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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A crime that Katherine Mansfield is forgotten

It's a crime that Katherine Mansfield is so forgotten today - I realize that her output was small (she died young) and apparently uneven, tat she wrote only stories so never had the breakout book, but her best stories rival those of anyone from her era and maybe beyond - I have to imagine she would have been as great as Alice Munro, or greater, based on the best of her work: Is there any writer not jealous of someone who could write The Garden Party? - a perfect expose of class structure in England, a terrific portrait of youth in crisis and a moment of realization, of coming of age: very briefly, a wealthy and socially comfortable family planning a garden party, sparing no expense on flowers, the people officiously but with a certain English charm giving orders to the staff about the labeling the sandwiches, all the little details, and the young and artistic daughter is asked to help - she tries to give some orders to the workmen installing the "marquee" - they obviously know much more about it than she does, which she realizes; she kind of dreamily wishes she could befriend these men. Then some news arrives - a working man who lives in the nearby village was killed in an accident, leaving behind wife and five children. Sensitive daughter wants to stop the party - she imagines how the widow will feel hearing the joyous music - but everyone tells her they have nothing to be concerned about. At end of party, family condescendingly decides to send the family a basket of leftovers - sensitive daughter takes them down to the village, an incredibly powerful and revelatory scene: recalls Lawrence's story about the miner killed in the accident and his body brought home to be prepared for burial, but in this case seen from view of the wealthy young woman in stepping into a world seemingly foreign though actually right in her shadow - these are the people on whom she and her family are so dependent - and KM fully captures her discomfort and shame - and then she starts to walk home and meets her brother, says everything's OK - but we know she will never forget this moment. Mansfield's stories are built on such moments and such insights - the horrible speech of the fat man at "her first ball," and we know, though she goes on dancing, that the young woman will be shaken for life but what he'd said to her. Without being polemical or didactic, these are great exposes of social class - better in their way and more incisive than the sentimentality of, say, Dickens, or the earnestness of, say, Zola.

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