By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Prelude’ is one of Katherine Mansfield’s longest, and finest, short stories. Centring on the Burnell family as they move house in New Zealand, ‘Prelude’ is the opening story in Katherine Mansfield’s first ‘mature’ collection of fiction, Bliss and Other Stories (1920), although the story had first been published two years earlier. Below, we attempt a brief summary of the ‘plot’ of ‘Prelude’, which can be read in full here.
‘Prelude’ is divided into twelve sections, which might be summarised as follows:
‘Prelude’ begins with the third-person narrator telling us there isn’t enough room left on the removal buggy for the two sisters, Lottie and Kezia. The buggy is full of luggage packed up ready for the house-move. Their mother, Linda Burnell, jokes that the sisters will have to be left behind.
A neighbour, Mrs Samuel Josephs, who has been watching them pack up from behind her drawing-room blind, comes out and offers to look after the sisters until another cart comes in the evening to pick up the rest of the luggage. When the buggy departs, leaving the sisters behind, Kezia bites her lip to stop herself from crying, but Lottie cries out after her mother and her grandma, who is also on the buggy.
The sisters go into the Josephs’ house, and have tea with them, including their children. Kezia cannot suppress a tear as she eats her bread and dripping, but hides her crying more successfully than her sister.
After tea, Kezia goes back into their old house and looks around. It is largely empty now, but she looks out at the lawn and finds a pillbox in her parents’ room, which she decides to keep. She goes and stands at the window as day gives way to evening and the light fades. She becomes a little unsettled, frightened that something (‘IT’) is just behind her, waiting at the door.
But it’s only Lottie, who comes in and shouts that the storeman is there to pick them up. They leave, with Kezia sitting close up to the storeman, who smells of nuts and new wooden boxes.
As they travel with the storeman, the sisters notice that everything looks different late at night (this is the latest they’ve ever been allowed out). Kezia says that their uncle and aunt live close by to the new house they’re moving to. When they arrive at their new house in the dark, they are greeted by their grandma.
Their mother, Linda has a headache; she and their Aunt Beryl are having tea and Isabel, Lottie and Kezia’s sister, is seeing to their mother’s hair. The girls’ father, Stanley, is also present. Isabel tells her sisters she had a whole chop for her dinner and is berated by her mother for ‘boasting’. Stanley tells the grandma (his mother) to go and get the storeman, Fred, some food before he goes.
Stanley takes exception to his sister-in-law, Beryl, chiding him for being at work during the day of the house move, meaning he wasn’t on hand to help with the practical matters. Isabel realises Kezia is drinking her tea out of Aunt Beryl’s cup.
The grandmother tucks the children into bed. Lottie and Isabel are in a room to themselves, while Kezia is to sleep in her grandmother’s bed with her. As Kezia lies awake in the bed, without any bedsheets, she hears noises coming from downstairs and imagines there are hundreds of black cats in the sky outside, watching her. Lottie says a prayer in bed, and she and Isabel go to sleep.
Meanwhile, Aunt Beryl undresses for bed and fantasises about having financial independence from her brother, Stanley. She then fantasises about a young, wealthy man from England turning up and sweeping her off her feet. Stanley brags to Linda about buying the new house so cheap. They then go to bed. The handyman, Pat, and the servant girl also go to bed in their rooms behind the kitchen. The grandmother is the last to turn in, finding Kezia still awake and waiting for her.
Morning brings the new day – their first morning in their new home. Linda dreams about birds: a chick hatches which then turns into a baby. This is the first sign we’re given that Linda is pregnant.
Her husband, Stanley, wakes up and starts to do his exercises, boasting about how lean he is. Linda reassures him that he is lean and firm, and we get the impression she is used to reassuring him like this (and that he needs it). Linda’s thoughts are preoccupied by ideas of things coming to life.
The grandmother does the dishes in the kitchen and thinks back to the previous house she lived in. She remembers how, when they lived in Tasmania, her daughter Beryl was stung by a red ant. Aunt Beryl comes in with some paintings which she doesn’t like but knows she has to display somewhere.
Beryl, bitter about something but unable to put it into words, leaves and Linda comes into the kitchen and the grandmother tells her to go into the garden to look after her children. Kezia, exploring the garden, comes upon a mysterious large plant with thorny leaves; her mother arrives and tells her it’s an aloe.
On his way back from work, Stanley, in good spirits, buys some oysters, a pineapple, and some cherries and Pat drives him home in the buggy. Stanley reflects on how nice it is to leave the town behind after work and to go home to a house in the country; he starts eating the cherries and throws the stones out of the buggy. When he gets home, the family have dinner together and the children go up to bed. Beryl plays the guitar by herself, feeling restless, lonely, and unloved.
This section begins with supposedly new characters, Mrs Smith and Mrs Jones, until we realise that the girls are playing at being grown-ups. Their game is interrupted when Pip and Rags, their cousins (the Trout boys), arrive with their mongrel dog, named Snooker. Together, the children try to decide what game they should play.
Armed with a tomahawk, Pat tells the children to come and watch him chop off a duck’s head. They all scream at the sight of the headless duck as it walks around for a few moments without a head. The children’s reactions differ, but Kezia is clearly shocked and upset, demanding that Pat ‘Put head back!’ As Pat tries to comfort her, she notices that he’s wearing earrings and reflects that she never knew men could wear earrings.
In the kitchen, Alice the servant girl is making watercress sandwiches, and as she does so she is reading a book on dreams. Aunt Beryl comes in, spots the book, and starts bossing Alice about, telling her to remember to put out doyleys with the tea things. Singing, she leaves. Alice doesn’t like the fact that Beryl talks to her in a tone of voice that makes her, Alice, feel common and working-class.
For their tea, they eat the duck Pat beheaded in front of the children. Stanley and Beryl play a game of cribbage, which Stanley wins. Linda and her mother go into the garden and look at the aloe. Linda realises, as she gazes upon the aloe, that she hates her husband and that life is laughable. Her mother thinks Linda is shivering from the cold, so she suggests they go back inside.
This last section begins with a letter Aunt Beryl is writing to her friend, Nan Pym, saying she is bored with living in the country with no friends to come and visit, and that she doesn’t like the neighbours, or Stanley’s friends. Beryl stops writing and reflects that what she’s written both does and doesn’t capture how she really feels. Kezia calls for her to come to lunch.
‘Prelude’ ends with Kezia playing in the room with her toy calico cat; she takes the top off a pot of moisturising cream and gets her toy cat to look at itself in the lid of the cream (a sort of makeshift looking-glass); the calico cat loses its balance (as if ‘overcome by the sight’ of its own reflection) and topples off the dressing table. The lid of the cream jar falls to the floor and even though it doesn’t break, Kezia, hot with shame, tiptoes away.
That, in summary, is what happens in ‘Prelude’, one of Mansfield’s most ambitious short stories (although in length it’s nearly long enough to qualify as a ‘novella’). Click here for our analysis of the story.