Katherine Mansfield (1888 – 1923)
New Zealand born poet and short story writer, associated with the Bloomsbury Group of writers
The Lady’s Maid, originally published in The Garden Party, 1922
Available to read online here
Here’s the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification Dramatic Monologue by Moffett and McElheny. This is how they start the description of this narrative style: “Now we overhear somebody speaking aloud to another person. He has a particular reason for telling a particular story to his particular audience, and his speech, as in real conversation, is spontaneous and unrehearsed. We can tell where he is and to whom he is talking from references he makes in his monologue.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
The Lady’s Maid
My Lady has a guest staying overnight, and there’s a nice cup of tea left over, so the lady’s maid (Ellen) thought the guest might appreciate it, if she wasn’t asleep yet. The guest gratefully accepts the tea and asks the maid a number of polite questions (that we don’t read) and the maid responds with polite and disarming honesty. During the conversation we discover that the maid dealt with my lady’s mother when she passed away after a stroke; that she chose to leave her own cruel and uncaring family at the age of thirteen to become a junior maid in this same household; and that at one stage she considered marriage to a man named Harry, but my lady couldn’t hide how devastated she would be if Ellen left – and so Harry was dumped.
It’s an elegant tale of complete, self-denying loyalty; part admirable in its honour, part horrific in its self-sacrifice. It’s very convincingly written; when I was reading it, Ellen’s voice came to me as though it were Jean Marsh’s Rose from TV’s Upstairs Downstairs. It’s harder to discern the nature of the unseen character in the conversation; one can only assume she doesn’t know My Lady that well, otherwise she would probably already have known the details that Ellen tells her. You sense that Ellen welcomes the opportunity to open up and tell her story; although she shies away from considering what might happen in the future. She’s content in the here and now and that’s the main thing. Any regrets are pushed right to the back of her mind.
The dramatic monologue style invites you to make sense of a conversation even though you only hear one side of it. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle, occasionally you have to piece together the questions from the replies. But it lends itself to exploring the narrator’s thought processes in a gradual and thoughtful way. Very short, but very enjoyable.
The next story in the anthology is Travel is so Broadening, by Sinclair Lewis. I know nothing of him, so have no idea what to expect!