Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’

Here’s a review of Mansfield’s The Garden Party I originally wrote in 2007 to round off today’s Gurdjieff themed articles. I’ve made just a few corrections to it; overall I think it is a decent piece of writing. — AFK, 11/03/13 

Recently, I got a bit caught up reading The Garden Party, a collection of Edwardian author Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. First off, I liked her name. It seems strangely familiar at first, but that’s largely due to the fact that it’s an amalgam of the names of screen goddesses Katherine Hepburn and Jayne Mansfield. Anyway, Mansfield who was born in 1888 and died tragically young in 1923, was an extremely gifted writer who grew up in New Zealand but eventually moved to Britain — I don’t suppose there was much going on in New Zealand at that time or whether there is even now. She’s strongly associated with the modernist movement in literature and as the author biog at the front of my shiny new Penguin edition explains she was quite happy to label herself a modernist; it’s not a label that later critics would awkwardly try to shoehorn her into. The modernists to explain briefly, were an iconoclastic literary movement who felt themselves duty-bound to free literature from such outmoded notions as plot, storyline, the conventions of narrative and of grammar: they were unconventional. You’ve heard the usual roll call of names from the early 20th century — Joyce, Pound, Woolf, Elliot, etc. — and if you haven’t you really ought to read more.

I’d actually first heard of Katherine Mansfield through reading of her involvement towards the end of her life with the ultra-charismatic and influential Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. In fact, she actually died at Gurdjieff’s rather modestly named Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man which was located at Fountainebleu near Paris. And there were rumours that the strict regime of labour and toil that Gurdjieff imposed upon most of the participants at Fountainebleu had exacerbated her condition and precipitated her death in 1923 from TB — which she’d contracted in 1917 apparently, the rumours again tell us, from her lover D.H. Lawrence. Shortly before her death however she wrote expressing the opinion that what she had encountered in those surroundings and in Gurdjieff’s teachings was something truly providential. Crucially she felt as if she belonged among these people with their “bizarre” views and weird practices. The academic Lorna Sage dismisses Fontainebleau in the introductory notes to The Garden Party as an “eccentric circus”, but admits that Mansfield did find peace there among the clowns.

Sage is spot however on when she describes Mansfield as a “[writer] of displacement, restlessness, mobility, impermanence” — indeed this description is especially apt when it comes to The Garden Party. The stories in The Garden Party are all profoundly haunted by a dread of the inevitability of transience and change, the shadow of eternity which darkly obliterates all that stands in its way. And this grim sense of disquiet and uneasiness runs like a current throughout The Garden Party. In fact it’s hard not to conclude that Death, in its guises as entropy or decay, is the only central and recurring character in each of these stories. It seems similarly obvious that Mansfield’s own awareness of the precariousness of her life was an overriding influence upon The Garden Party.

In particular, Mansfield’s central concern here is with how we as human beings cope with and steel ourselves against the prospect of death and loss, and the ever present reality that everything that we care about, that we attach ourselves to in order to give life meaning, must ultimately vanish and die. It’s not just physical death and the awareness of its certainty that’s an obsession with Mansfield in these stories, but death here can mean the death of youth, of innocence, of the moment, and of potential. This is why so many of the stories deal with the ineffectual longings of those whom life has passed by as well as the trenchant regrets that arise when musing over chances missed. It is precisely during these bittersweet moments of reflection and repentance that you tend to come upon the deepest appreciation of the transient nature of human existence — and this is because we ultimately define ourselves in terms of our dreams, hopes, and plans for the future.

A lot of the joy in reading Mansfield’s work comes from taking pleasure in the sheer beauty of the writing. Her talent for description gave her the ability to write some really gorgeous prose, allowing her to delicately paint glitzy moments in time in all their bright, exquisite colours and shades. But often when reading through these wonderful passages it becomes icily apparent that her aim in making these moments so vivid is so she can bring with them a heightened awareness of the ephemeral nature of things — indeed in order to convince the reader that all this is just a beautiful mask behind which lies nothing but a blank void. And this is because with Mansfield it’s hard to get the sense of something that transcends everything, that some greater being or force at play whenever you encounter these marvelously crafted descriptions in these stories. This is all there is, these are just beautiful moments in time that will pass like everything else with no hidden depth or great mystery behind it all. Mansfield beautifully accentuates the sense of inevitability with which all the joy, the laughter, and the youthful carelessness that is so triumphant and heedless will pass and become one with oblivion; that the beautiful young debutante will become an embittered overweight sexless lump: that youthful promise will eventually pass into bitter regret for times past.

In the end what Mansfield succeeds in doing in The Garden party is to make you, the reader, more aware of death and impermanence or at least your attitude towards it, because it’s hard to escape feeling the heavy presence of death over your shoulder as you turn the page on at least one or two occasions when reading through The Garden party. And of course the more you become aware of the precariousness of life the more you appreciate that every act is performed in the shadow of death, under the sword of Damocles as it were. If as the eponymous protagonist of ‘Miss Brill’, sitting on a bench in a park in the French Riviera watching the various games and entanglements of the passers by, idly imagines echoing Shakespeare that we are all like players on some stage, it is chillingly clear that the audience is a very grim one. However in our everyday complacency we rarely if ever allow ourselves to be fully cognizant of this reality, supposedly, that is, until we reach a certain age.

On the other hand, Mansfield seems to suggest, the worst thing we can do whenever we do find ourselves trying to come to terms with impermanence and death is to try to vainly grasp on to something that is ultimately illusory. Each exquisite moment can trap us; can strangle us just by the sheer fact of its exquisiteness. By making a vain attempt to imprison the object of desire we are then in danger of killing the joy that it once gave us.

The debutant of ‘Her First Ball’ taking her initial steps into high society and finding herself en route to her first society ball is so dazzled with the anticipation of the event to come that every single mundane detail evokes in her a feeling of sheer wonderment. That is before ugly reality intrudes in the form of her first her dance partner, a callous battle scarred veteran of the scene who recognising the overwhelmed state she’s in and seeing the chance to deflate the arrogance of youth maliciously points out to her that none of it will last: neither her joy and wonder nor her youth and beauty can last. As soon as this realisation penetrates her soul and splinters apart her feelings of ecstatic rapture she becomes distraught, and now this newly grim, insufferably gloomy attitude shapes her perceptions of everything around her. So that what had been a moment before the scene of her youthful triumph now only reminds of her mortality. Fortunately for her she quickly regains her lost wonder, and literally forgets her fat untidy dance partner’s gruesome visage and everything else that a moment before was a cause for her despair

Then there is the title piece ‘The Garden Party’ which details the epiphany of a wealthy and sensitive young woman, wise beyond her years, who finds herself paying tribute to the dead body of a stranger, a common worker many rungs below her in terms of class and upbringing. But she is able to pierce through the veil of convention and caste to appreciate the common humanity and profundity of the situation. The girl becomes struck by how calm and at the peace the dead man looks and begins to realise how meaningless the idle pleasures of a beautiful day and a genteel garden party, and in fact all joys are. But she invests this potentially devastating insight with elation, immediately coming to terms with it, indeed even seeing in it the sheer wonder and awe of life. But one is tempted here to speculate on Mansfield herself, was she able to come to terms with her terrible foreknowledge that her days were to be cut prematurely short? Is this what she was looking for in Gurdjieff’s teachings? Was her each moment poisoned by this awareness of her impending mortality, did she in fact find it intolerable to let the moments pass just like that?

Another typical story is ‘Bank Holiday’, which essentially consists of a succession of wild, colourful, and dizzy images, snapshots taken from a bank holiday weekend celebration. However the feeling  on the part of the narrator is one of detachment from all the revelry and frivolity of the crowd; perhaps more than that even distaste at all these people enjoying themselves but in a way that seems almost reckless and gratuitous and even inconsiderate. These people have managed to forget for a few giddy moments all the worries, disappointments and frustrations that trouble them in their ordinary lives, but this absolution is short lived. Everything will come back in a flood tomorrow morning. But for the narrator this only adds to her frustration for she cannot lose herself like the others and so she’s left is an onlooker. Even more aware of herself. The story ends with the revellers making their way up a hill en masse:

” Up, up they thrust into the light and heat, shouting, laughing, squealing, as though they were being pushed by something, far below, and by the sun far ahead of them — drawn up into the full, bright, dazzling radiance to… what?”

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. James Moore says:

    Greetings. I read your review of KM’s The Garden Party and wondered if you would welcome a contact.

    James Moore
    http://www.jamesmoore.org.uk

  2. Stace says:

    Do you really know much about New Zealand, to make a comment on how much is ‘going on’ there? The fact that Mansfield set her stories in NZ seems testament to the fact that there is indeed plenty going on there, don’t you think?

  3. anask says:

    apologies, stace.

  4. tuscia flat says:

    interesting novel on this subject by Linda Lappin called
    Katherine’s Wish. It explores the why of Mansfield’s interest in gurdjieff

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