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One From the Archive: ‘Something Childish and Other Stories’ by Katherine Mansfield *****

From April 2012

Although an incredibly famous figure in her home country of New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield does not seem to achieve the levels of press which she deserves in the United Kingdom. From reading her work, however, it is clear to see why she is declared a master of modernist fiction, and why New Zealand hail her as ‘a qualified national icon’.

Katherine Mansfield

Known almost solely for her wonderfully varied short story collections, Mansfield’s style, storylines and subject matter are always carefully chosen and compulsively readable. Her stories are often sarcastic and satirical, but some are hopeful and bright, thus creating an incredibly well-balanced oeuvre.

Over her writing career, Mansfield published four short story collections, beginning with the publication of In a German Pension in 1911 when she was just twenty-one years old. A further fifteen stories, collected together in The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories, were published after her untimely death from tuberculosis in 1923.

Something Childish and Other Stories encompasses the nine-year period between the publication of her first and second collections, and features several of her earlier efforts. It includes twenty-five separate stories, all of which feature a medley of diverse characters. It seems to be one of the least well-known of her short story collections, despite the fact that the power the stories have is just as strong as in her later writing.

Mansfield successfully evokes a complex tapestry of human emotions throughout Something Childish and Other Stories. This is particularly vivid in the title story, ‘Something Childish’, which follows a young man named Henry as he meets a “simply beautiful” red-haired girl named Edna on an otherwise monotonous train journey out of London. A wealth of emotions are peppered throughout the story – timidity, wonder, comprehension, misunderstandings and utter adoration. Throughout this particular story, the reader simultaneously feels hope and sympathy for Henry, as there is a sense of continuous foreboding that a poignantly depressing ending is just around the corner.

‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’, Mansfield’s first published story, creates an evocative picture of London as viewed by a young girl working in a milliners. Along with a past-tense narrative which conjures up Rosabel’s seemingly mundane job and the echoes of poverty apparent in her lodgings, there is an interwoven sense of perpetual daydream which gives the story an almost magical feel. In ‘A Suburban Fairy Tale’, the reader is presented with the adorable character of an inquisitive child named ‘Little B’, constantly asking questions of his parents who more often than not ignore him. A sense of fantasy and magical realism has been employed in this particular story, as the ending sees Little B turned into a sparrow, joining the birds which he is so enthralled with watching on the lawn.

Even in these earlier stories which Mansfield herself was never content with, the writing style seems incredibly polished and there are elements within each that truly surprise the reader in terms of their clarity. Tiny moments in the day-to-day existence of so many characters are portrayed as being paramount in defining their lives – from a small girl intent on pleasing her Father who is rewarded with a rap across the knuckles when the construction of his birthday gift goes horribly wrong in ‘The Little Girl’, to ‘Pénsion Seguin’ which deals with a woman intent on finding a room to let who is suddenly catapulted into frantic family life.

Many different settings have been used throughout, from the bustling city of London to colonial New Zealand life which is starkly portrayed in ‘Millie’ and ‘The Woman at the Store’. Whilst many other short story writers may have one or two stories within a published collection which do not seem to fit with the themes of those which precede them, the balance of Something Childish and Other Stories is near perfection.

The way in which Mansfield carefully selects the words she uses ensures that her writing is always striking. As well as mastering the elements of the short story and creating a wonderful wealth of work which can be dipped in and out of or read continuously whilst still holding the reader’s full attention, Mansfield is also a master of the narrative voice, using both first and third person perspectives. This collection includes two short plays which show how polished Mansfield is at creating believable dialogue. Slight dialects are suggested throughout – the country boy and girl in ‘See-Saw’, for example – which build up an even more three-dimensional picture of the characters which are infused within the stories themselves. This adds yet another dimension to Mansfield’s prose.

Mansfield’s work is heartrending, poignant and simply beautiful. Some of the exquisiteness of her writing comes from the way in which she presents ordinary beings in everyday situations, thus making her stories incredibly easy to relate to. Her stories can be read multiple times over the span of a lifetime and a wealth of different elements are guaranteed to be picked up by the reader on each separate occasion. The stories grow with us, and encompass the main elements of life – from birth to childhood, from courting to marriage, from naïvety and innocence to a heightened sense of experience.

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Flash Reviews (September 25th 2013)

M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman ****
This is such a clever and well written story collection, filled with Gaiman’s trademark smoke and mirrors.  I found the entirety very inventive, and would recommend it to any fans of short stories and magical realism.  My favourite tales were ‘The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds’, ‘Troll Bridge’, ‘October in the Chair’, ‘Chivalry’ and ‘The Witch’s Headstone’ (from The Graveyard Book).

The Journal of Katherine Mansfield *****
This is one of the few books which I’ve been the most excited about reading in my entire life.  Mansfield is one of my favourite authors, and she is the reason why I now adore short stories.  This is truly the most exquisite of journals.  Mansfield writes with such clarity, even during her fugs of illness, and I love the little story fragments and ideas for possible tales dotted throughout.  Utterly, utterly lovely.

How They Met and Other Stories by David Levithan ****
This is the first of Levithan’s solo works which I’ve read, and I very much enjoyed it.  As one can guess from the title, love is the central theme of this collection, and sexuality the second.  Levithan writes with wonderful clarity, and each and every one of his characters and their situations felt real in consequence.  Each story is a gem in itself, and I find myself unable to pick any favourites, as I enjoyed each and every one for different reasons.

The Rose-Garden Husband by Margaret Widdemer ***
I would probably have never come across this had it not been for Fleur Fisher’s lovely and encouraging review.  The story was most enjoyable and very sweet, and I enjoyed Widdemer’s writing.  My only qualm was with the rather unrealistic and predictable ending, hence my three star rating.

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‘Elizabeth of the German Garden: A Literary Journey’ by Jennifer Walker

Elizabeth of the German Garden is ‘really the story of Mary Beauchamp, the woman behind the mask, who would spend the rest of her life struggling to forge her own identity and follow an independent path… a woman who enjoyed the company of E.M. Forster, Hugh Walpole, H.G. Wells, her cousin Katherine Mansfield and Bertrand Russell’. In it, Walker has attempted to shed ‘new light on this much loved but until recently somewhat forgotten literary force’. As well as outlining the major events in Mary Beauchamp’s life, she has also referred to a wealth of letters and diary entries by those who range from Mary’s closest family members to her dearest friends. In her Author’s Note, Walker states that in the following text, she ‘will show that Mary assumed an identity parallel with, but not identical to, her own when she wrote. Elizabeth was not a pen-name but another creation: one who existed in the imagination of Mary’.

Elizabeth of the German Garden is split into eight separate sections, ranging from ‘Perspectives on Europe’ and ‘Morality Tales’ to ‘The Paradise Garden’ and ‘An Established Author’. She begins her work on Mary’s life with the Beauchamp family’s emigration from Australia to England, her father’s home country, in 1870, when she was just three years old. As well as placing focus upon Mary herself, Walker thoughtfully considers her wider family and home life. She writes about Mary’s four brothers and one sister, all older than her, and the lives which they made for themselves. She also includes many details about every considerable aspect of Mary’s life – her schooling, her love of horticulture, her ‘spiritual life’, the Victorian prejudices which rallied against her, her time at the Royal College of Music where she played the organ, her travels around Europe, her mother’s troubles, and her loathing of anti-Semitism, amongst many others. The book follows the span of her entire life, encompassing her life as a German Countess and as a mother and grandmother, as well as a companion and lover.

The only negative with this book is that not enough care has been given to the checking of spellings. In several instances, mistakes marr its pages – Cicely Fairfield, the real name of author Rebecca West, is written as ‘Cicily’, and Rose Macaulay is ‘Macaulay’ at first, and then ‘Macauley’.

Walker’s definite strength is in the parallels she expertly draws between the life of Mary and the characters and storylines which she created. The literary criticism which the author has included strikes a perfect balance between Mary’s life and work. The extracts from Mary’s books serve to further reinforce Walker’s opinions and insights. The entirety of the book is written in such a lovely manner. It is both rich in detail and easy to read. In Elizabeth of the German Garden, Walker has presented a fascinating account of a fascinating woman, who certainly deserves to be admired and cherished by a wider audience. An awful lot of research, work and consideration has clearly gone into this book, and it is sure to delight everyone who has enjoyed one of ‘Elizabeth von Arnim”s novels.

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Sunday Snapshot: Short Story Collections

The Other Woman by Colette
These short stories are like tiny bites of beauty. They are like the most delicious of chocolates in fact – a smooth and polished outer shell with rich and rather surprising fillings. The longest story in the collection is forty pages long, and the majority are around the five page mark, but they are all, without a doubt, flawless. Colette weaves words wonderfully to create truly sublime vignettes, and she uses a fantastic and far-reaching range of material, characters and scenes. Utterly perfect.

Runaway by Alice Munro
I’ve read two of Munro’s short story collections before – The Beggar Maid and The Moons of Jupiter. Rather than reading her work in order, I’m dipping into her collections rather haphazardly. As a form, I love short stories. There is so much precision in Munro’s tales, and so much beauty. Nothing is overdone, but little nuances still fill the text, and the stories themselves are all perfectly crafted vignettes which show us the deepest thoughts and feelings of a whole cast of very different characters. I loved the way in which Munro had crafted these tales, and how she had used some of the same protagonists in multiple stories – a clever way in which to span their entire lives without making each separate story too long or overloaded with detail. Munro is not quite a Mansfield to me yet, but she does sparkle, and this collection is marvellous.

Children on Their Birthdays by Truman Capote
As with the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I got straight into these stories from the outset. I love the stunning sense of place which Capote never fails to create, and his characters are both marvellously and deftly constructed. His writing is just perfect. The tales in Children on Their Birthdays are short, but boy, are they powerful and thought provoking.

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
If there’s one author I can read the work of over and over again, it’s Katherine Mansfield. Her writing is absolutely beautiful and she captures the everyday and mundane in the most marvellous of ways. She can make the dull sparkle. Her descriptions are gorgeous, absolutely sublime, and she creates such vivid imagery. Her stories appeal to all the senses – she makes use of sounds, sights, smells, tastes and textures. She beautifully sets every scene. She is a masterful writer – she can say in just a few pages that which other authors struggle to get across in lengthy novels. She is so perceptive of her characters too, however minor they may seem in the great scheme of things. A great example of this is the baby in ‘At the Bay’. She captures every character perfectly, from the young to the old, and clearly has a lot of understanding of her subjects. Her interactions between the young and old are so touching – for example, the scene with Kezia and her grandmother, when Kezia is begging her never to die. She shows the best and worst of people, often amalgamating the two. I find little Lottie and Kezia very endearing. I can’t pick a favourite story in this collection, I’m afraid. I simply adore them all. They are perfect stories to read when the sun is shining or when the rain is falling. I love the different subjects and settings which Mansfield makes use of. The stories do not feel remotely similar to one another, aside from their shrewd perceptions and exquisite language.

Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf
All of Virginia Woolf’s short stories are like tiny masterpieces. Her vignettes contain so much emotion and such vivid characters and scenes. Her balance of plot and characters are perfect, as is the clarity and beauty of her writing. A lovely collection – I just wish it had been longer!