Kathleen Mansfield Murry (14 October 1888 – 9 January 1923) was a prominent short story writer who was born and brought up in colonial New Zealand and wrote under the pen name of Katherine Mansfield. At the age of 19, Mansfield left New Zealand and settled in the United Kingdom, where she became a friend of modernist writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In 1917 she was diagnosed with extrapulmonary tuberculosis, which led to her death at the age of 34. Despite her young age, she travelled and lived in various countries (England, Germany, France, Italy) and published short stories. She is a highly appreciated modernist, whose writings seem never get old, not even for a reader of today.
For the readers of the book club for this spring term, what could be a better introduction to the literature of New Zealand than the short story collection by Katherine Mansfield? We dwelled on the first two stories of the book – ”At the Bay” and ”the Garden Party”. The stories are set on the coastal area of New Zealand. The abundance of nature is described so passionately and the gallery of personalities of the stories is so vivid, that we interpreted these perhaps be based on her own life. At the Bay, the story concentrates on the events of one summer day. We come to learn that Mansfield’s subtle way of writing gives room for many kinds of interpretations. Maybe this was necessary in order to get texts published at that era. At the Bay we get to know a woman who does not fit in the social norms set by others and is thus despised. We learn that a motherhood can be far from being a loving relationship but it is a rather compulsory thing that is expected to be performed for the sake of reproduction purposes. Mansfield brings forth some taboos of that time and perhaps is among the forerunners to write about these subjects, as a continuation for the latter part of Victorian era, when patriarchal male supremacy was being questioned in the literature for the first time. In her stories, women are mostly content of living a life without a marital partner.
Class divisions are presented even in a more apparent way in the Garden party. It is a story about the afternoon of an upper class family, whose life seem to filled with roses and lilies and piano tunes. . . However, the innocence and the immunity of the family as an isolated part of the society is questioned by Laura, a young girl of the family. She observes her surroundings carefully and starts to question and break the invisible barriers that separate her family from the others. She begings to ”wake up”as a member of the society, so to speak.
We really liked the short stories we read and shared the observations of many details. Yet we were genuinely surprised by the fact how modern these themes still felt today. It is almost 100 years since Mansfield wrote her stories, and she seems to have reached something essential on the human existence and being, for the questions she deals with are still relevant questions to be asked in today’s society.