Katherine Mansfield’s short story The Garden Party is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the form, and the author herself as something of a rival Virginia Woolf. I’d never read any Mansfield, which I suppose is unsurprising given my well-documented preference for the novel form (or poetry, or essay, or history, or memoir, or basically anything) over the short story form. I just find it hard to get into a short story, hard to care about the characters or to buy into the world of the narrative in anything shorter than a novella. The only short story author whose work has ever really captivated me is Eudora Welty, but since the Classics Club Challenge is all about broadening horizons, I resolved to give some famous short stories a chance.
What I learned: Mansfield is indeed a master of the form, but short stories are just not for me. With just a few exceptions, I bogged down even in the capable hands of an expert storyteller. That’s not to say that Mansfield’s writing isn’t wonderful, because it is. Y’all know I love a good descriptive paragraph, and Mansfield excels at them. For instance, from The Prelude:
As they stood on the steps, the high grassy bank on which the aloe rested rose up like a wave, and the aloe seemed to ride upon it like a ship with the oars lifted. Bright moonlight hung upon the lifted oars like water, and on the green wave glittered the dew.
I mean – I can see that. Can’t you?
As with any short story collection, there were hits and misses for me. I really liked The Stranger, and all three of the stories featuring the Burnell family – The Prelude, At the Bay, and The Doll’s House. But there were quite a few stories mixed in, in which I had NO idea what was going on. And again, because: short story, I was not really invested in deciphering the confusing parts.
As expected, though, The Garden Party stands head and shoulders above the rest of the stories on offer. It’s a simple, limited world – but so much happens. The Garden Party is the story of an upper class family on the day of – what else? – a garden party. When the story begins, the family is sitting around the breakfast table making preparations for the party, and Laura – the “artistic” one – is dispatched to oversee construction of a marquee on the lawn. As Laura goes about her party preparations, her day is upended by the news that one of the villagers – a near neighbor, geographically speaking, but not socially – has been killed in an accident. Laura is staggered, and immediately thinks it would be best to call off the party, but the rest of her family disagrees.
“Mother, a man’s been killed,” began Laura.
“Not in the garden?” interrupted her mother.
“Oh, what a fright you gave me!” Mrs. Sheridan sighed with relief, and took off the big hat and held it on her knees.
Laura is outvoted, and the party goes on – and she convinces herself to forget the tragedy next door and concentrate on the party. (I was reminded of Scarlet O’Hara: “I won’t think about that now. I’ll think about it tomorrow.”) After the party ends, Laura is elected emissary to deliver leftover party food to the bereaved home, where she encounters the corpse and the family.
As I said, it’s a simple, constrained story – limited in time and scope – but contains masterful writing and plotting within. I won’t say that Katherine Mansfield converted me to a fan of the short story form; I’ll never enjoy it as much as I enjoy other literary forms. But I could definitely appreciate her phrasing, her plot twists, and the imagery in her lovely paragraphs.
Are you a reader of short stories?