39 Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923)
Katherine Mansfield, one of New Zealand’s most famous writers, was closely associated with D.H. Lawrence and was something of a rival of Virginia Woolf. Mansfield’s creative years were burdened with loneliness, illness, jealousy, and alienation, all of which are reflected in her work with the bitter depiction of the marital and family relationships of her middle-class characters. Her short stories are also notable for their use of stream of consciousness. Like the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, Mansfield depicted trivial events and subtle changes in human behaviour.
Katherine Mansfield was born in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, into a middle-class colonial family. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, was a banker, and her mother, Annie Burnell Dyer, was of genteel origins. She lived for six years in the rural village of Karori. Later in life, Mansfield said, “I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was, too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.” At the age of nine, she had her first story published. Entitled “Enna Blake,” it appeared in The High School Reporter in Wellington, with the editor’s comment that it “shows promise of great merit.”
As a first step to her rebellion against her background, she moved to London in 1903 and studied at Queen’s College, where she joined the staff of the college magazine. Returning to New Zealand in 1906, she took up music and became an accomplished cellist, but her father denied her the opportunity to become a professional musician. During this time, she had romantic affairs with both men and women.
In 1908, she studied typing and bookkeeping at Wellington Technical College. Her lifelong friend Ida Baker (known as “L.M.” or “Leslie Moore” in her diary and correspondence) persuaded Mansfield’s father to allow Katherine to move back to England with an allowance of £100 a year. There she devoted herself to writing. Mansfield never visited New Zealand again.
After an unhappy marriage in 1909 to George Bowden, whom she left a few days after the wedding, Mansfield toured for a while as an extra in opera. Before the marriage, she had had an affair with Garnet Trowell, a musician, and became pregnant. In Bavaria, where Mansfield spent some time, she suffered a miscarriage. During her stay in Germany, she wrote satirical sketches of German characters, which were published in 1911 under the title In a German Pension. Earlier, her stories had appeared in The New Age. On her return to London, Mansfield became ill with an untreated sexually transmitted disease she contracted from Floryan Sobieniowski, a condition which contributed to her weak health for the rest of her life. Sobieniowski was a Polish émigré translator whom she met in Germany. Her first story published in England was “The Child-Who-Was-Tired,” which is about an overworked nursemaid who kills a baby.
Mansfield attended literary parties without much enthusiasm: “Pretty rooms and pretty people, pretty coffee, and cigarettes out of a silver tankard… I was wretched.” Always outspoken, she was once turned out of an omnibus (a horse-drawn bus) after calling another woman a whore; the woman had declared that all suffragettes ought to be trampled to death by horses. In 1911, she met John Middleton Murry, a socialist and former literary critic, who was first a tenant in her flat, then her lover.
Until 1914, she published stories in Rhythm and The Blue Review. During the First World War, she travelled restlessly between England and France. After her brother “Chummie” died in the war, Mansfield focused her writing on New Zealand and her family, and “Prelude” (1916), one of her most famous stories, comes from this period. After divorcing her first husband in 1918, Mansfield married Murry. The previous year, she was found to have tuberculosis.
Mansfield and Murry were closely associated with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. Upon learning that Murry had an affair with Princess Bibesco, wife of Romanian Prince Antoine, Mansfield objected not to the affair but to her letters to Murry. In a letter to the princess, she wrote: “I am afraid you must stop writing these love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world.”
Mansfield spent her last years in southern France and in Switzerland, seeking relief from tuberculosis. As a part of her treatment in 1922 at an institute, Mansfield had to lie a few hours every day on a platform suspended over a cow manger. She breathed odours emanating from below, but the treatment did no good. Without the company of her literary friends, family, or her husband, she wrote much about her own roots and her childhood. Mansfield died of a pulmonary hemorrhage on January 9, 1923, in Gurdjieff Institute, near Fontainebleau, France. Her last words were: “I love the rain. I want the feeling of it on my face.”
Mansfield’s family memoirs were collected in Bliss and Other Stories (1920). Only three volumes of Mansfield’s stories were published during her lifetime. “Miss Brill” is about a woman who enjoys the beginning of the “season.” She goes to her “special” seat with her fur. She had taken it out of its box in the afternoon, shaken off the moth-powder, and given it a brush. She feels that she has a part in the play in the park, and somebody will notice if she isn’t there. A couple sits near her. The girl laughs at her fur and the man says: “Why does she come here at all – who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?” Miss Brill hurries back home, unclasps the neckpiece quickly, and puts it in the box. “But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”
In “The Garden Party” (1921), an extravagant garden party is arranged on a beautiful day. Laura, the daughter of the party’s hostess, hears of the accidental death of a young local working class man, Mr. Scott, who lived in the neighbourhood. Laura wants to cancel the party, but her mother refuses to understand. She fills a basket with sandwiches, cakes, pastries, and other food, goes to the widow’s house, and sees the dead man in the bedroom where he is lying. “He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane.” Crying, she tells her brother, who is looking for her: “‘It was simply marvellous. But, Laurie –’ She stopped, she looked at her brother. ‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life –’ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.”
Mansfield was greatly influenced by Anton Chekov, sharing his warm humanity and attention to small details of human behaviour. Her influence on the development of the modern short story was also notable. Among her literary friends were Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf (who considered her overpraised), and D.H. Lawrence, who later turned against Murry and her. Mansfield’s journal, letters, and scrapbook were edited by her husband, who ignored her wish that he should “tear up and burn as much as possible” of the papers she left behind her.
Although it was so brilliantly fine—the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques—Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky. Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth-powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes. “What has been happening to me?” said the sad little eyes. Oh, how sweet it was to see them snap at her again from the red eiderdown!… But the nose, which was of some black composition, wasn’t at all firm. It must have had a knock, somehow. Never mind—a little dab of black sealing-wax when the time came—when it was absolutely necessary… Little rogue! Yes, she really felt like that about it. Little rogue biting its tail just by her left ear. She could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it. She felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but that came from walking, she supposed. And when she breathed, something light and sad—no, not sad, exactly—something gentle seemed to move in her bosom.
There were a number of people out this afternoon, far more than last Sunday. And the band sounded louder and gayer. That was because the Season had begun. For although the band played all the year round on Sundays, out of season it was never the same. It was like some one playing with only the family to listen; it didn’t care how it played if there weren’t any strangers present. Wasn’t the conductor wearing a new coat, too? She was sure it was new. He scraped with his foot and flapped his arms like a rooster about to crow, and the bandsmen sitting in the green rotunda blew out their cheeks and glared at the music. Now there came a little “flutey” bit—very pretty!—a little chain of bright drops. She was sure it would be repeated. It was; she lifted her head and smiled.
Only two people shared her “special” seat: a fine old man in a velvet coat, his hands clasped over a huge carved walking-stick, and a big old woman, sitting upright, with a roll of knitting on her embroidered apron. They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her.
She glanced, sideways, at the old couple. Perhaps they would go soon. Last Sunday, too, hadn’t been as interesting as usual. An Englishman and his wife, he wearing a dreadful Panama hat and she button boots. And she’d gone on the whole time about how she ought to wear spectacles; she knew she needed them; but that it was no good getting any; they’d be sure to break and they’d never keep on. And he’d been so patient. He’d suggested everything—gold rims, the kind that curved round your ears, little pads inside the bridge. No, nothing would please her. “They’ll always be sliding down my nose!” Miss Brill had wanted to shake her.
The old people sat on the bench, still as statues. Never mind, there was always the crowd to watch. To and fro, in front of the flower-beds and the band rotunda, the couples and groups paraded, stopped to talk, to greet, to buy a handful of flowers from the old beggar who had his tray fixed to the railings. Little children ran among them, swooping and laughing; little boys with big white silk bows under their chins, little girls, little French dolls, dressed up in velvet and lace. And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down “flop,” until its small high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue. Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday, and—Miss Brill had often noticed—there was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!
Behind the rotunda the slender trees with yellow leaves down drooping, and through them just a line of sea, and beyond the blue sky with gold-veined clouds.
Tum-tum-tum tiddle-um! tiddle-um! tum tiddley-um tum ta! blew the band.
Two young girls in red came by and two young soldiers in blue met them, and they laughed and paired and went off arm-in-arm. Two peasant women with funny straw hats passed, gravely, leading beautiful smoke-coloured donkeys. 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! And now an ermine toque and a gentleman in grey met just in front of her. He was tall, stiff, dignified, and she was wearing the ermine toque she’d bought when her hair was yellow. Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same colour as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw. Oh, she was so pleased to see him—delighted! She rather thought they were going to meet that afternoon. She described where she’d been—everywhere, here, there, along by the sea. The day was so charming—didn’t he agree? And wouldn’t he, perhaps?… But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on. The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever. But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, “The Brute! The Brute!” over and over. What would she do? What was going to happen now? But as Miss Brill wondered, the ermine toque turned, raised her hand as though she’d seen some one else, much nicer, just over there, and pattered away. And the band changed again and played more quickly, more gayly than ever, and the old couple on Miss Brill’s seat got up and marched away, and such a funny old man with long whiskers hobbled along in time to the music and was nearly knocked over by four girls walking abreast.
Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn’t painted? But it wasn’t till a little brown dog trotted on solemn and then slowly trotted off, like a little “theatre” dog, a little dog that had been drugged, that Miss Brill discovered what it was that made it so exciting. They were all on the stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after all. How strange she’d never thought of it like that before! And yet it explained why she made such a point of starting from home at just the same time each week—so as not to be late for the performance—and it also explained why she had quite a queer, shy feeling at telling her English pupils how she spent her Sunday afternoons. No wonder! Miss Brill nearly laughed out loud. She was on the stage. She thought of the old invalid gentleman to whom she read the newspaper four afternoons a week while he slept in the garden. She had got quite used to the frail head on the cotton pillow, the hollowed eyes, the open mouth and the high pinched nose. If he’d been dead she mightn’t have noticed for weeks; she wouldn’t have minded. But suddenly he knew he was having the paper read to him by an actress! “An actress!” The old head lifted; two points of light quivered in the old eyes. “An actress—are ye?” And Miss Brill smoothed the newspaper as though it were the manuscript of her part and said gently; “Yes, I have been an actress for a long time.”
The band had been having a rest. Now they started again. And what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill—a something, what was it?—not sadness—no, not sadness—a something that made you want to sing. The tune lifted, lifted, the light shone; and it seemed to Miss Brill that in another moment all of them, all the whole company, would begin singing. The young ones, the laughing ones who were moving together, they would begin, and the men’s voices, very resolute and brave, would join them. And then she too, she too, and the others on the benches—they would come in with a kind of accompaniment—something low, that scarcely rose or fell, something so beautiful—moving… And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought—though what they understood she didn’t know.
Just at that moment a boy and girl came and sat down where the old couple had been. They were beautifully dressed; they were in love. The hero and heroine, of course, just arrived from his father’s yacht. And still soundlessly singing, still with that trembling smile, Miss Brill prepared to listen.
“No, not now,” said the girl. “Not here, I can’t.”
“But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?” asked the boy. “Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?”
“It’s her fu-ur which is so funny,” giggled the girl. “It’s exactly like a fried whiting.”
“Ah, be off with you!” said the boy in an angry whisper. Then: “Tell me, ma petite chere—”
“No, not here,” said the girl. “Not yet.”
On her way home she usually bought a slice of honey-cake at the baker’s. It was her Sunday treat. Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference. If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present—a surprise—something that might very well not have been there. She hurried on the almond Sundays and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way.
But to-day she passed the baker’s by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room—her room like a cupboard—and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.
“Y’are very snug in here,” piped old Mr. Woodifield, and he peered out of the great, green-leather armchair by his friend the boss’s desk as a baby peers out of its pram. His talk was over; it was time for him to be off. But he did not want to go. Since he had retired, since his…stroke, the wife and the girls kept him boxed up in the house every day of the week except Tuesday. On Tuesday he was dressed and brushed and allowed to cut back to the City for the day. Though what he did there the wife and girls couldn’t imagine. Made a nuisance of himself to his friends, they supposed….Well, perhaps so. All the same, we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves. So there sat old Woodifield, smoking a cigar and staring almost greedily at the boss, who rolled in his office chair, stout, rosy, five years older than he, and still going strong, still at the helm. It did one good to see him.
Wistfully, admiringly, the old voice added, “It’s snug in here, upon my word!”
“Yes, it’s comfortable enough,” agreed the boss, and he flipped the Financial Times with a paper-knife. As a matter of fact he was proud of his room; he liked to have it admired, especially by old Woodifield. It gave him a feeling of deep, solid satisfaction to be planted there in the midst of it in full view of that frail old figure in the muffler.
“I’ve had it done up lately,” he explained, as he had explained for the past—how many?—weeks. “New carpet,” and he pointed to the bright red carpet with a pattern of large white rings. “New furniture,” and he nodded towards the massive bookcase and the table with legs like twisted treacle. “Electric heating!” He waved almost exultantly towards the five transparent, pearly sausages glowing so softly in the tilted copper pan.
But he did not draw old Woodifield’s attention to the photograph over the table of a grave-looking boy in uniform standing in one of those spectral photographers’ parks with photographers’ storm-clouds behind him. It was not new. It had been there for over six years.
“There was something I wanted to tell you,” said old Woodifield, and his eyes grew dim remembering. “Now what was it? I had it in my mind when I started out this morning.” His hands began to tremble, and patches of red showed above his beard.
Poor old chap, he’s on his last pins, thought the boss. And, feeling kindly, he winked at the old man, and said jokingly, “I tell you what. I’ve got a little drop of something here that’ll do you good before you go out into the cold again. It’s beautiful stuff. It wouldn’t hurt a child.” He took a key off his watch-chain, unlocked a cupboard below his desk, and drew forth a dark, squat bottle. “That’s the medicine,” said he. “And the man from whom I got it told me on the strict Q.T. it came from the cellars at Windor Castle.”
Old Woodifield’s mouth fell open at the sight. He couldn’t have looked more surprised if the boss had produced a rabbit.
“It’s whisky, ain’t it?” he piped feebly.
The boss turned the bottle and lovingly showed him the label. Whisky it was.
“D’you know,” said he, peering up at the boss wonderingly, “they won’t let me touch it at home.” And he looked as though he was going to cry.
“Ah, that’s where we know a bit more than the ladies,” cried the boss, swooping across for two tumblers that stood on the table with the water-bottle, and pouring a generous finger into each. “Drink it down. It’ll do you good. And don’t put any water with it. It’s sacrilege to tamper with stuff like this. Ah!” He tossed off his, pulled out his handkerchief, hastily wiped his moustaches, and cocked an eye at old Woodifield, who was rolling his in his chaps.
The old man swallowed, was silent a moment, and then said faintly, “It’s nutty!”
But it warmed him; it crept into his chill old brain—he remembered.
“That was it,” he said, heaving himself out of his chair. “I thought you’d like to know. The girls were in Belgium last week having a look at poor Reggie’s grave, and they happened to come across your boy’s. They’re quite near each other, it seems.”
Old Woodifield paused, but the boss made no reply. Only a quiver in his eyelids showed that he heard.
“The girls were delighted with the way the place is kept,” piped the old voice. “Beautifully looked after. Couldn’t be better if they were at home. You’ve not been across, have yer?”
“No, no!” For various reasons the boss had not been across.
“There’s miles of it,” quavered old Woodifield, “and it’s all as neat as a garden. Flowers growing on all the graves. Nice broad paths.” It was plain from his voice how much he liked a nice broad path.
The pause came again. Then the old man brightened wonderfully.
“D’you know what the hotel made the girls pay for a pot of jam?” he piped. “Ten francs! Robbery, I call it. It was a little pot, so Gertrude says, no bigger than a half-crown. And she hadn’t taken more than a spoonful when they charged her ten francs. Gertrude brought the pot away with her to teach ’em a lesson. Quite right, too; it’s trading on our feelings. They think because we’re over there having a look round we’re ready to pay anything. That’s what it is.” And he turned towards the door.
“Quite right, quite right!” cried the boss, though what was quite right he hadn’t the least idea. He came round by his desk, followed the shuffling footsteps to the door, and saw the old fellow out. Woodifield was gone.
For a long moment the boss stayed, staring at nothing, while the grey-haired office messenger, watching him, dodged in and out of his cubby-hole like a dog that expects to be taken for a run. Then: “I’ll see nobody for half an hour, Macey,” said the boss. “Understand? Nobody at all.”
“Very good, sir.”
The door shut, the firm heavy steps recrossed the bright carpet, the fat body plumped down in the spring chair, and leaning forward, the boss covered his face with his hands. He wanted, he intended, he had arranged to weep….
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. For it was strange. Although over six years had passed away, the boss never thought of the boy except as lying unchanged, unblemished in his uniform, asleep for ever. “My son!” groaned the boss. But no tears came yet. In the past, in the first few months and even years after the boy’s death, he had only to say those words to be overcome by such grief that nothing short of a violent fit of weeping could relieve him. Time, he had declared then, he had told everybody, could make no difference. Other men perhaps might recover, might live their loss down, but not he. How was it possible? His boy was an only son. Ever since his birth the boss had worked at building up this business for him; it had no other meaning if it was not for the boy. Life itself had come to have no other meaning. How on earth could he have slaved, denied himself, kept going all those years without the promise for ever before him of the boy’s stepping into his shoes and carrying on where he left off?
And that promise had been so near being fulfilled. The boy had been in the office learning the ropes for a year before the war. Every morning they had started off together; they had come back by the same train. And what congratulations he had received as the boy’s father! No wonder; he had taken to it marvellously. As to his popularity with the staff, every man jack of them down to old Macey couldn’t make enough of the boy. And he wasn’t the least spoilt. No, he was just his bright natural self, with the right word for everybody, with that boyish look and his habit of saying, “Simply splendid!”
But all that was over and done with as though it never had been. The day had come when Macey had handed him the telegram that brought the whole place crashing about his head. “Deeply regret to inform you…” And he had left the office a broken man, with his life in ruins.
Six years ago, six years….How quickly time passed! It might have happened yesterday. The boss took his hands from his face; he was puzzled. Something seemed to be wrong with him. He wasn’t feeling as he wanted to feel. He decided to get up and have a look at the boy’s photograph. But it wasn’t a favourite photograph of his; the expression was unnatural. It was cold, even stern-looking. The boy had never looked like that.
At that moment the boss noticed that a fly had fallen into his broad inkpot, and was trying feebly but deperately to clamber out again. Help! help! said those struggling legs. But the sides of the inkpot were wet and slippery; it fell back again and began to swim. The boss took up a pen, picked the fly out of the ink, and shook it on to a piece of blotting-paper. For a fraction of a second it lay still on the dark patch that oozed round it. Then the front legs waved, took hold, and, pulling its small, sodden body up, it began the immense task of cleaning the ink from its wings. Over and under, over and under, went a leg along a wing, as the stone goes over and under the scythe. Then there was a pause, while the fly, seeming to stand on the tips of its toes, tried to expand first one wing and then the other. It succeeded at last, and, sitting down, it began, like a minute cat, to clean its face. Now one could imagine that the little front legs rubbed against each other lightly, joyfully. The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again.
But just then the boss had an idea. He plunged his pen back into the ink, leaned his thick wrist on the blotting-paper, and as the fly tried its wings down came a great heavy blot. What would it make of that? What indeed! The little beggar seemed absolutely cowed, stunned, and afraid to move because of what would happen next. But then, as if painfully, it dragged itself forward. The front legs waved, caught hold, and, more slowly this time, the task began from the beginning.
He’s a plucky little devil, thought the boss, and he felt a real admiration for the fly’s courage. That was the way to tackle things; that was the right spirit. Never say die; it was only a question of…But the fly had again finished its laborious task, and the boss had just time to refill his pen, to shake fair and square on the new-cleaned body yet another dark drop. What about it this time? A painful moment of suspense followed. But behold, the front legs were again waving; the boss felt a rush of relief. He leaned over the fly and said to it tenderly, “You artful little b…” And he actually had the brilliant notion of breathing on it to help the drying process. All the same, there was something timid and weak about its efforts now, and the boss decided that this time should be the last, as he dipped the pen deep into the inkpot.
It was. The last blot fell on the soaked blotting-paper, and the draggled fly lay in it and did not stir. The back legs were stuck to the body; the front legs were not to be seen.
“Come on,” said the boss. “Look sharp!” And he stirred it with his pen— in vain. Nothing happened or was likely to happen. The fly was dead.
The boss lifted the corpse on the end of the paper-knife and flung it into the waste-paper basket. But such a grinding feeling of wretchedness seized him that he felt positively frightened. He started forward and pressed the bell for Macey.
“Bring me some fresh blotting-paper,” he said sternly,”and look sharp about it.” And while the old dog padded away he fell to wondering what it was he had been thinking about before. What was it? It was…He took out his handkerchief and passed it inside his collar. For the life of him he could not remember.
A Cup of Tea
Rosemary Fell was not exactly beautiful. No, you couldn’t have called her beautiful. Pretty? Well, if you took her to pieces… But why be so cruel as to take anyone to pieces? She was young, brilliant, extremely modern, exquisitely well dressed, amazingly well read in the newest of the new books, and her parties were the most delicious mixture of the really important people and… artists—quaint creatures, discoveries of hers, some of them too terrifying for words, but others quite presentable and amusing.
Rosemary had been married two years. She had a duck of a boy. No, not Peter—Michael. And her husband absolutely adored her. They were rich, really rich, not just comfortably well off, which is odious and stuffy and sounds like one’s grandparents. But if Rosemary wanted to shop she would go to Paris as you and I would go to Bond Street. If she wanted to buy flowers, the car pulled up at that perfect shop in Regent Street, and Rosemary inside the shop just gazed in her dazzled, rather exotic way, and said: “I want those and those and those. Give me four bunches of those. And that jar of roses. Yes, I’ll have all the roses in the jar. No, no lilac. I hate lilac. It’s got no shape.” The attendant bowed and put the lilac out of sight, as though this was only too true; lilac was dreadfully shapeless. “Give me those stumpy little tulips. Those red and white ones.” And she was followed to the car by a thin shop-girl staggering under an immense white paper armful that looked like a baby in long clothes….
One winter afternoon she had been buying something in a little antique shop in Curzon Street. It was a shop she liked. For one thing, one usually had it to oneself. And then the man who kept it was ridiculously fond of serving her. He beamed whenever she came in. He clasped his hands; he was so gratified he could scarcely speak. Flattery, of course. All the same, there was something…
“You see, madam,” he would explain in his low respectful tones, “I love my things. I would rather not part with them than sell them to someone who does not appreciate them, who has not that fine feeling which is so rare…” And, breathing deeply, he unrolled a tiny square of blue velvet and pressed it on the glass counter with his pale finger-tips.
To-day it was a little box. He had been keeping it for her. He had shown it to nobody as yet. An exquisite little enamel box with a glaze so fine it looked as though it had been baked in cream. On the lid a minute creature stood under a flowery tree, and a more minute creature still had her arms round his neck. Her hat, really no bigger than a geranium petal, hung from a branch; it had green ribbons. And there was a pink cloud like a watchful cherub floating above their heads. Rosemary took her hands out of her long gloves. She always took off her gloves to examine such things. Yes, she liked it very much. She loved it; it was a great duck. She must have it. And, turning the creamy box, opening and shutting it, she couldn’t help noticing how charming her hands were against the blue velvet. The shopman, in some dim cavern of his mind, may have dared to think so too. For he took a pencil, leant over the counter, and his pale, bloodless fingers crept timidly towards those rosy, flashing ones, as he murmured gently: “If I may venture to point out to madam, the flowers on the little lady’s bodice.”
“Charming!” Rosemary admired the flowers. But what was the price? For a moment the shopman did not seem to hear. Then a murmur reached her. “Twenty-eight guineas, madam.”
“Twenty-eight guineas.” Rosemary gave no sign. She laid the little box down; she buttoned her gloves again. Twenty-eight guineas. Even if one is rich… She looked vague. She stared at a plump tea-kettle like a plump hen above the shopman’s head, and her voice was dreamy as she answered: “Well, keep it for me—will you? I’ll…”
But the shopman had already bowed as though keeping it for her was all any human being could ask. He would be willing, of course, to keep it for her for ever.
The discreet door shut with a click. She was outside on the step, gazing at the winter afternoon. Rain was falling, and with the rain it seemed the dark came too, spinning down like ashes. There was a cold bitter taste in the air, and the new-lighted lamps looked sad. Sad were the lights in the houses opposite. Dimly they burned as if regretting something. And people hurried by, hidden under their hateful umbrellas. Rosemary felt a strange pang. She pressed her muff against her breast; she wished she had the little box, too, to cling to. Of course the car was there. She’d only to cross the pavement. But still she waited. There are moments, horrible moments in life, when one emerges from shelter and looks out, and it’s awful. One oughtn’t to give way to them. One ought to go home and have an extra-special tea. But at the very instant of thinking that, a young girl, thin, dark, shadowy—where had she come from?—was standing at Rosemary’s elbow and a voice like a sigh, almost like a sob, breathed: “Madam, may I speak to you a moment?”
“Speak to me?” Rosemary turned. She saw a little battered creature with enormous eyes, someone quite young, no older than herself, who clutched at her coat-collar with reddened hands, and shivered as though she had just come out of the water.
“M-madam, stammered the voice. Would you let me have the price of a cup of tea?”
“A cup of tea?” There was something simple, sincere in that voice; it wasn’t in the least the voice of a beggar. “Then have you no money at all?” asked Rosemary.
“None, madam,” came the answer.
“How extraordinary!” Rosemary peered through the dusk and the girl gazed back at her. How more than extraordinary! And suddenly it seemed to Rosemary such an adventure. It was like something out of a novel by Dostoevsky, this meeting in the dusk. Supposing she took the girl home? Supposing she did do one of those things she was always reading about or seeing on the stage, what would happen? It would be thrilling. And she heard herself saying afterwards to the amazement of her friends: “I simply took her home with me,” as she stepped forward and said to that dim person beside her: “Come home to tea with me.”
The girl drew back startled. She even stopped shivering for a moment. Rosemary put out a hand and touched her arm. “I mean it,” she said, smiling. And she felt how simple and kind her smile was. “Why won’t you? Do. Come home with me now in my car and have tea.”
“You—you don’t mean it, madam,” said the girl, and there was pain in her voice.
“But I do,” cried Rosemary. “I want you to. To please me. Come along.”
The girl put her fingers to her lips and her eyes devoured Rosemary. “You’re—you’re not taking me to the police station?” she stammered.
“The police station!” Rosemary laughed out. “Why should I be so cruel? No, I only want to make you warm and to hear—anything you care to tell me.”
Hungry people are easily led. The footman held the door of the car open, and a moment later they were skimming through the dusk.
“There!” said Rosemary. She had a feeling of triumph as she slipped her hand through the velvet strap. She could have said, “Now I’ve got you,” as she gazed at the little captive she had netted. But of course she meant it kindly. Oh, more than kindly. She was going to prove to this girl that—wonderful things did happen in life, that—fairy godmothers were real, that—rich people had hearts, and that women were sisters. She turned impulsively, saying’. “Don’t be frightened. After all, why shouldn’t you come back with me? We’re both women. If I’m the more fortunate, you ought to expect…”
But happily at that moment, for she didn’t know how the sentence was going to end, the car stopped. The bell was rung, the door opened, and with a charming, protecting, almost embracing movement, Rosemary drew the other into the hall. Warmth, softness, light, a sweet scent, all those things so familiar to her she never even thought about them, she watched that other receive. It was fascinating. She was like the rich little girl in her nursery with all the cupboards to open, all the boxes to unpack.
“Come, come upstairs,” said Rosemary, longing to begin to be generous. “Come up to my room.” And, besides, she wanted to spare this poor little thing from being stared at by the servants; she decided as they mounted the stairs she would not even ring to Jeanne, but take off her things by herself. The great things were to be natural!
And “There!” cried Rosemary again, as they reached her beautiful big bedroom with the curtains drawn, the fire leaping on her wonderful lacquer furniture, her gold cushions and the primrose and blue rugs.
The girl stood just inside the door; she seemed dazed. But Rosemary didn’t mind that.
“Come and sit down,” she cried, dragging her big chair up to the fire, “in this comfy chair. Come and get warm. You look so dreadfully cold.”
“I daren’t, madam,” said the girl, and she edged backwards.
“Oh, please,”—Rosemary ran forward—”you mustn’t be frightened, you mustn’t, really. Sit down, when I’ve taken off my things we shall go into the next room and have tea and be cozy. Why are you afraid?” And gently she half pushed the thin figure into its deep cradle.
But there was no answer. The girl stayed just as she had been put, with her hands by her sides and her mouth slightly open. To be quite sincere, she looked rather stupid. But Rosemary wouldn’t acknowledge it. She leant over her, saying:
“Won’t you take off your hat? Your pretty hair is all wet. And one is so much more comfortable without a hat, isn’t one?”
There was a whisper that sounded like “Very good, madam,” and the crushed hat was taken off.
“And let me help you off with your coat, too,” said Rosemary.
The girl stood up. But she held on to the chair with one hand and let Rosemary pull. It was quite an effort. The other scarcely helped her at all. She seemed to stagger like a child, and the thought came and went through Rosemary’s mind, that if people wanted helping they must respond a little, just a little, otherwise it became very difficult indeed. And what was she to do with the coat now? She left it on the floor, and the hat too. She was just going to take a cigarette off the mantelpiece when the girl said quickly, but so lightly and strangely: “I’m very sorry, madam, but I’m going to faint. I shall go off, madam, if I don’t have something.”
“Good heavens, how thoughtless I am!” Rosemary rushed to the bell.
“Tea! Tea at once! And some brandy immediately!”
The maid was gone again, but the girl almost cried out: “No, I don’t want no brandy. I never drink brandy. It’s a cup of tea I want, madam.” And she burst into tears.
It was a terrible and fascinating moment. Rosemary knelt beside her chair.
“Don’t cry, poor little thing,” she said. “Don’t cry.” And she gave the other her lace handkerchief. She really was touched beyond words. She put her arm round those thin, bird-like shoulders.
Now at last the other forgot to be shy, forgot everything except that they were both women, and gasped out: “I can’t go on no longer like this. I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it. I shall do away with myself. I can’t bear no more.”
“You shan’t have to. I’ll look after you. Don’t cry any more. Don’t you see what a good thing it was that you met me? We’ll have tea and you’ll tell me everything. And I shall arrange something. I promise. Do stop crying. It’s so exhausting. Please!”
The other did stop just in time for Rosemary to get up before the tea came. She had the table placed between them. She plied the poor little creature with everything, all the sandwiches, all the bread and butter, and every time her cup was empty she filled it with tea, cream and sugar. People always said sugar was so nourishing. As for herself she didn’t eat; she smoked and looked away tactfully so that the other should not be shy.
And really the effect of that slight meal was marvelous. When the tea-table was carried away a new being, a light, frail creature with tangled hair, dark lips, deep, lighted eyes, lay back in the big chair in a kind of sweet languor, looking at the blaze. Rosemary lit a fresh cigarette; it was time to begin.
“And when did you have your last meal?” she asked softly.
But at that moment the door-handle turned.
“Rosemary, may I come in?” It was Philip.
He came in. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” he said, and stopped and stared.
“It’s quite all right,” said Rosemary, smiling. “This is my friend, Miss—”
“Smith, madam,” said the languid figure, who was strangely still and unafraid.
“Smith,” said Rosemary. “We are going to have a little talk.”
“Oh yes,” said Philip. “Quite,” and his eye caught sight of the coat and hat on the floor. He came over to the fire and turned his back to it. “It’s a beastly afternoon,” he said curiously, still looking at that listless figure, looking at its hands and boots, and then at Rosemary again.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Rosemary enthusiastically. “Vile.”
Philip smiled his charming smile. “As a matter of fact,” said he, “I wanted you to come into the library for a moment. Would you? Will Miss Smith excuse us?”
The big eyes were raised to him, but Rosemary answered for her: “Of course she will.” And they went out of the room together.
“I say,” said Philip, when they were alone. “Explain. Who is she? What does it all mean?”
Rosemary, laughing, leaned against the door and said: “I picked her up in Curzon Street.
Really. She’s a real pick-up. She asked me for the price of a cup of tea, and I brought her home with me. ”
“But what on earth are you going to do with her?” cried Philip.
“Be nice to her,” said Rosemary quickly. “Be frightfully nice to her. Look after her. I don’t know how. We haven’t talked yet. But show her—treat her—make her feel—”
“My darling girl,” said Philip, “you’re quite mad, you know. It simply can’t be done.”
“I knew you’d say that,” retorted Rosemary. Why not? I want to. Isn’t that a reason? And besides, one’s always reading about these things. I decided—”
“But,” said Philip slowly, and he cut the end of a cigar, “she’s so astonishingly pretty.”
“Pretty?” Rosemary was so surprised that she blushed. “Do you think so? I—I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Good Lord!” Philip struck a match. “She’s absolutely lovely. Look again, my child. I was bowled over when I came into your room just now. However… I think you’re making a ghastly mistake. Sorry, darling, if I’m crude and all that. But let me know if Miss Smith is going to dine with us in time for me to look up The Milliner’s Gazette.”
“You absurd creature!” said Rosemary, and she went out of the library, but not back to her bedroom. She went to her writing-room and sat down at her desk. Pretty! Absolutely lovely! Bowled over! Her heart beat like a heavy bell. Pretty! Lovely! She drew her check-book towards her. But no, checks would be no use, of course. She opened a drawer and took out five pound notes, looked at them, put two back, and holding the three squeezed in her hand, she went back to her bedroom.
Half an hour later Philip was still in the library, when Rosemary came in.
“I only wanted to tell you,” said she, and she leaned against the door again and looked at him with her dazzled exotic gaze, “Miss Smith won’t dine with us to-night.”
Philip put down the paper. “Oh, what’s happened? Previous engagement?”
Rosemary came over and sat down on his knee. “She insisted on going,” said she, “so I gave the poor little thing a present of money. I couldn’t keep her against her will, could I?” she added softly.
Rosemary had just done her hair, darkened her eyes a little and put on her pearls. She put up her hands and touched Philip’s cheeks.
“Do you like me?” said she, and her tone, sweet, husky, troubled him.
“I like you awfully,” he said, and he held her tighter. “Kiss me.”
There was a pause.
Then Rosemary said dreamily: “I saw a fascinating little box to-day. It cost twenty-eight guineas. May I have it?”
Philip jumped her on his knee. “You may, little wasteful one,” said he.
But that was not really what Rosemary wanted to say.
“Philip,” she whispered, and she pressed his head against her bosom, “am I pretty?”
- What might Miss Brill’s fur wrap symbolize?
- How does Miss Brill deal with reality?
- What do we know about Miss Brill’s life?
- What details suggest that Miss Brill might be ill?
- What is the main conflict in the story?
- Miss Brill is the protagonist in the story. Is there an antagonist?
- The cupboard as simile is used twice: first, at the end of the fifth paragraph, and next, in the last paragraph. Explain how the final cupboard simile differs from the first.
- Does she experience an epiphany?
- Contrast Old Woodifield with his boss.
- What do the two men have in common in their personal lives?
- How would you describe the boss’s reaction to the death of his son?
- How does the office provide what is referred to in “A Cup of Tea” as a sense of shelter?
- World War I is never specifically mentioned in the story. But in what way is this story about the war?
- What does the fly symbolize? In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Duke of Gloucester says, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport” (4.1). Do you think Mansfield had this quotation in mind? If so, what key event in her experience of the World War I might have influenced her possible allusion to Gloucester’s lines?
- Discuss narrative point of view. Where does it shift (the narrator uses words Rosemary would use herself).
- What are the main scenes in the story? What do the scenes have in common in terms of imagery?
- Where in the story does Rosemary emerge from a sense of shelter?
- What might the little box in the antique shop symbolize?
- Does Rosemary truly believe that women are sisters?
- In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator refers to Michael. Is Michael— “a duck of a boy”— her son?
- Before Michael is mentioned, the narrator refers to Peter. Who might he be?
Watch The Garden Party, a 1983 film adaptation of a Katherine Mansfield short story by the same name.
- Biography: “Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923)” by Petri Liukkonen (Authors’ Calendar). © Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Licence.
- “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield is free of known copyright restrictions in Canada.
- “The Fly” by Katherine Mansfield is free of known copyright restrictions in Canada.
- “A Cup of Tea” by Katherine Mansfield is free of known copyright restrictions in Canada.
- Municipal public gardens. ↵
- A common, cod-like fish. ↵
- Chief financial and business district of London, usually capitalized so as to distinguish it from more general reference to the city of London. It is known colloquially as “the Square Mile.” ↵
- Abbreviation for “quiet”, meaning “secret” or “hush-hush.” ↵
- A royal residence in Windsor in the county of Berkshire, roughly 34 kilometres from London. ↵
- Site of many World War I battles and military cemeteries. ↵
- A term of endearment, often applied to things as well as people, “a duck of a fellow.” ↵
- A smart and fashionable street in London’s exclusive Mayfair district, known for shops that are both elegant and expensive. ↵
- Another major shopping street in London’s West End. ↵
- Another fashionable street in Mayfair. ↵
- An old British coin, valued at 21 shillings, or one shilling more than the pound, which was worth 20 shillings. ↵
- Influential novelist and philosopher. Novels such as Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) reflect the political, social and spiritual conflicts of his society. ↵