Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was a restless creature. When I read Kathleen Jones’ superb biography Katherine Mansfield, The Storyteller I was struck by how often Mansfield changed residences. Even as her body was wracked by the TB that was to kill her at 35, she went backwards and forwards between England and the continent, and never anywhere for very long. So it is interesting that The Aloe, written towards the end of her short life, is firmly centred on a home in New Zealand.
It is not, however, a sentimental portrait of home and family life. Far from it. Mansfield’s characteristic sharp observations blend to reveal her ambivalence: on the one hand the characters take comfort in the familiarity of home, the beauty of the garden, the clumsy servant so reminiscent of Mansfield’s long-suffering but loyal helpmeet Ida Baker, and on the other there is frustrated rejection of the house, the family, the dominant father, domesticity and motherhood.
There is an excellent introduction to the modernist form of this novella by Kirsty Gunn: she quotes Mansfield saying that as far as she knew, the form of the novel was her own invention. With minimal plot, it is written in deceptively calm fragments, moving seamlessly from one character’s point of view to another to create a coherent whole.
The story begins as the family moves house, where the reader first meets the small girls, Lottie and Kezia left behind in the care of a kindly neighbour because there is no room for them in the buggy. They potter through the abandoned rooms and discover their neighbour’s scorn for their parents, socially superior but not as well off. When Fred the Storeman finally delivers the girls to their new home much of it has been set to rights, no thanks to their mother Linda Burnell suffering endlessly from ennui, or to their father Stanley whose dignity as a businessman demands his presence elsewhere. It is their indefatigable Aunt Beryl who has slaved all day - as she should, thinks Stanley, because she owes it to them for giving her a home.
While she maintains a cheerful facade, Beryl’s bitter thoughts about being marooned in the bush where there is no chance of meeting any suitors predict her future only too clearly. When she writes to her friend Nan, she knows she is vain, shallow and silly, and she knows it is because she will not ever have a life of her own. Her sense of panic is poignant: she hates being unwanted, wishing for a beau she will never have. She hates having to accept cast-off flowers from her visiting sister’s hat to decorate a dress that she has no occasion ever to wear. Doady, having escaped spinsterhood, is an authority on what’s in fashion, but from Mansfield’s scathing mockery of the Liberal Ladies Political League and their painful pretensions, the reader suspects that in provincial New Zealand Beryl’s dress is unfashionable anyway.
Linda’s ennui is less easy to penetrate. Like little Kezia she is imaginative and dreamy, ever conscious of the enigmatic bush that surrounds them. In her disquiet, she imagines that flowers on the wallpaper change and medicine bottles turn into little men. These things listen to her and they come to life when she leaves the room. They know how frightened she is. Her queasiness about food suggests that she is unenthusiastically pregnant – because Stanley wants a son and Stanley’s wishes must always be fulfilled. An indulged favourite of her father, Linda married very young and yearns for something she can’t identify. She has learned to indulge Stanley’s constant need for affirmation and attention, but her dream of riding the spiky thorns of the aloe to freedom symbolises her powerful desire for sexual excitement and escape. Nobody would dare to come near her or after her, she thinks, if she were protected by those thorns …
It is the idealised portrait of the mother, however, that most tugged at my heartstrings. By the time Katherine Mansfield wrote this novella she was very sick indeed, and though at times she was in denial, she must have known that she had not long to live. She was estranged from her mother after the sexual misadventures of her youth, and her brother had died in the Great War. The author’s inchoate longing for her own mother who never understood her is expressed in this nostalgia:
There was something comforting in the sight of her Mother that Linda felt she could never do without – She knew everything about her – just what she kept in her pocket and the sweet smell of her flesh and the soft feel of her cheeks and her arms and shoulders, still softer – the way the breath rose and fell in her bosom and the way her hair curled silver round her forehead, lighter at her neck and bright brown still in the coil under the tulle cap. Exquisite were her Mother’s hands and the colour of the two rings she wore seemed to melt into her warm white skin – her wedding ring and a large old fashioned ring with a dark red stone in it that had belonged to Linda’s father … And she was always so fresh so delicious. ‘Mother, you smell of cold water,’ she had said – The old woman could bear nothing next to her skin but fine linen and she bathed in cold water summer and winter – even when she had to pour a kettle of boiling water over the frozen tap. (p. 52)
This image of the mother in linen is repeated from just a few pages before on p. 40 where Mansfield has painstakingly described the old lady’s charm and grace, her fine old hands, her dress and her brooch, her hair still black at the waist and the roses still blooming in her cheeks, her dimple, her ivory skin. How on everything she used there lingered a trace of Cashmere bouquet perfume. It is significant that the fantasy of escaping through the agency of the spiky aloe plant begins with her Mother accompanying her, and then left behind.
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Author: Katherine Mansfield
Introduction: Kirsty Gunn
Title: The Aloe
Publisher: Capuchin Classics, 2010