To mark 100 years since the great short story writer’s death, books editor Claire Mabey marathonned her collected works – these are the top 20.
Reader, I did it. I read all of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories.
Confession: I haven’t always been a fan. I have tedious memories of reading At the Bay in high school and not really “getting” it. But re-visiting her life and work in this centenary year I’m reminded that Katherine Mansfield was a punk. A scan through the timeline of the major turns in her short life (she died aged 34) reveals an individual who refused to conform and who committed her brief time to making art and having as many experiences as she could squeeze in.
On Mansfield’s influence, Witi Ihimaera (who this year celebrates 50 years as a published writer) says: “Māori say we should always put the past before us so, for short story writers, Katherine Mansfield should always have a place in the whakapapa of short fiction. And some of her stories are among New Zealand’s, let alone the world’s, best.
“I sometimes play this game: if Katherine Mansfield was a young unknown today and walked into a New Zealand publishing house with a 2023 version of In A German Pension (1911), would it be accepted? I think so. She might not be as nationalistic as some might want her to be, but, at the level of language, there is something very distinctive and personal, transcendent, about her writing style and accomplishment that marks her out as special in the same way as Patricia Grace is special, Keri Hulme is special and Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall looks like she is going to be special.”
After reading the stories certain themes stand out as recurrent across her work: the awkward and often horrifying cusp between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience; class and inequality; death and loss; lust; crushing disappointment; the restricted lives of women; childbearing; the slippery, strange, surprising territory of the mind.
The ranking below is from 20 on down. Merry Christmas.
20. Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding (from In a German Pension, 1911)
“Cheer up, old woman,” shouted her husband, digging her in the ribs; “this isn’t Theresa’s funeral.” He winked at the guests, who broke into loud laughter.
19. An Indiscreet Journey (from Something Childish and Other Stories, 1924)
“Courage!” I said to my muff and held it firmly, “Courage!”
In 1915 Mansfield headed into the war zone to meet her lover Franco Carco. This story takes passages directly from her diaries of that perilous, yet thrilling, journey. This is a story of irrepressible lust: for another, for life, for action over passive mulling. The story is painterly, visually active, animated by the protagonist noticing everything around her, bouncing her thoughts off objects to firm up her resolve.
18. The Child Who Was Tired (from In a German Pension, 1911)
“Ts—ts—ts!” she said, “lie there, silly one; you will go to sleep. You’ll not cry any more or wake up in the night. Funny, little, ugly baby.”
Bleak. Inspired by Chekhov’s story, Sleepy, this was written while Katherine was in Bad Wörishofen, Germany, after becoming pregnant and marrying the wrong man.
17. Marriage à la Mode (from The Garden Party and Other Stories, 1922)
“A love-letter! But how divine!” “Darling, precious Isabel.” But she had hardly begun before their laughter interrupted her.
Best read aloud to get the voices and the satire therein.
16. Sun and Moon (from Bliss and Other Stories, 1922)
The lovely food that the man had trimmed was all thrown about, and there were bones and bits and fruit peels and shells everywhere. There was even a bottle lying down with stuff coming out of it on to the cloth and nobody stood it up again.
Another story in which we see through the eyes of children and half-see the strange world of adults. Food is again a metaphor for entropy, a fall from innocence, dreams unfulfilled. Life can be bitterly disappointing.
15. The Fly (from The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories, 1923)
It had been a terrible shock to him when old Woodifield sprang that remark upon him about the boy’s grave. It was exactly as though the earth had opened and he had seen the boy lying there with Woodifield’s girls staring down at him.
Mansfield’s little brother Leslie died in World War I and it broke her heart. This is the story about a man alone with his grief, and anger, in an environment that didn’t allow men to express it freely.
14. Je Ne Parle Pas Français (from Bliss and Other Stories, 1922)
I enjoyed one of these moments the first time I ever came in here. That’s why I keep coming back, I suppose. Revisiting the scene of my triumph, or the scene of the crime where I had the old bitch by the throat for once and did what I pleased with her.
The old bitch referred to in the above quote is Life. In this story, Mansfield successfully creates an unlikeable yet interesting protagonist. As readers we traverse both the immediate constructs, and the subterranean depths, of French writer Raoul Duquette. It’s another story that mines childhood experience (in this case pretty shocking recollections of sexual abuse) and surfaces it within a shaky adult perspective where it becomes confused by agenda and an unreliable narrative voice. When Raoul collides with English writer Dick Harmon they each want something from the other. Between the pair of them the story of Mouse emerges. Her character creeps through the latter half of the story: vulnerable within Raoul’s telling and fabrications. The story takes an, at times, cynical view of the male writer and what they might need to fuel their creativity: Voyeurism? Exploitation? Coffee? Faffing around in cafes thinking about whiskey and tweed?
13. The Life of Ma Parker (from The Garden Party and Other Stories, 1922)
You simply dirty everything you’ve got, get a hag in once a week to clean up, and the thing’s done.
This is the tragic, enraging story of Ma Parker, a cleaner and grandmother, whose mind wanders between her grief for her just-deceased grandson (one of too many losses in her life) and her present task of cleaning a “literary gentleman’s” “dustbin” of a kitchen. It’s a harrowing story of a woman with no space for grief who gets no sympathy from a society that exploits her services, her low status, and perpetuates a cycle of illness and early death. The structure of the story has Mansfield’s signature abstraction with the inner workings of Ma Parker’s mind driving time leaps and fractures in the narrative.
12. Her First Ball (from The Garden Party and Other Stories, 1922)
Was this first ball only the beginning of her last ball, after all? At that the music seemed to change; it sounded sad, sad; it rose upon a great sigh. Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn’t happiness last for ever? For ever wasn’t a bit too long.
At Leila’s first ball she dances with an older man who squeezes her too close for comfort and wangs on about how one day she’ll be old, surveying the young dancers, not dancing herself. Mansfield often portrayed young women on the awkward cusp between childhood and the adult world. In this story, though, Leila triumphs which is a huge relief to all involved.
11. How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped (from Something Childish and Other Stories, 1924)
On this story, Witi Ihimaera says: “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped is really a Māori story even though the publishers of the time changed Māori into gypsies! … I have never forgotten that Mansfield had a close relationship with Maata Mahupuku from the Wairarapa. Whenever I think of KM I sometimes think of Maata who apparently wrote a novel nobody has ever found. It’s become a metaphor for me of the way in which Pākehā writing took over the New Zealand text and Māori writers couldn’t get a look in until some 50 years later.”
This is the story of two worlds colliding: Pākehā child Pearl Button, who has been left to her own devices in the “House of Boxes” (a child’s perception of the colonised landscape), visits a marae with two Māori women who walk past her. She has a lovely time playing in the sea, eating, being cuddled and given attention. Until “little blue men came running, running towards her with shouts and whistlings – a crowd of little blue men to carry her back to the House of Boxes”. The word “kidnapped” in the title does a lot of work to convey the racism of the coloniser’s view.
10. A Dill Pickle (from Bliss and Other Stories, 1917)
As he spoke, so lightly, tapping the end of his cigarette against the ash-tray, she felt the strange beast that had slumbered so long within her bosom stir, stretch itself, yawn, prick up its ears, and suddenly bound to its feet, and fix its longing, hungry stare upon those far away places. But all she said was, smiling gently: “How I envy you.”
This is the story for anyone who has ever sat down to reunite with an ex and discovered that they were just as self-involved as ever and all hope of rekindling romance is dissolved.
9. The Woman at the Store (from Something Childish and Other Stories, 1924)
“Now listen to me,” shouted the woman, banging her fist on the table. “It’s six years since I was married, and four miscarriages. I says to ‘im, I says, what do you think I’m doin’ up ‘ere? If you was back at the coast, I’d ‘ave you lynched for child murder. Over and over I tells ‘im—you’ve broken my spirit and spoiled my looks, and wot for—that’s wot I’m driving at.”
Another of Mansfield’s slow horrors with a startling, brilliant ending. This is gothic New Zealand.
8. The Tiredness of Rosabel (from Something Childish and Other Stories, 1924)
There was a sickening smell of warm humanity—it seemed to be oozing out of everybody in the ‘bus—and everybody had the same expression, sitting so still, staring in front of them.
This short story was published, after Mansfield’s death, by her partner John Middleton Murray (who scholars have long been irritated by given his attempts to edit and arrange her letters and diaries in an effort to sanitise Mansfield’s punkish ways). The story is deceptively simple: Rosabel works in a department store, earning a pittance and serving wealthy people. She is cold, hungry and so her imagination manufactures a fantasy escape: one of the rich men who she serves whisks her away into his world of opulence, comfort and material security. Relatable.
7. Miss Brill (from The Garden Party and Other Stories, 1922)
A cold, pale nun hurried by. A beautiful woman came along and dropped her bunch of violets, and a little boy ran after to hand them to her, and she took them and threw them away as if they’d been poisoned. Dear me! Miss Brill didn’t know whether to admire that or not!
This very short story has a killer ending. Absolute killer. Here’s the story online. Take an SSR (sustained silent reading) break and have an emotional time.
6. The Garden Party (from The Garden Party and Other Stories, 1922)
“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”
This story is designed to make the reader squirm in empathy with Laura Sheridan. Charged by her mother with helping with the final arrangements of an extravagant garden party at their home, Laura is horrified when everyone around her wants to go through with it even after they hear news that a neighbour has been killed, leaving a wife and five kids to certain poverty. The story takes a hideous turn towards the end, another of Mansfield’s horrors: somehow charming and childlike while at the same time stoking a severe critique of class and inequality.
5. At the Bay (from The Garden Party and Other Stories, 1922)
The twelfth part (of thirteen) of At the Bay is a masterpiece. A horror story: a conversation that Beryl entertains between herself and her own desires blends fluidly into a scene in which a man (a cis white man I might add) is threatening, predatory, frightening. The tone of At the Bay is ominous throughout: dripping with symbolism, loneliness and the thrilling yet frightful world of after-dark. The first few sentences build and build to create an environment laden with shadows and hidden, suppressed things: “VERY early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea. A heavy dew had fallen.”
4. Prelude (from Bliss and Other Stories, 1920)
Beryl sat writing this letter at a little table in her room. In a way, of course, it was all perfectly true, but in another way it was all the greatest rubbish and she didn’t believe a word of it. No, that wasn’t true. She felt all those things, but she didn’t really feel them like that.
This is the longest short story that Mansfield wrote and among her most experimental. In twelve episodes we wander through the Burnell family (the same ones as in The Doll’s House) as they navigate life in a new home. It’s almost filmic: moving between scenes fluidly, without resolution, each scene oscillating between painterly illuminations of the material world, and the shifting minds of the characters. The story almost feels like a cycle: as though the twelve episodes are standing for something bigger. The title Prelude indicates there’s more to come. And there was: in the story At the Bay.
3. Bliss (from Bliss and Other Stories, 1920)
“I must laugh or die.”
In this story, Bertha is inflamed, engulfed in an orgasmic sort of buzz, her feelings of “bliss.” The story follows this new mother, childishly powerless inside her middle-class comforts and security (the story is packed with beautiful things) with her pompous and at-time-crass husband. She is in love with her baby yet held at arm’s length by the nanny; she is bamboozled by her own feelings, worrying that she is by turns, “absurd”, “too happy”, “hysterical”. Her internal mind is playful, odd: she imagines one of her guests as an intelligent monkey, hoarding nuts down her bodice, dressed in banana skins, and another reminds her of the moon. There are the symbols: the pear tree and the slinking grey cat, which collide at the end of the story when Bertha glimpses the awful truth of her husband’s affair (he’s like the “creepy” cat spoiling the perfection of the pear tree). In this story Mansfield embeds us inside Bertha’s charged, highly-strung, childlike mind and it makes for a ride both filled with beauty and discomfort; absurdity and devastation.
2. The Doll’s House (from Bliss and Other Stories, 1920)
It was the only school for miles. And the consequence was all the children of the neighbourhood, the Judge’s little girls, the doctor’s daughters, the store-keeper’s children, the milkman’s, were forced to mix together. Not to speak of there being an equal number of rude, rough little boys as well. But the line had to be drawn somewhere. It was drawn at the Kelveys. Many of the children, including the Burnells, were not allowed even to speak to them.
This is one of Mansfield’s most well-known stories. It’s a story about class and the cruelty that ideas of status inflict upon children. The Kelvey girls are the daughters of a “spry, hardworking little washerwoman” and an absent father (read: all manner of scandal manufactured and used as ammunition and justification for ostracisation). The story is heartbreaking, with the adult world insistently intruding on the child’s one with its arbitrary divisions between people and its venting of adult problems onto the minds and lives of innocents.
The short story writer Maria Samuela (Beats of the Pa’u) says of this story: “The first time I read Katherine Mansfield, my high school English teacher at the time asked the class to consider the perspectives of Lil and Else Kelvey in Mansfield’s The Doll’s House. That opened up a world of possibilities and wonder, and introduced me to the power of the short story and the importance of representation in literature.”
And writer Anthothy Lapwood (Home Theatre) says: “Mansfield doesn’t write about her characters so much as she writes about the conditions of their existence. There is a moment in The Doll’s House when the lower class Kelvey children cast shadows that are “very long, stretching right across the road with their heads in the buttercups” outside the property of the upper class Burnells. It’s a typically deft, sly image, and it suggests a truth which snobbery resists: that beauty evades control, and becomes more valuable in being communal. These days, every time I read Mansfield, I value more the beauty of her craft, and her cunning.”
1. Daughters of the Late Colonel (from The Garden Party and Other Stories, 1922)
He lay there, purple, a dark, angry purple in the face, and never even looked at them when they came in. Then, as they were standing there, wondering what to do, he had suddenly opened one eye. Oh, what a difference it would have made, what a difference to their memory of him, how much easier to tell people about it, if he had only opened both! But no—one eye only. It glared at them a moment and then…went out.
Several Mansfield stories jostle for the number one spot. But there is something about this 10-part story of two sisters in the immediate aftermath of the death of their father that is simply unforgettable. We’re dropped into the world of Josephine and Constantia with this arresting first sentence which is (helpfully) in conversation with the title: “The week after was one of the busiest weeks of their lives.” The story is like a prism in that each part turns the reader to observe one face of their world: and it’s a world of intense freedom met with intense awkwardness. This is a story that has the feeling of getting the hysterics at a funeral. The tension is sky high: the sister-daughters are vibrating with nerves and we are enmeshed along with them in this state of heightened reality. It’s a story that stares into the brute nature of male authority. Mansfield’s distinctive style – the way she seemed to be able to pin the vivid fragments of interior and exterior worlds down onto a page – is at full force. This is one of those stories that generates a sense memory in the reader: you feel what the characters go through in your body. Genius.
You can read most of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories online at the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre. This year marks 100 years since Mansfield’s death and a century of her influence as a leading figure of the Modernist movement – more information at KM23.co.nz.