Over the last few weeks I’ve been still savouring Katherine Mansfield’s stories. Two or three at the most and then contemplative time afterwards as I sit and chew the mental cud about each one. It’s a good way to appreciate them. Too many at once and a form of critical and mental indigestion sets in. For these readings being less greedy means more enjoyment
I’m up to her later middle period. What has struck me this time’s reading is how feminist she was. Not in suffragette terms but in her sympathy and sensitivity. The comment probably reflects the maturation of Harvey.
Three stories I’ve just read all illustrate the same point. First ‘Pictures’. A young woman, penniless and hungry, unable to pay the rent, tries to make ends meet by getting work as a film extra. The story ends with her sitting in a café. A stout man sits down with her, has a whisky and shouts her a brandy. They leave together. An internet background note makes the point that the story is about unemployment. No! In the end the poor woman was reduced to prostitution.
Then ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’! Those two poor sisters, their lives frittered away is meeting the needs of their tyrant father and they are now on his death unable to make up their minds or reach a decision. ‘Josephine had had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was being lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing withuout asking his permission. What would father say when he found out? For he was bound to find out sooner or later. He always did.’ Poor women, his intimidation had trained them so well, neither of them can remember what they wanted to say.
‘Ma Parker’ in one way is an old-fashioned tear-jerker. She buried her beloved grandson the day before the story starts. In another way it is an indictment of a class system that creates a life of drudgery for people like Ma Parker. ‘It was cold on the street. There was a wind like ice. People went flitting by, very fast; the men walked like scissors; the women trod like cats. And nobody knew – nobody cared. Even if she broke down, if at last, after all these years, she were to cry, she’d find herself in the lock-up as like as not.’
I acknowledge that at the same time as she was penning these pro-women pieces she was also revealing other sensitivities. ‘An Ideal Family’ seems to me to reveal a growing awareness of her father’ s stronger points. Though ‘At the Bay’ and ‘The Fly’ lie ahead.
That sentence is revelatory. The metaphor is inadequate but it'll serve. This present slow read is an re-exploration of a tourist spot once enjoyed with enthusiasm and vigour. Now I stroll at a more leisurely pace and reflect on the scene with more knowledge and background than before. The idiosyncrasies and movement of people and things take on fresh meanings as they are placed in a wider context.
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