Dr. Pragya Shukla

Katherine Mansfield was born and brought up in the rough, earthy and colonial Wellington, New Zealand. Society there was a lot different from London. The city was not even half a century old, then. The Beauchamps, Katherine’s parents mingled freely with Maori, Jewish and Catholic friends. These interactions honed Katherine’s observational gifts.

Katherine’s life was turbulent from the very beginning. Soon after her birth, her mother accompanied her father on a Europe tour. Little Katherine was left in her grandmother’s care. This early separation from the mother had far reaching consequences. Her family connections were never strong. She was sent to London for education. At eighteen, she returned but could never settle down in her native town. Her parents came to know of her Lesbian connections and were shocked. Katherine declared that she would never marry and she would make writing her career. She returned to London and the city welcomed her with open arms.

Katherine enjoyed the freedom London provided her with. She interacted with the artistic circles of Bloomsbury and Garsington but she could never actually belong to these groups. She was an outsider and that too from one of the colonies. She was a woman and a writer of short stories which never enjoyed the same reputation as the novel. Her contribution to modernism within Europe was immense:

This is only fitting for a woman with a dozen different names and the personalities to match. A skinny girl from New Zealand with a dark cap of hair, a thin nose, and a desire for more, Mansfield gobbled up experiences and writing styles. She was a ventriloquist, a shape-shifter, her short stories exquisitely crafted and stylistically varied, mingling to form an oeuvre that was polyphonic and mercurial; hers was a shifting, un-pin-down-able literary sensibility that has only added to her mystique and kept her train a-rattling (Web).

Katherine Mansfield’s readership was always large yet her reputation had its share of highs and lows. Critics began to take her seriously in the late 20th century when they could discern social and political engagements, an awareness of class and gender inequalities in her writings. She embodied the New Woman who stood for free love, changing marriage and working conditions. Writing for her was an inward necessity propelled by her childlike sensitivity and innate abilities. Driven by her sexual impulse and haunted by fits of madness, she often wrote in a possessed state. Her writing hovered around themes and emotional states that were dominant in her own life—loneliness, disconnection, travel, sexual empowerment, bliss, depression, attraction, repulsion love, hate, weak and powerful.

Pamela Dunbar in Radical Mansfield wrote:
[She was] a daring and strikingly original writer. […] [Her stories] contain provocative subtexts radically at odds with their lyrical surfaces. Mansfield emerges […] as a groundbreaking Modernist—one who took account of the cultural concerns of her time […] who devised ingenious techniques for rendering socially unacceptable insights into sexuality and the irrational aspects of the mind; and who profoundly influenced her friend the writer Virginia Woolf (Dunbar, 1997: 73).

Mansfield was influenced by French symbolists and by Oscar Wilde.The stories of Chekhov were also a discovery for her. Her own style was a combination of realist and symbolist issues. She possessed a bleak and dismal outlook towards life. Her characters were oppressed and caged in a meaningless life, bereft of all hope. Fraught with grim realism, her stories draw to a closure on a note of frustration. Filled with the spirit of independence, Katherine however, was often bowed down with the realization of being an outsider. This burning desire to ‘belong’ to the glittering circle of academia of London, and the agony of being pushed to the margins, always, sharpened her character portrayal skills. Morell reminisced:

We were playing a game after dinner when she was here, describing people by symbols, such as pictures and flowers and scents. Unfortunately, Katherine was described by some rather exotic scent such as stephanotis or patchouli, and although her name was not mentioned, we all knew and she knew who was meant. It was dreadful. The spite that was in the company, maliciously flared out against her and hurt her (Meyers, 2002: 158).

Katherine’s friendship with Virginia Woolf affected her deeply and reinforced in her the inspiration to write. Virginia Woolf was a native and well connected Londoner. Mansfield was leading an exile’s life, moving constantly from one house to another. Virginia Woolf’s firmly rooted existence filled Katherine with wonder and awe:

…How I envy Virginia…her roof over her—her own possession round her—and her man somewhere within call... (Lee, 1997: 395).

Katherine Mansfield’s ailment and her strong desire for a stable, rooted existence sharpened her ability to look beyond all that was visible. Her writings are thus pervaded by themes of loneliness and alienation. Writing, for her, was not a career—it was a vocation. Her unflinching devotion for this art and her inward discipline enabled her to grow into a conscious, deliberate innovator and experimenter. A.S. Anand Murty in his book on Katherine Mansfield revealed:

…She had the impulse to undertake imaginative exploration of further dimensions supplied by the story element symbolically dramatizing her own traumatic experiences of longing for relief from suffering or for escape to freedom (Murthy, 2007: 10).

Readers who wish to read the events of her life from her stories are often disappointed. She had dropped the ‘I’ form long back and withdrew completely from her writings. Her stories, however, never exceeded beyond the length of a short story. This form allowed Mansfield to place an isolated incident under a microscope and elaborate. Such works do not have the compulsion to connect it with its after effects or its moral consequences. In an article, ‘The Dilemma of the Woman Writers’ Shashi Deshpande aptly summarized:

… A woman writer has to decide for herself how far she wants to de-romanticize the image created by man and also how to use her anger   and resentment towards positive ends. Part of the struggle is also the need to outgrow the socially propagated and individually internalized patriarchal values. She addresses these problems in various ways and through different situations just as she has grown into new awareness (Deshpande, 2005: 237).

At the time Katherine Mansfield was writing, women and some men had begun to question their traditional gender roles. Writers wrote to prove that they had a voice that needs to be heard. She was particularly interested in exploring female identity and sexuality. She used the third person narrative and efficiently hovering in and out of the minds of her characters. In the process, she is able to reveal their psychological state. Instead of analytical descriptions, she opted for evocative images. She concentrated on communicating moods, emotions and impressions. The highlight of her stories is the point at which the protagonist attains self realization. But such realization rarely leads to bliss.

Mansfield had once remarked: ‘What the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question.’(Hanson 34) Action was not important for Katherine Mansfield. She was very particular about the atmosphere though. Her stories present a grim picture of life of women, tormented by alienation, powerlessness and sexual frustration. In ‘A Cup of Tea’, Mansfield introduced Rosemary Fell who was:

young, brilliant, extremely modern, exquisitely well dressed, amazingly well read in the newest of the new books, and her parties were the most delicious mixture of the really important people and… artists – quaint creatures, discoveries of hers… (Katherine, 2006: 332).

She however suffered from a problem which was common to all middle- and upper-class, married white women. She suffered from the Friedan’s disease in which:

Housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life. (Hooks, 2000:1).

Rosemary was blessed with all those things that a young girl could think of. She was good looking, bright and married to a wealthy man. She had the freedom to socialize and spend as and when she pleased. She was blessed with a son whom the Fell’s had christened ‘not Peter but Michael’ as Michael was a popular and fashionable name. The tragedy of her life was that her marriage and her life failed to assure her the promised happiness. Activities of the real world, effective acts were almost invariably assigned to her husband. The activities in her share were repetitive and tiring but never satisfying.

The protagonist seeks comfort and a sense of achievement from shopping and buying ‘things’. She feels empowered when she is able to buy an object and possess it. Instead of going to a shop on a crowded street, Rosemary frequents an Antique Shop where she could enjoy the attention of the shopkeeper throughout. The shopkeeper was:

… ridiculously fond of serving her. He beamed whenever she came in. He clasped his hands; he was so gratified he could scarcely speak. Flattery, of course. All the same, there was something..."You see, madam," he would explain in his low respectful tones, "I love my things. I would rather not part with them than sell them to someone who does not appreciate them, who has not that fine feeling which is so rare..." And, breathing deeply, he unrolled a tiny square of blue velvet and pressed it on the glass counter with his pale finger-tips, (Katherine, 2006: 334).

A woman is always kept away from masculine activities. She remains busy all the time, but at the end of the day is made to realize that she does nothing. She gets no recognition for her efforts. Man is appreciated for the houses he builds and the problems he solves. Women, unable to achieve fulfillment desperately seeks an outlet. Alienated, lonely, ineffective, a woman fails to carve a niche for herself. Such women then begin to give themselves immense importance because all objects of importance are denied to her. Gradually she becomes a narcissist. Surrounded by her purchased treasures, she yearns to rule the destiny of the less unfortunate people around her. Her life assumes a new significance and begins to resemble a sacred drama. Rosemary Fell was one such woman. Clothes, beautiful and rare objects, conversation satisfied her but then her ambition was never quelled. She yearned to exhibit herself in an uncommon and varied manner. When she met Miss Smith on the road famished and begging for just enough money to buy a ‘cup of tea’, Rosemary’s prayers it seemed had been answered:

"How extraordinary!" Rosemary peered through the dusk and the girl gazed back at her. How more than extraordinary! And suddenly it seemed to Rosemary such an adventure. It was like something out of a novel by Dostoevsky, this meeting in the dusk. Supposing she took the girl home? Supposing she did do one of those things she was always reading about or seeing on the stage, what would happen? It would be thrilling. And she heard herself saying afterwards to the amazement of her friends: "I simply took her home with me," as she stepped forward and said to that dim person beside her: "Come home to tea with me" (Katherine, 2006: 334).

Rosemary instantly assumed the role of a messiah, determined to become a fairy Godmother to Miss Smith. So far, so good. One defect that plagued Rosemary was her deep love for her own self. This self-love marred her sincerity and reduced her stature. The vehemence with which Rosemary had taken charge was appreciable. But she lacked the experience of ‘being in charge’. She had, so far, learned to be dependent, to observe things without looking too deeply for logical reasons. She could gauge the difference in the atmosphere as soon as she stepped out on the road, outside the shop:

Rain was falling, and with the rain it seemed the dark came too, spinning down like ashes. There was a cold bitter taste in the air, and the new lighted lamps looked sad. Sad were the lights in the houses opposite. Dimly they burned as if regretting something. And people hurried by, hidden under their hateful umbrellas. Rosemary felt a strange pang. She pressed her muff against her breast; she wished she had the little box, too, to cling to. Of course the car was there. She'd only to cross the pavement. But still she waited. There are moments, horrible moments in life, when one emerge from shelter and looks out, and it's awful.( Katherine, 2006: 335 ).

Rosemary had tutored herself to understand her own inner life, the peculiarities of her own sensations. She could express an interest in ‘beautiful, rare’ things but could rarely dwell for long on the relation of things. Abstract elegance was not her forte but she knew what appealed to her senses. To observe and appreciate the little box in the shop on Regent Street, Rosemary had to take her gloves off:

Rosemary took her hands out of her long gloves. She always took off her gloves to examine such things. Yes, she liked it very much. She loved it; it was a great duck. She must have it. And, turning the creamy box, opening and shutting it, she couldn't help noticing how charming her hands were against the blue velvet (Katherine, 2006: 335).

On being left to wander alone, away from their home and hearth, Rosemary began to contemplate the world around and the realization that she is a conscious being dawns upon her. Rosemary Fell was enveloped in similar thoughts of being an irreducible independent individual when she met Miss Smith on the road. It was a luminous incident of utter thrill for Rosemary. The chance to emerge as a ‘fairy Godmother’ had been bestowed upon her and she was determined to play this new-found role perfectly:

She had a feeling of triumph as she slipped her hand through the velvet strap. She could have said, "Now I've got you," as she gazed at the little captive she had netted. But of course she meant it kindly. Oh, more than kindly. She was going to prove to this girl that - wonderful things did happen in life, that - fairy godmothers were real, that - rich people had hearts, and that women were sisters (Katherine, 2006: 336).

Constantly dwelling in a state of denial and resentment, Rosemary felt empowered in the presence of Miss Smith.  Phillip Fell, Rosemary’s husband made his appearance then and the equation quickly changed. Rosemary, who had occupied the seat of power so far, quickly stepped down. Though Phillip did not occupy the vacated seat immediately, his departure from the scene and his snide remark dragged both the ladies on the margin, placing them almost close together. One clever statement squeezed out all enthusiasm from Rosemary and her mind was at once clouded with those ancient fears that had haunted her always.

Katherine Mansfield’s ‘A Cup of Tea’ is a work of protest in which the author points out the subtle ways that patriarchy adopts to persuade women to ‘stay womanly’. Women are encouraged to become exemplary, devoted wives. The author makes an attempt to bring to the fore the subjective experiences of her protagonist. Unable to attain emancipation, they tend to drift in inconclusive space. They learn to glide around passively, constantly struggling with their conflicts. The moment Phillip expresses his appreciation for Miss Smith, Rosemary does not waste a moment. She dresses up and hurries back to her husband to ask: ‘am I pretty?’ She proved, once again that women could not exist without winning the approval of their other halves.

The readers, towards closure can almost hear Katherine Mansfield’s urgent whispers:

Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently, but life itself would come to be different. Life would undergo a change of appearance because we ourselves had undergone a change of attitude (Web).

  • P. Dunbar. Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997, p.73.
  • J. Meyers. 2002, Katherine Mansfield: A Darker View. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002,  p.158.
  • H. Lee. Virginia Woolf. London: Vintage Books, 1997, p.395.
  • A.S. Murthy. Short-stories of Katherine Mansfield: Development of Technique. New Delhi: Anamika Publishers, 2007, p.10.
  • S. Deshpande (1985). The Dilemma of a Woman Writer. The Literary Criterion, 20(4): p237.
  • Katherine Mansfield. Selected Stories. London: Wordsworth Editions, 2006.
  • B. Hooks. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press, 2000, p.1.

About the author: Pragya Shukla is Assistant Professor at the Centre of English Studies, Central University of Jharkhand. Her areas of interest are Feminist Studies, Film Studies and Narrative Techniques. Her doctoral thesis was on ‘A Comparative Study of the Fictional Works of Githa Hariharan and Shashi Deshpande’. Apart from research papers, she dabbles her hand in writing poetry and short stories also.

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