The Garden Party and Other Stories - Katherine Mansfield, Lorna Sage

I have been able to read a great many things recently that I would not have normally picked up - and it is two stories by Mansfield that I have had to read for my 20th Century British Literature class.  


The first of the two stories that I had to read by Katherine Mansfield for this class was a story known as "The Garden Party." 


The mood of the world that even the well-to-do women of Mansfield's time inhabited is shown here as a sobering piece of contrast to the downright dire situation that poor women lived in.   


Some historical context (the result of having to scour the local library for books on Mansfield and Virgina Woolf in order to write a paper for my 20th Century British Lit class) - in the wee years of modern Feminism, women were oftentimes seen as near-useless when not helping a man or men out, not aided in the least by the fact that women in the late 19th century to the early 20th century actually by far outnumbered the men, so that there created what was then called a "Spinster crisis" - too many women, not enough men to marry them to equaled too many unmarried aunties, sisters and daughters and no idea what to do with these people who were emotionally hobbled into a strict code of behavior that could only have them ever hope to be a wife, a mother, a nun or a servant.  Thus a crisis involving people who could not get work on their own, but nevertheless needed to eat and live somewhere - almost always a male relative's home.


With the historical context over with, we can move on to the story of "The Garden Party" itself.  The protagonist of this story, Laura, makes herself feel complacent in the insular world that she inhabits in the prettiest house in town - so much so that she does not venture out into the part of the road down the house, where the poor people live.    A story about growing up - not just Laura, but, perhaps, also the society that she lived in - this is a wonderful story that feels enormous in it's seemingly simple message, and feels hopeful in the camaraderie that Laura shared with her similarly named brother, Laurie, as well as their seemingly shared ability to really see the world around them in a way that the other people in their lives just cannot.


In the second story that we read by Mansfield in my class, we then read The Doll's House, a story that I would argue is a good deal more subtle and a great deal less optimistic towards the good will of the upper class and the hope for an older generation of women than the previous story did.  Well, I would say that the older generation of women shown in both stories was quite pessimistic, but after seeing from the uncomfortable point of view of the cruelly oppressive - yet, herself, oppressed - Aunt Beryl, we get quite a dire and pessimistic view of whatever hope we can have for women in her situation.   Perception seems to be a mark of "worthiness" that can transcend class boundaries, and Mansfield subtly applies this theme as an antidote, of sorts, to the cool indifference that the Burnells are subjected to.


I ended up liking both of these stories more than anything else in the class, even more than the Woolf novella that we ended up reading - "Between the Acts" - and it also beat out the disturbing, last novel that we read, Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.


If I had any complaints about the stories, it would have to be due to their age - I got confused in a few moments, due to the simple fact that the stories were written originally for a different audience than the one I am in.   "The Doll's House" was a less aged piece - I would say that if one could stand the eventual test of time, it would have to be this story, as opposed to the sometimes head-scratching confusion of trying to understand the clothing, the social conventions and the language apparent in "The Garden Party".


Nevertheless, these are both stories worth reading through, here as well as here.