Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Freedom's Best!

This month's short story up for discussion at A Curious Singularity is Katherine Mansfield's "At the Bay." Mansfield is one of those "I've always meant to get to" authors for me so this has been a nice chance to, well, get to her. My antennae were up as I read because I so love Virginia Woolf and Woolf had such a love/hate relationship with Mansfield. I hoped for some insight about why Mansfield made Woolf feel so insecure. I got it, but I am more baffled than before. Mansfield is clearly a brilliant short story writer. Her prose is atmospheric and like Woolf, she has a knack for picking out details that say a lot. Mansfield also has a keen eye for relationships. I can see why Woolf would be jealous. Mansfield prose is as clear and sparkling as the bay her characters are summering at. But here is where I get confused. Mansfield only ever wrote short stories. She did not write novels. Woolf wrote short stories sometimes but even she did not consider herself a short story writer. Woolf was a novelist who dabbled in the short story to work out questions of narrative and technique. Since Woolf was a novelist, I still don't understand how she could feel threatened by Mansfield. There must be more to the relationship that I'm not getting. Or maybe not. Maybe both women felt the friendly competition improved their writing. Mansfield's story is longish and carries within it a variety of themes. The one that stands out to me most is the one of women and freedom, or lack thereof. The house at the bay is filled with women and children and one man, Stanley. As soon as he leaves for a day of work in town, the women are immediately relieved:

"Gone?" "Gone!" Oh, the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house. Their voices were changed as they called to one another; they sounded warm and loving and as if they shared a secret. Beryl went over to the table. "Have another cup of tea, mother. It's still hot." She wanted, somehow, to celebrate the fact that they could do what they liked now. There was no man to disturb them; the whole perfect day was theirs.
And they are off to a morning at the beach where Berly dares to spend time with Mrs. Harry Kember who is trapped by her bad-girl reputation and thought "fast." There is Linda, who is married to Stanley, the man of the house, feels like a leaf being blown around by the winds of life. She has children she does not want nor love. And the elderly Mrs. Fairfield, mother and grandmother, gets caught by little Kezia thinking about Uncle William. Kezia asks if William being lost in the mines mad her sad. Mrs. Fairfield thinks:
Did it make her sad? To look back, back. To stare down the years, as Kezia had seen her doing. To look after them as a woman does, long after they were out of sight. Did it make her sad? No, life was like that.
Finally there is Beryl, Linda's unmarried sister who wants to badly to be daring like Mrs. Kember, but when given the chance is too afraid. Contrast these women to Mrs. Stubbs, a widow who owns the general store. She is fat, hardy, good-natured and not at all sad about her husband being dead: "Freedom's best!" she declares. I had planned on leaving this with the theme of trapped women, but I can't not mention the men feel trapped in their roles too. This leads one to ponder an even broader idea asked by the story, if these men and women are trapped in their roles by a larger society, how does one escape? How does one regain the freedom of the children playing games on the beach and in the washhouse? These boys and girls together, still innocent and free from being anything other than themselves.