Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 110 pages; 2007.
I’m not a great fan of the short story, but knowing that New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is widely regarded as one of the best short story writers of her generation, I was keen to read some of her work.
This collection, published as part of Penguin’s Great Loves series, seemed the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with her writings. Each of the eight tales revolves around the theme that “love can be innocent” and features one of her more famous short stories, “Something Childish But Very Natural”, which was written in 1914 but published after her death.
In this sweet story we meet Harry, a young man (“nearly eighteen”) who falls in love with a girl (“over sixteen”) on a train, and begins a relationship with her. Unfortunately Edna is very distant with him and shies from his touch. “I feel that if once we did that — you know — held each other’s hands and kissed, it would all be changed,” she tells Harry. “And I feel we wouldn’t be free like we are — we’d be doing something secret. We wouldn’t be children any more…silly, isn’t it?”
This characterises the rest of their friendship: Edna wants to keep it purely platonic, but Harry, patient and caring, is desperate to take it to the next level. He must always keep his feelings in check, despite the fact he is desperately in love with Edna “with the marigold hair and strange dreamy smile that filled him up to the brim”.
One day the pair stumble upon a lovely little cottage in the countryside and fantasise about living in it together. When Harry, in his eagerness to move in immediately, says, “I have a feeling that it’s dangerous to wait for things — that if you wait for things they only go further and further away” you get the impression he’s not just talking about the house.
I won’t reveal how the story ends, but the course of true love does not run smoothly!
The other short stories in this slim volume are: “Feuille d’Album”, “Mr and Mrs Dove”, “Marriage à la Mode”, “Bliss”, “Honeymoon”, “Dill Pickle” and “Widowed”.
They are all quite similiar in showing how love can be one-sided and that even in the strongest of relationships there is always one person who loves his or her partner more than is reciprocated.
I particularly enjoyed “Bliss”, about a 30-something mother who believes her life in London is completely perfect, until she hosts a dinner party for a small collection of haughty friends and unwittingly discovers that her husband is cheating on her with one of the guests. When she comes to realise what is going on beneath her nose, the reality of the situation is like a strong blow to the stomach. I thought it was a pitch-perfect story and I think I might have actually gasped out loud when I got to the denouement.
All in all, I enjoyed this brief introduction to Mansfield’s work, but it hasn’t made me rush out to read everything else she’s ever written. I’m afraid my bias towards novels is too strong for that.