Class Amongst The Kiwis: Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”

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This column is devoted to Western (and sometimes Eastern) “Great Books” or “Classics”. By which process and at what point in time a text reaches this elevated status is, of course, some manner of contention. It’s fun parlor room conversation, though dreadful when participating in an academic conference.

Like my friends on the Supreme Court who, when asked to define pornography, responded “we know it when we see it,” I too have my own system to identify Great Books in various stages of undress. I can do the same with the “minor Classics”. These books or authors are not quite in the pantheon but are of an enduring quality that more than repay one’s consideration.

The short stories of Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) are, by my lights, “minor classics”. Born into a wealthy New Zealand family, Mansfield, who died at the tender age of 34, is one of the progenitors of modernist literature. Under normal circumstances this should count as a sort of demerit, but Mansfield’s pen so rarely causes offense. Her imaginative worlds and their inhabitants are so inviting that whatever defect of style one might detect falls away before the substance of her tales.

To get a sense of Mansfield, read first her famous story, “The Garden Party” (1923), which introduces a sense of her home life (socialite, New Zealand) and the acute class consciousness she must have felt as a thoughtful young woman. What follows is a short introduction that I hope interests you to pursue her work further.

The plot of “The Garden Party” is straightforward: The wealthy Sheridan family is making preparations for a typically lavish home party. Laura, the protagonist, perambulates about observing the workers and assisting her siblings and mother with the aesthetics and food. The Sheridan’s, for all their opulence, live within walking distance of much poorer folk, some of whom are in the home assisting with odds and ends. (The Sheridan’s don’t, of course, rub shoulders with these people.) Just before guests begin to arrive, news comes that Mr. Scott, a poor man from the village, has died right outside the gates of the Sheridan home. Laura is shocked, pleading the party be called off. By the end of the story, she will have descended into the town to meet with the widow Scott, offer food, and view the corpse.

What makes “The Garden Party” a delight are young Laura’s observations, first about the workers preparing for the party, next regarding the unseemliness of the proceedings in light of the tragic news, and finally her descent into the village and dead man.

In broad sequence, the story traces Laura’s soul-awakening to the world outside of the Sheridan gates. How she first takes in this knowledge and then what she understands from her observations is the enduring magic of Mansfield’s tale.

We begin from:

“It’s all the fault, she decided, as the tall fellow drew something on the back of an envelope, something that was to be looped up or left to hang, of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom.... And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers. Some one whistled, some one sang out, “Are you right there, matey?” “Matey!” The friendliness of it, the—the—Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl”

Move to:

“But listen, mother,” said Laura. Breathless, half-choking, she told the dreadful story. “Of course, we can’t have our party, can we?” she pleaded. “The band and everybody arriving. They’d hear us, mother; they’re nearly neighbours!”

And conclude with:

“There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful.”

Katherine Mansfield orchestrates these movements within the space of just a few pages. The reader is left almost dizzy with the pace of the work, and so perhaps, akin Laura as the sun sets, in the mood to reflect on the events just read. A “minor Classic” indeed.

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