Orpiment Glow

They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives for just a minute while they talked round her (111).
Katherine Mansfield, Miss Brill

orpiment rocks and lilac

How to break a heart in under five pages. Katherine Mansfield’s story Miss Brill from the Penguin Classic collection, Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and Other Stories, is the perfect example of the art and power of the short story. A common mood of repressed loneliness runs through all of her stories but it was Miss Brill that drew my breath away with the final period.

Mansfield’s stories are terribly English: wit, eccentricities, repressions, all interlaced with lusciously  wrought bucolic glory.

How did one meet men? Or even if they’d met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers? One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But nobody ever followed Constantina and her (69). – The Daughters of the Late Colonel.

Just in case one was ever curious as to how the phenomenon of the quintessentially Anglo eccentric-sister-team of spinsters came to be, read no further than The Daughters of the Late Colonel. Somewhat poignant, the story is an amusing exploration of the insular and skewing effects of duty induced repression and pathologically refined manners.

‘I had an extraordinary dream last night!’ he shouted.
What was the matter with the man? This mania for conversation irritated Stanley beyond words. And it was always the same – always some piffle about a dream he’d had, or some cranky idea he’d got hold of, or some rot he’d been reading (8). The Garden Party

Taken a more indepth view, The Garden Party is fascinating in the way that whole groups of people orbit separately in the same family sphere. Where a repressive spirit reigns, it is engrossing to see how individuals adapt and cope.

‘I suppose,’ she said vaguely, ‘one gets used to it. One gets used to anything.’
‘Does one? Hum!’ The ‘Hum’ was so deep it seemed to boom from underneath the ground. ‘I wonder how it’s done,’ brooded Jonathan; ‘I’ve never managed it’ (30).

Jonathan (the prolific dreamer and loquacious annoyance to Stanley) is the rare Mansfield character that can not fully adapt to societal expectations, his inability is really what’s at the heart of Stanley’s irritation. After all, it’s not as if Stanley enjoys the daily asphyxiation of ‘work.’ But of course Stanley has a wife that he adores, and Love is a detail that makes life worth living.

Even still, we all have access to the resplendence of life. Whether it be the exuberant beauty of nature, or a moment of profound reverence. Life affirms itself, and casts an orpiment glow in an instance of a brilliant sky, a sweet kiss, or the profound sumptuousness of a perfect peach.

Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said in his warm, loving voice. ‘Was it awful?’
‘No,’ sobbed Laura. ‘It was simply marvellous. But Laurie -‘ She stopped, she looked at her brother. ‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life -‘ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie (51).



19 responses to “Orpiment Glow

  1. Adore her writing! Pity there’s so little of it.

  2. Revisited The Garden Party after your post. The Singing Lesson made me laugh all over again and Miss Brill made me cry all over again. How fragile we all are.

  3. The best writers tend to be from elsewhere. Keep meaning to read Mansfield- a great New Zealand author

  4. I have read maybe one story of Mansfield’s in total. You’ve totally inspired me. That’s it. I will now address that shortcoming!

  5. Read all of it – there isn’t much. Huge in content if lack of quantity. Must read about the writer.

    • Wow, that is quite comprehensive. Fascinating life.

      I loved this bit (and I say that as a steadfast fan of Forster) –
      “She had little respect for what she saw as the delicacy of most Bloomsbury sensibilities, and after reading Howard’s End (1910) she wrote in her journal in May 1917, ” E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea…. And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.”

      Hahaha oh dear…she’s not wrong. Thank you so much for the link.

      • oh dear indeed. Woolf didn’t like Forster either. i read his Room with a View. he read delicate English society well enough, but would have to agree with the teapot theory.

        Found a whole bunch of stories by Mansfield i haven’t read yet, so thanks to you too!

      • I haven’t read Room With a View for years, but I remember thinking that the narrator seemed..I don’t know…I little disgusted with the love story’s consummation. But he is a fascinating man and one of my favorite authors – The Machine Stops is a remarkable and odd and strangely anachronistic, Passage to India is amazing…Where Angles Fear to Tread – wonderful, also Howard’s End which IS extremely frustrating, frustrated! But that is what makes Mansfield comment so funny – she is not wrong. But especially considering her life, her books too are very restrained and repressed (as a theme explored) Actually one of my favorite books of Forster is his non-fiction – Aspects of the Novel…he had his own things to deal with in life, but his intelligence was just about unmatched.
        But thanks to you I am now more interested in Mansfield. I did notice while shelving books that there seemed to be far more books about her (or compilations of letters to and from her) than written by her – now we know why.

      • I’ve only ever read the one book by Forster. Shall explore his work.

  6. A quote by Lytton Strachey about Mansfield: ‘why that foul-mouthed, virulent, brazen-faced broomstick of a creature should have got herself up as a pad of rose-scented cotton wool is beyond me,’ remarked Lytton Strachey after reading Murry’s edition of her journal in 1927.

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