Friday, 3 April 2009

7. Katherine Mansfield - 'The Singing Lesson' (1922)

'Oh if I now say that I love you
How will that seem in your eyes?
Oh may my voice fall into silence
If my words
Turn out to be lies'
(Peter Hammill, 'If I Could', 1978)

"I must say I don't approve of my teachers having telegrams sent to hem in school hours, unless in case of very bad news, such as death"
(Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Stories, Penguin Classics, 2007)

To draw the first week of this undertaking to a close is a short from one of the writers most famed for excelling at writing these things. In her extensive introduction, Ali Smith makes great claims for Mansfield as a key figure in modernism, bridging the contrasting literary camps of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence - aestheticism and utilitarianism fused by this 'gifted social and literary chameleon'. She brought the influence of Chekhov to bear on English prose writing, was a major influence on the feminism of de Beauvoir, Brigid Brophy and others and a chief source for Gudrun in Women in Love (1920) and stories of her youth she told DHL are reflected in 'the more sapphic episodes' of The Rainbow (1915).

Where did the modern world, and modern literature begin? It is a question this venture might seek to answer in time. Was it that crucial decade of the 1890s (the coming of cinema, The New Woman, Jude the Obscure, Pinero, all things Shavian, Wildean and Wellsian), the passing of the Edwardian age, the influence of WW1 or the full flowering of literary, political and cinematic avant-gardism during the 1920s (as entertainingly sent up by Evelyn Waugh in his debut novel, Decline and Fall, 1928)? Or was it even all down to Jack the Ripper? Had it all been instigated long before in France?

This site takes its URL from the sublime slap in the face of a 1887 story from Oscar Wilde; Katherine Mansfield was born as Kathleen Beauchamp a year later and grew up in Karon, near Wellington, New Zealand. Like that Wildean grenade, Mansfield's 'The Singing Lesson' both revels in and incinerates the state of infatuation, of being in love.
The teacher, Miss Meadow, stands in a line of amorous schoolmistresses including Thomas Hardy's Fancy Day (Under the Greenwood Tree, 1872) and Dennis Potter's Eileen (Pennies from Heaven, BBC, 1978). Mansfield expertly introduces the romance after we have been confronted with her at the start - painted as an impatient, tyrannical seeming dictator of her class of young girls. Details are gradually revealed, indeed to flesh out the character as terribly sympathetic; aged thirty, a 'miracle' that she had got engaged to the handsome, moustache-sporting Basil, a man of twenty-five. A tyranny wrought by being rejected for marriage by Basil, which has been disclosed through a letter. Mansfield plays remorselessly with the convention of epistolary as an aid to love's passage, with Basil's crossing out but hardly complete erasing of the word 'disgust', in his estimation of the prospect of settling down to marry.

This story is melancholic, absurd and strangely warming in equal measure, everything hinging in the intangible emotions conveyed through letters and telegrams. Miss Meadow's personal life thoroughly inflects her lesson, and her state of wild despair infects the children, as conveyed in this evocative passage: 'The older girls were crimson; some of the younger ones began to cry. Big spots of rain blew against the windows, and one could hear the willows whispering, '... not that I do not love you....' (p.348) Meadow selects a doleful lament for the girls to sing, and the words and delivery are used as a Greek Chorus-like public commentary on the teacher's private feelings. For me, it anticipates Dennis Potter's use of song - the banalities of the lyrics somehow getting to the truth of matters, which the characters are quite unable to articulate in spoken communication with others.

I will not give away any of the detail about how the story resolves itself - go and read it now! This is a miniature fire-cracker - so bloody much conveyed in a mere seven pages of prose - and a great introduction to Ms. Mansfield's infinitely subtle wiles. I won't be able to stop myself reading more of hers, afterhours.

Whilst it has at times been a struggle to keep up the writing side of this, I have read one short story a day, and due to time off over the next two weeks for the Easter break, there will be no such problems in the coming weeks. Many thanks to the fine folk who recommended these first seven writers; while you may be able to discern some particular favourites, I have greatly enjoyed reading of all these writers - four of them being my first, brief encounters. And none will be the last.


1 comment:

  1. Nice reading the post. I really wanted many people to learn how to sing.