So what do you do when you start at the summit of an author's work? I've read that "The Garden Party" is considered Katherine Mansfield's finest short story, and the collection it was published in, The Garden Party and Other Short Stories, was the last she wrote before her death in 1923. It really is an amazing story, and it gives me the just the taste I need to know I'm hooked and will now have to read more.
This isn't the first of Mansfield's work that I've read actually. I've wanted to read KM for a while now, and a few years ago began with her Journal published by Persephone Books. I wrote about it here and here. I admit I did struggle a bit with the Journal, but in retrospect I think it wasn't really the best place to start with her work. Although it made for interesting reading, it seems I was missing an important link, being unfamiliar with Mansfield and her stories, to really appreciate her somewhat piecemeal journal. At the time I also read "Prelude" the first story in the very hefty The Collected Stories for no better reason than it was the first in the collection. I think it's far wiser to stick with Simon's recommendation and read stories in the shorter collections first.
Katherine Mansfield was an interesting woman, who led (in my eyes) a rather colorful life and died a tragic death. I want to read Claire Tomalin's biography of her, so I won't write about the little I know about her right now. I will mention she was born in New Zealand in 1888, and she was the one author that Virginia Woolf admitted to being jealous of. Considered an innovator of the short story form, she admired Anton Chekhov, another short story writer I've read little of (and another writer considered a master of the form--so many authors to build on...here we go again with the short stories I'm afraid).
"In her work she was and remains one of the great modernist writers of displacement, restlessness, mobility, impermanence. The very vividness of her New Zealand writing bears this out. She wanted, she said, 'to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World...It must be mysterious. It must take the breath'."
"The Garden Party" takes place over the course of one ideal day as a family arranges an afternoon garden party. The Sheridans are a well off family with their neatly groomed lawn and elegant house. It's obvious how far their privilege extends as they set up a grand marquee for their guests and more food is prepared than there are people to eat it and pots of pink canna lilies are delivered for decoration. Laura Sheridan, the artistic daughter, is left to supervise the organization of the party. When she hears of an accident resulting in the death of a worker who lives below their estate in a simple cottage she tries to talk her family out of holding their party. She can't imagine entertaining people on the lawn and having party music playing while a houseful of mourners sit so close by and within listening distance. Both sister and mother claim she's being silly and its only by chance she even heard of the accident. Had she never known of the death the party would have progressed anway, so why should it not now.
The story is a perfect slice of life. It's a transformative story (for Laura at the very least), about class and the gaining of knowledge. Biographical in nature, Laura is meant to represent KM herself (according to the endnotes in my Penguin edition). Although I don't want to say much more about the story I will mention a few interesting things I read.
"The story seems to have been based on events one day at 75 Tinakori Road in Wellington, the house KM's family had moved in to in 1898. KM and her sisters returned there from school in London in 1906, and she described it in her journal as 'a big, white-painted square house with a slender-pillared verandah and balcony running all around it'. There was a view over the harbour in one direction, and in the other were workman's shacks."
In the story the names of Laura's siblings are Meg, Jose and Laurie, which had been borrowed from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (I thought that really interesting). This Penguin edition, by the way, seems to have excellent end notes that help explain some of the references, which makes reading the stories just a little bit richer. So, my first proper KM story down. I was looking a few things up and came across this website, which refers to a forthcoming biography of KM. I don't see it listed yet on Amazon in the US or the Book Depository in the UK, so I'll have to watch for it. Did you know there is a Katherine Mansfield Society? And after browsing Amazon for KM's Collected Letters, now I see why I gave up after buying only volumes 1 and 2. The prices for used copies (they are no longer in print) are exorbitant! I guess I'll stick to library copies when I get that far. I'm not sure which story I'll read next, but I think I'm going to go and reread "The Garden Party" one more time first.