Saturday, January 20, 2007

From the Stacks Winter Challenge: "Marriage à la mode" by Katherine Mansfield

Technically, this is not a "rereading." It's an offshoot of the last book I read for Rereading. That's what I do, as a voracious reader: I follow pathways from one book to something else.

"Marriage à la mode" -- Katherine Mansfield

Imagine Isabel, if you will: a young, married woman who once lived in a pretty London house with her loving husband William and two little children. Picture the house, with lush petunias in a window box: a harmonic convergence of peace and bliss after the First World War.

Now think of the changes perfuming the ancient English air: women's suffrage, feminism, artistic and literary modernism. Each change drew advocates and acolytes, many of them famous (the Bloomsbury group) and colorful (Lady Ottoline's many-hued estate, harboring artists, pacifists, and pugs). These were the glitterati of the new London.

Pretty Isabel goes to Paris with her friend Moira, and returns discontented, a new Isabel who laughs "in the new way." William, baffled by her desire for a new house, new music, and new friends, nonetheless buys her a house in the country. He stays in London and visits on weekends while Isabel lives her new life with new friends. Bohemians and artists surround her, sharing a sunlit idyll with their pretty muse. She thrives, the children thrive, and William continues to work and support the merry band of early flower children that has replaced the traditional family.

Satisfactory, no? It's feminist fairy tale, if the prince and the princess don't mind a long-distance happily-ever-after.

Not so fast.

We meet William as he prepares for a weekend visit. His children expect presents, as children do. Toys, perhaps? No: Isabel has thrown out their old toys because they were "appallingly bad for the babies' sense of form." What else would please the children? William buys a pineapple and a melon, boards the train, and thinks of his lovely, "petal-soft" Isabel and the featherbed they one shared. Worries surface. Will the merry ones be there this weekend? Will they try to steal the fruits (of his labors?) from the children?

They are, and they do.

Mansfield's pen loathes artifice, and it wastes no time peeling each acolyte. (This, one senses, is personal.) Dennis, the wannabe ironist, frames every scene into a precious verbal tableau ("A lady in love with a pineapple"). Bobby, the fey freeloader, wants to don a Nijinsky dress and dance. Moira, Isabel's friend, discovers that "sleep is so wonderful. One simply shuts one's eyes, that's all. It's so delicious." (This, one senses, is very personal.)

They tolerate William because Isabel chides them (and William overhears): "Be nice to him, my children! He's only staying until tomorrow evening." Left alone, he wanders into a sitting room that is littered with the leavings of Isabel's new children -- piles of cigarette ashes, a grotesque mural on a yellow wall, strips of paint-daubed cloth strewn over the furniture ...

What makes a house a home? Mansfield offers a gesture. William, sitting in an armchair, feels the space next to the cushion. In London, in the old house, he would have retrieved his children's toys: a three-legged toy sheep, perhaps, or a little horn. Here, he finds "yet another little paper-covered book of smudged-looking poems." Not even the detritus of Isabel's new life belongs to him. Isabel's new life has both alienated and trivialized him. The reader hears a window slam shut before a clearly-relieved Isabel shoves him into a taxi.

Mansfield's pen loathes artifice. It also loathes sentimentality. Another writer may have pounced on William and reveled in the long love-letter he begins to compose on the train. William's lachrymose letter might have been lampooned with as much savagery as Dennnis' faux irony. But it isn't; she doesn't.

Instead, she follows the letter as it is delivered to Isabel the next day, a sultry Monday that finds the sulky group moping. Only Isabel receives a letter that day, "and mine's only from William." The envelope is thick, and the letter is long. It begins: "My darling, precious Isabel," and it continues, page after heartfelt page.

Isabel, astonished, feels an unexpected, unwanted emotion. A sentimentalist may have led Isabel up to the cool privacy of her bedroom, there to have an epiphany, and to resolve to reunite with her loving husband.

Instead, Mansfield leads Isabel to her bedroom, but not before she shares the letter with her new, feral children. They whoop and jeer when they read the clumsy prose. "God forbid, my darling, that I should be a drag on your happiness." They roll on the ground, weak with hilarity.

Something about the raucous scene catches Isabel's attention. Perhaps, Mansfield seems to suggest, the letter has touched Isabel's disregarded heart. Perhaps the letter shifts Isabel's attention. Indeed, Isabel begins to berate herself, calling herself "shallow, tinkling, vain..."

Is this a liminal moment? Mansfield certainly has given Isabel a chance, but she chooses, with minimal consciousness of error, to rejoin her friends, "laughing in the new way."

Virginia Woolf once characterized Katherine Mansfield as "hard and cheap" (although she recognized Mansfield's potential to equal her own art). Hard and cheap. How else to tell this story? Isabel squanders the opportunities of liberation, congress with serious artists, and a loving husband. She chooses cheap thrills.

This fairytale does not end with Cinderella and her prince, beautiful to the end. Sleeping Beauty does not awaken to the true value of true love. The story holds up a mirror to every frivolous, self-reverential society that is so enthralled with itself that it stagnates. As it was, Mansfield implies, so shall it be.

- - - - -
- - - - -

Mansfield died of tuberculosis, at the estate of a charismatic, esoteric teacher, Gurdjieff. The wizard could not heal her - another fairy tale gone awry. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield knew that the mage would fail, but she chose to reach for the fantasy after hard reality had failed her.

posted by melanie


Moon Rani said...

As always, I delighted in reading what you wrote. Funnily enough, I saw this piece from the husband's point of view. Thank you for your brain work in this post.

jane said...

I thought this analysis was very good, thank you! Have recently re-read it as part of a uni course I'm taking as a mature student. I thought the choice of title also clever. There's a series of pictures by Hogarth satirizing modern marriage in the 18th C I guess it would be, and also a play by Dryden from 17th C which use the same title.

Have you read The Grasshopper by Chekhov? Very similar and I think this is Mansfield's clever updating for the 1920s.

mel u said...

I to am a Mansfield lover-I will read this story soon-thanks for sharing your thoughts-I have recently posted on two of her stories, "Miss Brill", and "The Garden Party"-I wonder if the "hard and cheap" comment was about the personal life of Mansfield more than her writings?