classic Katherine Mansfield stories are included in this excellent selection, Selected Stories n/e (Oxford World’s Classics). Discover more about female modernist writers with our pick of Woolf’s best novels and essays, our reappraisal of May Sinclair’s fiction, our introduction to the work of pioneering writer George Egerton, and our discussion of Dorothy Richardson’s ‘stream of consciousness’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.