Mansfield is labelled as a modernist writer: her stories do not follow the classic narrative structure of a beginning, middle and end many a time. Sometimes, they do not tell a story in the traditional sense at all. They are, rather, mirrors held up to the nature of her characters – mostly young women – and an incident or incidents which illuminate the soul of the protagonist. There is humour, often of a sarcastic variety, but mostly sympathetic. Sometimes, it transforms into the dark variety – and occasionally into total darkness. Katherine Mansfield is where Jane Austen meets Emily Bronte.
Of the stories in the current collection, one common theme may be seen to be pervasive – the difficulty for a woman in finding fulfillment. In The Tiredness of Rosabel, the first story in the volume, the heroine dreams of a life outside her mundane job in a hat shop, with a glamourous customer: of course, she is prudent to restrict her longings to her active imagination. In The Swing of the Pendulum, Viola takes it one step further to flirting with a man caller – and pays the price by inviting an unwanted sexual advance. In the long stories Prelude and its continuation At the Bay, the unfulfilled Beryl also flirts with life… and finds an unwelcome caller. In The Little Governess, this theme is taken to its logical extreme, ending with the protagonist’s life in a shambles – even though she is not physically violated, her psyche, reputation and future is scarred for life.
Katherine Mansfield, extremely daring and unconventional herself, has no illusions about woman’s lot in life. She can choose to be man’s possession, moving about in the constrained space allotted to her by society (the tale of two spinsters, left rudderless at the death of their tyrannical father in Daughters of the Late Colonel – often touted as Mansfield’s finest story – shows the plight of such women when the man in their life disappears), or she can go out and become “bad”. Both are equally undesirable. It is this tension that constantly colours her stories, and make them walk the tightrope between humour and horror.
Though most of the tales are set in Europe, among “civilised” folk, a couple are set in New Zealand and show a different face of the author. Both these stories (Millie and The Woman in the Store) inhabit a more primal and violent world than the chaste drawing rooms of the continent, and the themes are also darker. Mansfield has captured this atmosphere beautifully in a sentence in the latter story:
There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque—it frightens—as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw.
It is this half-light which illuminates this story – the light which is kept at bay in the brilliantly lit interiors of her other stories. But it is always there, promising to show us the bloodthirsty yakshi hidden behind the beautiful visage of a nubile young woman. And that is why this is my most favourite story in the book: here the author casts away her refined aura, and enters into the truly wild spirit of her native country – the spirit of the wanton woman.