When I belatedly realised that I had been neglecting New Zealand fiction on this blog, the first author I thought of to redress this neglect was Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923). She died very young of TB but she left behind some unforgettable short stories, of which In a German Pension was the first collection to be published. I read it in December 2003, and this (edited a little after this re-reading) is what I wrote in my journal at the time:
Whoo!! This author has a barbed pen indeed! It’s a collection of satirical vignettes that Mansfield wrote aged just nineteen, and her dislike of the German bourgeoise is fierce…
The narrator, an attractive English girl, is in a German pension, and a sharp observer of the other guests. Of all the German characters, only the portrayal of Sonia is at all sympathetic, but even then the narrator is patronising. The other Germans are uniformly gross: overweight and over-eating, ignorant, vulgar, humorless and unpleasant.
Their personal habits are disgusting: in Germans at Meat the narrator is ironically taken to task for the preposterous English breakfast while the Traveller spears his potato with a knife and eats around it, the Widow picks her teeth with a hairpin, Herr Rat talks about his digestive system at table, and Herr Hoffman ‘wiped his neck and face with his dinner napkin and carefully cleaned his ears.’ In The Modern Soul Herr Professor makes pompous conversation with the narrator, recommending cherries as a means of making saliva before playing the trombone and spitting the stones into the flower bed. At the concert, a young ‘gentleman’ blows his nose twice before hurling his handkerchief into the bosom of the piano’.
The Germans’ condescending self-importance is risible. They patronise the young narrator and lecture her about her shortcomings. ‘It is difficult for you to understand’ says Frau Doctor ‘when you are always exposing your legs on cricket-fields and breeding dogs in your back gardens’. They dismiss the English nation as ‘unmusical’ and to educate her they put on a performance so amateur that the applause needs to be ‘soothing’ . By contrast, she is unfailingly polite, restrained and piously vegetarian. (In later years Mansfield apparently felt that this story was immature but it is very funny.)
Mansfield was a bohemian, and her observations about snobbery are wry. She wrote this collection when she was establishing herself in the Bloomsbury set in London and as a colonial she must have been acutely aware of British class consciousness. She pokes fun at the German awe of their aloof Baron – and she can’t resist puncturing their reverence. It is her non-German narrator who is ‘honoured’ with a conversation and the offer of a shared umbrella she is caught in the rain, and it is she who learns that the reason he spends all his time alone is so that he can eat in peace. In The Sister of the Baroness Mansfield mocks the guests’ excited delight when the prestige of the pension is ‘enhanced’ by a Baroness sending her daughter to stay – but the baroness’s ‘sister’ to whom they have deferred turns out to be a servant. The none-too-subtle inference is that Germans cannot tell the difference between their aristocrats and their lower classes.
Mansfield’s perspective on marriage, motherhood, childbirth and children is distinctly sour. Her contempt for German men in particular shows up in the vignettes about the birth of the Frau’s child. The doctor and husband have no conception of the pain of childbirth. They dismiss the Frau’s screams by comparing her to a horse; the father’s doubts are all resolved when it is a son that is born. When it dawns on the naïve young housemaid that there’s a connection between the attentions of men and motherhood, she panics and flees from the Young Man. If you check out the biography of Mansfield’s short life, you can draw your own conclusions about why she wrote this way.
German attempts to read and understand Shakespeare in the original English are dismissed as pretentious. Conversely, Germans sneer at English fears of conquest (this story was written in 1911, three years before The Great War). Whatever political connection between Germany and Britain royal intermarriages might have conferred, this collection suggests that good international relations weren’t shared by the middle classes. The Germans see the English as weak; the English perceive the Germans as boorish. It’s interesting that this collection was ever published; I’ve never seen such overt contempt for another nation in print…
One story stands out as quite different. The Child Who Was Tired is an indictment of child labour, and it’s painful to read. I don’t know if children really were used as domestic servants in Germany at that time, but the portrait that Mansfield paints is horrific. The child is the illegitimate child of a waitress, rescued from her mother who tried to drown her in a wash-stand jug, and she is a bit simple. She is worked from dawn till beyond dusk, for even as she ‘thought of the nearness of bedtime [and] shook all over with excited joy’ she is harried into more work, looking after a party of friends who descend on the house in the evening. The stress of trying to keep the baby quiet, and her fear of the new baby that’s coming provoke a shocking ending.
I’ve also read Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and will write about that in due course…
Author: Katherine Mansfield
Title: In a German Pension
Publisher: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2008, first published 1911
eBook no 0800241
Source: Project Gutenberg, read on the Kindle.