29. The Garden Party
This is day Twenty-nine of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.
Katherine Mansfield was a writer from New Zealand that spent a large portion of her short life in Europe. She lived in the years around World War I. Her upbringing was very upper class (reflected in today’s story) but left that life behind for a bohemian existence. She hung out with some of the other great writers of the time like D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. She contracted tuberculosis and after years of illness she died at 34.
Today’s story is one of her later stories… and it’s one of the classics. When you first look at it what you see is a tale of class – the silly rich folks with their fancy smancy party, complete with cream puffs and a band, while down the lane the poor folks are dying. All this is true, and if it was all it would be a pretty good tale.
There’s more though, lots more. It’s a coming of age tale, with a twist. The young girl, Laura that has her first exposure to death… even to life outside of her garden party world – is modelled on the myth of Persephone. She visits the world of death and returns.
And the dead man that Laura sees – he is beautiful, untouched – he looks like he is sleeping. One of the turning points in the author’s life is when her beloved brother was killed in a grenade training accident in World War I. She said he was, “Blown to bits.”
So, here in a simple little story, we have issues of class, of life and death, of coming of age and the loss of innocence, and even the horrors of war. This complex tapestry – the end makes sense. Laura decides to tell us what life is… and she answers the only way she can.
There lay a young man, fast asleep – sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy … happy … All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
But all the same you had to cry, and she couldn’t go out of the room without saying something to him. Laura gave a loud childish sob.
“Forgive my hat,” she said.
—-Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party