A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This post is part of the 1924 Club, which I’m co-organising over at my blog Stuck in a Book – along with Karen, I’m asking people to read books published in 1924, to get an overview of the year across the blogosphere. (It’s not too late to join in if you want to – it’s running ’til the end of October.) So, when I learned that Vulpes Libris was running another short story week, it felt like the perfect time to read Katherine Mansfield’s 1924 collection Something Childish and other stories, which I thought I’d read before, but it turns out I had not.
Mansfield experts among you might point out that she died in 1923. Yes, very true: this is a posthumous bringing together of various stories which hadn’t made it to her other collections. As her husband writes in the introductory note:
Most of the stories and sketches in this collection were written in the years between the publication of Katherine Mansfield’s first book, In a German Pension, in 1911 and the publication of her second, Bliss and other Stories, in 1920. There are a few exceptions.
I have no doubt that Katherine Mansfield, were she still alive, would not have suffered some of these stories to appear. When she was urged to allow In a German Pension to be republished, she would always reply “Not now; not yet – not until I have a body of work done and it can be seen in perspective. It is not true of me now: I am not like that any more. When the time for a collection edition comes – ” she would end, laughing. The time has come.
I can’t think of any other writer who so clearly and continuously improved as they kept writing. Some writers burn bright with their first work, then burn out; some (Woolf, for instance) have a triumphant middle period. Mansfield just got better and better, writing easily her best stories in the final year or two of her horribly short life (she died at 34). Who knows what extraordinary works she could have produced, had she lived longer?
And since Something Childish is arranged in chronological order, this is very evident. A handful of the stories were written when Mansfield was a teenager; the final two were excluded from The Garden Party and other stories (1922). Reading through them, seeing Mansfield’s talent gather pace, is like watching a beautiful flower unfurl. By the end, she is demonstrating quite why she deserves a place in literary history.
But I have said nothing of the stories yet. Her hallmark is quiet observation. The only times her stories falter is when her scope gets too broad; the insignificant and the minute are her realms of genius. Here is a snapshot from one of the later stories, ‘The Wrong House’, a story which actually hangs around the avoidance of a significant moment. This is just setting the scene, but it is quintessential Mansfield:
“Woolinfrontoftheneedle…” She sat at the dining-room window facing the street. It was a bitter autumn day; the wind ran in the street like a thing dog; the houses opposite looked as though they had been cut out with a pair of ugly steel scissors and pasted on to the grey paper sky. There was not a soul to be seen.”
She writes about people making dresses which are too expensive, an affair faltering because of a borrowed cap, buying a bus ticket. In ‘Sixpence’ (one of the stories written for The Garden Party and other stories) she writes a heart-rending story about a man who hits his son with a slipper and is filled with regret: it is beautiful and poignant. But Mansfield can also be witty. Not all that often, it is true – she does choose poignancy over humour – but this, from ‘Violet’, amused me:
“I came here to forget… But,” facing me again, and smiling energetically, “don’t let’s talk about that. Not yet. I can’t explain. Not until I know you all over again.” Very solemnly – “Not until I am sure you are to be trusted.”
“Oh, don’t trust me, Violet!” I cried. “I’m not to be trusted. I wouldn’t if I were you.” She frowned and stared.
“What a terrible thing to say. You can’t be in earnest.”
“Yes, I am. There’s nothing I adore talking about so much as another person’s secret.”
The title of the collection makes it sound like juvenilia, but it is actually a reference to the longest story in the collection, ‘Something Childish But Entirely Natural’. It tells of a young couple meeting, falling in love, and picturing their lives together in a rural idyll. I have to confess to not quite understanding the twist ending – Mansfield is never quite as successful at these as at stories which gently fade out – but it’s a touching story nonetheless.
Ultimately, Mansfield’s best stories are certainly in other collections – but those in Something Childish show what astonishing talent she developed. If these are the ones on the cutting room floor, then Heaven help any other short story writer.