The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield (1922)

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? I loved working my way through this short volume, reading one or two pieces on a daily basis.

A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness.

There is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye. Almost one hundred years on, the writing still feels fresh and vivid, focusing as it does on the inner lives of Mansfield’s characters. These pieces, many of which end rather suddenly, pinpoint the significance of small moments in our existence, highlighting the profound in day-to-day life.

Grief, loneliness, isolation and longing are all common themes, possibly reflecting Mansfield’s state of mind at the time of writing. (Having received a diagnosis of tuberculosis, Mansfield must have known by the early 1920s that her time was strictly limited.) Unanticipated thoughts or realisations punctuate several of the pieces – for example, Miss Brill, in which a lonely woman’s fragile sense of self-esteem is shattered when she overhears a thoughtless conversation.

There are some wonderful examples of Mansfield’s style here, passages of literary impressionism that capture the rhythms of life and the natural world.

Ah– Aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again; and there was the splashing of big drops on large leaves, and something else – what was it? – A faint stirring and shaking, the snapping of a twig and then such silence that it seemed someone was listening. (p. 1)

Precision plays a significant role, too – not a word out of place or misjudged along the way.

Alongside the modernist prose style, there is a willingness on the part of Mansfield to explore progressive (and potentially controversial) views in her fiction. In At the Bay, one of the standout stories in this remarkable collection, a mother expresses a lack of love for her children. And yet, despite this potentially shocking revelation, Mansfield portrays Linda (the protagonist), in an insightful, compassionate way, enabling the reader to sympathise with her position – to some degree at least.

But the trouble was – here Linda felt almost inclined to laugh, though Heaven knows it was no laughing matter – she saw her Stanley so seldom. There were glimpses, moments, breathing spaces of calm, but all the rest of the time it was like living in a house that couldn’t be cured of the habit of catching on fire, on a ship that got wrecked every day. And it was always Stanley who was in the thick of the danger. Her whole time was spent in rescuing him, and restoring him, and calming him down, and listening to his story. And what was left of her time was spent in the dread of having children. (p. 18–19)

It’s a story that flits from character to character, allowing us to see certain situations from more than one point of view – including that of Linda’s husband, Stanley.

Other vignettes focus on a young girl’s experiences of her first ball, with the mix of nervous and excitement this entails; a teacher’s rapidly changing emotions as her forthcoming marriage appears to be in jeopardy; and a patriarch’s weariness and isolation as he ponders the cumulative effects of providing for his family.

These are marvellous stories, beautifully expressed. I adored them.

The Garden Party is published by Penguin Books, personal copy.

33 thoughts on “The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield (1922)

  1. Radz Pandit

    Another short story collection that tempts me! Luckily I have a copy of this one. The quote from At the Bay is quite something, Mansfield seems to be a writer ahead of her time.

    Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui, Mansfield’s writing is so beautiful and she’s one of those authors who is quite brilliant at captureing a life in a short work. And yes – very brave at the time to reject the idea of motherhood (though there is *still* a stigma about women who don’t want children which is utterly ridiculous).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it was probably quite shocking at the time, the idea of a married woman feeling ambivalent towards her own children (and the prospect of having more). And, as you say, there are still people who consider it odd if a woman doesn’t want to have children even now… Anyway, very brave of Mansfield to write about it in such a humane and sensitive way back then. I’m sure it played a part in paving the way for others to follow.

      Reply
  3. Julé Cunningham

    Such a wonderful short story writer Katherine Mansfield was! I do very much like your descriptions of her writing and how she was able to write beautifully about people and what was at the heart of them, and the natural world. So often it seems to be one or the another, but not both.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Yes, the descriptive passages are really beautiful – very impressionistic, like the delicate stokes of a watercolour painting. As you say, the combination of insight and lyricism is very impressive.

      Reply
  4. Grier

    I also read this collection this year and your review captures Mansfield’s exceptional talent at developing characters and storylines in a few pages. I enjoyed her writing very much.

    Reply
  5. Tredynas Days

    I read the complete stories soon after graduating – so a long time ago now! I’ve dipped into them again occasionally over the years – she’s one of the greatest short story writers.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oddly enough, this is the first collection of hers that I’ve actually read in full. I’d come across a few stories (including Miss Brill) elsewhere in the past, but not dedicated volumes of her work. Something to investigate further at some point…

      Reply
  6. buriedinprint

    Ahh, I just love that first segment you’ve quoted, with the sea and the faster-running water, and how beautifully it illustrates her attention to detail. You can feel the water through the different structures of the sentences that follow. Just lovely. I’ve read her Collected Stories, but long before I was posting on BIP. I know Mel at The Reading Life has fallen under her spell too, and the two of you are making me want to reread her straight through!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it wonderful, especially as it comes right at the beginning of the story. A beautiful scene-setter, so to speak. There’s a kind of musicality to the passage – as you say, reminiscent of the rhythm itself.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Wonderful, I love Katherine Mansfield. I have two editions of this collection, though I have read read all the stories in other collections. I will definitely read this collection too, as re-reading Mansfield is just a joy. At the Bay is a really beautiful story.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, I’m very late to Mansfield – partly because I’d (mistakenly) formed the impression that her prose would be too modernist or stream-of-consciousness in style for my tastes. Very silly of me, I know. As it turns out, she’s right up my street!

      Reply
  8. Jane

    I have a collection of Mansfield’s short stories on my classics list and just don’t know how to go about reviewing them but this is a lovely review Jacqui, you’ve captured the spirit of the stories beautifully.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane! It’s difficult, isn’t it, with such a widely-read classic? What on earth is there to say when so many other readers have written essays, dissertations and the like. Anyway, I’m glad you feel I’ve been able to convey something of the spirit of Mansfield’s writing. That’s more than good enough for me!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? When a customer ordered it from the shop, the picture looked so beautiful that I couldn’t help getting a copy for myself! Just one of the occupational hazards in the world of bookselling…

      Reply
  9. Joanna FitzPatrick

    I am so glad to find you through Katherine Mansfield as I am a huge fan. So huge a fan that I spent several years researching her amazing, brief life and recently released a bio-novel entitled “Katherine Mansfield.” I was interested in knowing about the collection you so perfectly reviewed? Is it a new publication by Penquin (love the cover too)? I ask because several of my readers, after reading KM, want to read her stories, but here in the US they can’t find a small collection so they “upload a story or two for free”. I prefer that they buy KM’s short story collections so to keep her published work in circulation.
    My second question is whether you might like to review “KM”. If interested, here is my website: http://www.joannafitzpatrick.com where you can find out more about the book and you can reach me at ladromepress@gmail.com if you’d like me to send you a pbk or eBook version.
    Regardless, I love your blog. You are a prolific reader and an excellent reviewer.
    all my best, Joanna FitzPatrick

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hi Joanna,

      Many thanks for taking the time to stop by and for your kind comments on my blog – that’s lovely to hear.

      I’ve included a link to the Penguin website showing details of this Penguin English Library edition of The Garden Party, so I think this will give you the information you need.
      https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/308/308837/the-garden-party/9780241341643.html

      Thanks also for the kind offer of a review copy of your book. It does sounds interesting, but to be honest I’m probably not the ‘right’ reader as I tend to avoid fictionalised novels focusing on the lives of real people (especially writers). Sorry, but I’ll pass if that’s okay. Thanks again for the offer, though – that’s very thoughtful of you!

      Best,
      Jacqui

      Reply
      1. Joanna FitzPatrick

        Hi Jacqui,
        Thanks for your quick response and your honesty. I get it. I hesitated wrting a fictionalized story of KM but I am a novelist and couldn’t see it any other way and I so much wanted to share her extraordinary story with my readers. It was after I read Coln Toibin’s extraordinary novel based on the life of Henry James that I struck out on my own and wrote a bio-novel that included KM’s actual correspondence and journal writing. In the US, very few people, outside of academia know of Katherine and I was furiously motivated to introduce her.
        I love your reading list. I’ve been so distracted with promoting KM that I am way behind in my reading. You’re an inspiration to get back into it!
        all my best,
        Joanna FitzPatrick

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thanks, Joanna. Your enthusiasm for Mansfield is wonderful to see, and the fact that your book will shine a light on this author and her work can only be a good thing. I wish you every success with it, and thanks again for your kind words about my blog – they are very much appreciated! With very best wishes,
          Jacqui x

          Reply
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  11. Eric

    Wonderful! I’ve been meaning to go back and reread some Mansfield as I haven’t for quite a while and I remember loving it. I’m keen to see again how the progressive and somewhat taboo issues she explored play out in the stories. I’d love to read a biography of her life at some point too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s one of the things that really strikes me about these stories, the sense of Mansfield saying the unsayable if that makes sense. She isn’t afraid to express the kinds of feelings many of us experience at certain points in our lives, and yet she conveys her characters with humanity and sympathy. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you do decide to revisit her!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read a complete collection of her work. I’d read the occasional story in anthologies in the past, but not a full a volume. I hope you enjoy revisiting her stories; they definitely seem to have stood the test of time…

      Reply

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