Though she was born in New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield spent her adult life in Europe (principally in London), where she spent her time writing reviews, poems, and short stories. It is for her short fiction that she is best remembered now as one of the leading writers of the early twentieth century. Starting with a story from her very first collection and ending with one of her most famous, here we take a look at just six of Mansfield’s best short stories – and, at just a few pages in length each, they are all well worth a read.
1. “Germans at Meat,” 1910
Taken from her 1911 debut short story collection, In a German Pension, “Germans at Meat” was originally published in A.R. Orage’s The New Age magazine on March 3rd, 1910. As the title of the collection suggests, “Germans at Meat” is set in a pension in a German spa town, based on Mansfield’s own stay in Bad Wörishofen following her first marriage. (This disastrous marriage had been orchestrated by Mansfield after finding herself pregnant with another man’s child, and Mansfield incorporates a similarly broken-down marriage into the story.)
Like many of the other stories in In a German Pension, “Germans at Meat” depicts the national demeanors of the English and the Germans with a strongly satirical quality as the story’s narrator sits down to eat with her fellow guests. When called upon by her publisher for a reprint of the collection in 1920, however, Mansfield refused, stating that they were naïve apprentice pieces and also that she feared they may be aligned with anti-German sentiment following the First World War. Nonetheless, in 1926 (three years after her death), her second husband, John Middleton Murry, republished In a German Pension.
Perhaps as a result of her refusal to reprint and her own denigration of the collection, “Germans at Meat” (and in a German Pension in general) has not received as much attention as some of her later works. While Mansfield may have claimed to feel somewhat ashamed of these juvenile short stories, “Germans at Meat” showcases Mansfield’s flair for investing seemingly inconsequential moments with real significance and thereby investing the reader in her characters’ stories.
2. “The Woman at the Store,” 1912
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Whereas “Germans at Meat” was written in the aftermath of Mansfield’s disastrous first marriage, “The Woman at the Store” played a pivotal role in bringing Mansfield and her second husband together. John Middleton Murry was co-founder and editor at Rhythm, an artistic and literary periodical dedicated to showcasing contemporary avant-garde work.
Poet and novelist Walter “Willy” George – a mutual friend of Murry and Mansfield – sent Murry a short story of Mansfield’s, though it was turned down. Though impressed by the quality of her writing, Murry felt that the satirical fairy-tale-like story was not the right fit for Rhythm and instead asked for something darker. Mansfield duly obliged, sending him “The Woman at the Store,” a tale of murder in the New Zealand wilderness. Upon reading the story, Murry was determined to meet its author, and, as Claire Harman notes, Rhythm “soon became Murry and Mansfield’s joint venture” (see Further Reading, Harman).
It is no wonder that “The Woman at the Store” so impressed Murry. It is a remarkably mature story for such a young writer to produce: a vivid, striking, and deeply unsettling piece of writing in which judgment is suspended so that the facts of a woman’s life – ruined by poverty and her husband’s cruelty – might be told. Though Mansfield had somewhat equivocal views on the suffrage movement, throughout her stories, she displays an interest in the lives of other women and an empathic awareness of their suffering under systemic gender inequalities and the oppressive, predatory, and abusive behavior of men.
3. “The Garden Party,” 1922
“The Garden Party” was first published in three parts in the Saturday Westminster Gazette and the Weekly Westminster Gazette in 1922 – that famous year in literary modernism when T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s Ulysses were published and the world, according to Willa Cather, broke in two.
In the same year, it was published as the title story of her collection The Garden Party and Other Stories. Set in New Zealand, the Sheridan family lives a life of luxury that is modeled after Mansfield’s own privileged upbringing as the daughter of an extremely wealthy businessman. They are to host a garden party, and the entire family is busy with preparations. While supervising the food preparations, sisters Laura and Jose are informed of the death of a working-class neighborhood, Mr. Scott, who died in front of the gates to their house. Instinctively, Laura feels that the party should be called off and is horrified that no one else in her family shares this opinion. Nonetheless, she is convinced to forget the matter for now and go ahead with the party after seeing herself reflected in a mirror, wearing a hat given to her by her mother for the occasion.
After the party, her mother instructs her to take a basket filled with leftover food from the party to the Scott family home. Here, Laura is confronted not only with Mr. Scott’s grieving widow and family but also with his dead body. His corpse exerts a strange fascination over Laura: she is struck by his peaceful expression in death, yet she flees the house and runs into her brother, Laurie, on her way home. The ending, however, evades resolution. Laura finds herself unable to articulate her feelings to her brother – and the reader is left with no guarantee that her brother has understood her.
With echoes of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone, “The Garden Party” is a masterful meditation on mortality, morality, and class consciousness. It is one of Mansfield’s best-known – and best-loved – short stories, and deservedly so.
4. “Bliss,” 1918
Woolf felt such a violent distaste for “Bliss” that, upon first reading the story in the prestigious English Review in August 1918, she threw her copy of the magazine across the room. Writing in her diary, Woolf criticized the quality of Mansfield’s writing – but it seems likely that her dislike for “Bliss” was far more personal.
In many ways, “Bliss” seems to bear some Woolfian hallmarks. The story is set immediately before and during a dinner party held by Bertha and Harry Young, just as Woolf would go on to place parties at the center of Mrs Dalloway and the first section of To the Lighthouse. Bertha anticipates the arrival of Pearl Fulton, a friend of hers, with such excitement that she experiences a strange sensation of bliss that verges on the homoerotic. While she experiences this sensation, she looks into her garden at a pear tree, which she then invests with symbolic resonance. During the party, she and Pearl gaze at the tree together in what Bertha believes to be an intimate moment of mutual understanding. When Pearl betrays her before the evening is over, however, it seems that Bertha has misread their relationship and perhaps the symbolism of the pear tree, too.
Why did Woolf (who later claimed that Mansfield was the only contemporary writer of whom she had felt jealous) take such a vehement dislike to this short story? The story’s irony may well have seemed especially barbed to Woolf, as Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney have argued, “since the character of Pearl Fulton shared some of her own most prominent qualities,” including her “icy aloofness” and her tendency to hold her head slightly to one side (see Further Reading, Midorikawa and Sweeney, p. 229).
5. “Psychology,” 1920
“Psychology” centers around a platonic relationship between a man and a woman. They take tea and cake together and discuss, among other things, “whether the novel of the future will be a psychological novel or not.” This leads the man to pose the question: “How sure are you that psychology qua psychology has got anything to do with literature at all?” When their friendly discussion and moments of comfortable silence threaten to tilt into something more poignant, however, neither knows how to articulate themselves so that their old friend will understand them.
Perhaps pointing to the unknowability of other people, “Psychology” points to the early twentieth century’s fascination with the emerging science of psychology. Such was the fascination that the twentieth century is sometimes referred to as the Freudian century – and it is no coincidence, therefore, that dreams feature heavily in “Prelude.”
While “Psychology” gives us insight into the importance of Freudian theorizing in the twentieth century and contemporary thoughts surrounding psychology’s place within literature, it also provides insight into Mansfield’s writing technique. In one of his remarks that threatens to disturb the equilibrium of their friendship, the man states: “If I shut my eyes I can see this place down to every detail – every detail … […] Often when I am away from here I revisit it in spirit – wander about among your red chairs, stare at the bowl of fruit on the black table […].” In describing her writing process, Mansfield also stated that she could imaginatively inhabit spaces she wished to write about and render them more vividly real in her fiction.
6. “Prelude,” 1918
First published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1918, “Prelude” is one of Mansfield’s best-known short stories. Originally, “Prelude” started out as a longer piece called “The Aloe,” which Mansfield began in 1915 and then refined over the following years. The story fictionalizes Mansfield’s own family’s move to Karori, a Wellington suburb, in 1893. Mansfield had been inspired to return to her New Zealand childhood through her writing following the death of her beloved brother Leslie in 1915, and “Prelude” proves that Mansfield is often at her best when writing of her native country.
“Prelude” is split into twelve short, somewhat impressionistic sections, perhaps pointing to Mansfield’s admiration of the impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, whose Sunflowers “taught me something about writing, which was queer—a kind of freedom—or rather, a shaking free” (see Further Reading, O’Sullivan and Scott, p. 333). It also has strong symbolic qualities, as the aloe (after which the earlier version of the story was named) exerts a fascination on Mansfield’s characters. And, by way of literary influences, the title of the story point to T. S. Eliot’s “Preludes.”
The story begins in media res, as many of Mansfield’s stories do, which has the effect of immediately situating the reader in the narrative. Here and across the next eleven sections, the reader is introduced to the various family members and invited into their consciousnesses through Mansfield’s masterful use of free indirect discourse (sometimes referred to as the intimate third person). There are moments of shocking violence, family arguments, and domestic strife, through which Mansfield explores feelings of isolation and (female) oppression within the family.
“Prelude” is one of Mansfield’s most accomplished short stories. She brilliantly captures a child’s view of an adult world through the character of Kezia – who, needless to say, is widely believed to be modeled on her own childhood self. As Virginia Woolf herself said of “Prelude,” “it has the living power, the detached existence of a work of art” (see Further Reading, Tomalin, p. 177).
While some critics have attempted to dismiss her as a minor writer lacking the stamina necessary to write a novel (and thereby positing the short story as a lesser literary form compared with the novel), Mansfield pioneered a new vision for English short fiction that was influenced by French and Russian writers, and, in doing so, she brought the English short story up to par with its twentieth-century continental counterparts. Her writing is vivid, immersive, and innovative – as the short stories listed above, and many others, attest.
Harman, Claire, All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything (London: Vintage, 2023).
Midorikawa, Emily, and Emma Claire Sweeney, A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (London: Arum Press, 2017).
O’Sullivan, Vincent, and Margaret Scott (eds.), The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Volume 4: 1920-1921 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004).
Tomalin, Claire, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (London: Penguin, 2012).