On one of Mansfield’s finest stories
‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’: as titles go, it is one of Katherine Mansfield’s more helpfully instructive. This modernist short story from 1922 focuses on Josephine and Constantia, or ‘Jug’ and ‘Con’ as they affectionately know each other, two sisters whose father, the ‘late colonel’ of the story’s title, has recently died, leaving them on their own in the family home. You can read ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ here.
There isn’t a ‘plot’ to ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ as such. Instead, we follow Josephine and Constantia during the weeks following their father’s death: the guests they entertain at home, their memories and recollections from when their father was alive, and the funeral arrangements. They wonder whether to dismiss the maid from their service, as they no longer need her. Nurse Andrews, who looked after their father before he died, eats with them and then leaves.
If more traditional plot-driven literature tends to see death as a tragic culmination, just as it views marriage as a romantic culmination, then ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ focuses on the everyday reality of dealing with a death: arranging the funeral, talking with the priest, entertaining guests and recalling visits from family members. These are the unimportant passages and seemingly insignificant moments that take up much of our ordinary lives, yet how often – at least before modernism – did fiction make room for them? Virginia Woolf called George Eliot’s Middlemarch one of the few novels written for grown-up people, perhaps partly because, rather than seeing marriage as a convenient plot resolution for a novel, Eliot made marriage the central focus of her study of provincial life. ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’, written some fifty years after Middlemarch, similarly uses death as a starting point rather than end-point, following how two sisters (who are middle-aged, though we are never told how old precisely: all we know is that they have an older brother and that Josephine is older than Constantia) respond to their father’s death.
And how do they respond? What emerges, in the course of the story’s short sections, is that Josephine and Constantia live in fear of their father even after he has died. He casts a long shadow over their lives, even from beyond the grave, and it’s fitting that he was a military man, since the portrait we are given of him, piecemeal throughout the story, is of an irascible, quick-to-anger, fearsome man who roared and shouted and fell out with his friends (he alienated his friends from his days serving in British India, by quarrelling with them), whose face was ‘purple’ with not just the illness that claimed him in his final days, we surmise, but a perpetual state of irritability and rage. In the story’s closing pages, we learn, through free indirect discourse which gives us an insight into the two sisters’ thoughts and memories, that after their mother died when they were still presumably quite young, they were never encouraged to marry – or even to meet young men – and so remained unmarried, their father the only man (apart from clergymen) in their lives. This tragic picture of a life not lived (or rather lives not lived) culminates with the anticlimactic non-conversation between the two daughters of this late colonel, in which they both go to say something to the other but end up forgetting (or, that should probably be, pretending to forget) what they were going to say to each other. It’s too overwhelming. After living a lonely life dominated by one person, their father, they are now unable, even after his death, to conceive of a new life, marriage, selling the house. Even getting rid of their maid is something they flirt with, but seem unable to act on, even though they feel they don’t need her any more. She, too, scares them (she does appear to have an almost superhuman ability to burst into a room as though she were bursting through the wall, in one of Katherine Mansfield’s finest comically absurd touches), another indication that these women have lived their lives in fear, thanks to an overbearing father.
‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’, like many of Katherine Mansfield’s greatest short stories, ends with something being unspoken, or perhaps unspeakable. Here we might compare it with another of her classic stories, ‘The Garden Party’, which similarly ends with a female character unable to articulate how she feels. In the last analysis, that which is unspeakable may even be unthinkable – leaving us as readers guessing as to precisely what has happened and what such miniature epiphanies mean for the protagonists.