Sunday, 27 November 2011
The Garden Party
The Garden Party - Katherine Mansfield
Taking my cue from the 1001 Books group on Shelfari I am counting this short story as a book as it is included on the LIST. I am limping towards 400 and reckon I will finish all 1001 if I live to 1001. This post contains SPOILERS so you should jump to this link and read the story first. It's short.
This collection of stories was the last Mansfield published before her early death and death haunts the title story. The preparations for a garden party in a big country house are interrupted by news of the accidental death of a man from the labourer's cottages not far from the gates of the estate. Virginia Woolf may well have had it in mind when writing Mrs Dalloway.
At times the family who are throwing the party seem frothy and insubstantial. Their concerns seem shallow and their worldview egocentric. Even nature is preparing for their party.
"As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels."
They are thrown a little by their dealings with workers and servants, and even more so by the idea of the labourer's cottages down the road. Laura, the 'artistic one' is sent outside to supervise the placing of the marquee but lets the workmen contradict her and put it where they think best. She is afraid of hurting their feelings and also fascinated with them as with an alien species. She is also slightly afraid of them but likes to think that she would get on well with them. - "It's all the fault, she decided.......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 workgirl."
Her imaginative projection of herself into the role of "a workgirl" is paralleled with the wearing of hats. Having heard of the death of the man from the "little cottages" Laura doesn't want the party to go ahead, nor does she want the hat her mother places on her head, but seeing herself in the hat changes this. "There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon. Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I'll remember it again after the party's over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan. . ."
Is her association with the "workmen" anything more than froth, a brief flowering, a hat or does it prefigure the growth of a real social awareness. The story seems to suggest that growing confidence and success within her own strata of society may leave little time or space for anything more than platitudes for those on the outside. Bringing a basket of leftovers down to the cottages (at her mother's suggestion) she finds that her head is still filled with impressions of the party. "Here she was going down the hill to somewhere where a man lay dead, and she couldn't realize it. Why couldn't she? She stopped a minute. And it seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her. She had no room for anything else. How strange! She looked up at the pale sky, and all she thought was, 'Yes, it was the most successful party.'"
Her awkwardness and sense of inappropriateness comes back to her as she approaches the cottage surrounded by people. Ironically, the hat which gave her confidence in the world of the garden party feels wrong here, and the fact that "her frock shone' leads her to wish she was wearing one of the women's shawls. This sense of awkwardness continues until she is faced by the corpse. "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. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy . . . happy . . . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content."
Laura is not awkward before the corpse because she doesn't feel that she has to be anybody as he is 'blind'. In fact she would not like to see him woken up. Her uncertainty in the face of the raw emotion of his wife and among the living at the cottages are gone. He doesn't care what she wears, or does. Quickly exiting the cottage she finds her brother has come to find her - when he asks "Was it awful?" she can hardly answer
"'No' sobbed Laura. '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.
"Isn't it, darling?' said Laurie."
This echoes an earlier question she posed Laurie when he told her her "'You do look stunning'" and her response was a faint "Is it?". As well as the issues of class raised by the story there is a clear reference to Mansfield's own mortality. In the story the party barely takes up a passage, it is all preparation and aftermath. There is a sense of it all rushing past, with Mansfield making masterful use of onomatopoeia, repetition and punctuation. Life must have seemed thus rushed and foreshortened to Mansfield, facing her own early death from tuberculosis. Laura's leaving for the cottages seems like a dream of death, and the erasure of all those absurd distinctions of class.
"It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the cottages were in deep shade."