Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 31, 2016

The Garden Party (1922), by Katherine Mansfield

The Collected Stories of Katherine MansfieldNow that I’ve at last been able to move my father from aged care in Queensland to close by here in Melbourne, I have the pleasure of reading with him on a regular basis.  He loves poetry, and can still declaim his favourites from school days, but he also likes a short story every now and again.   Today we read one of my favourite authors, the great New Zealand Modernist, Katherine Mansfield, and the story we chose was ‘The Garden Party’, one which is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  The story earns its place because

Ambitious in scope but perfectly and minutely executed, in the space of just a few pages, The Garden Party takes its readers with fluid ease from a flower-filled summertime marquee to a sordid, death-filled cottage.  As Laura confronts the world outside her own family for the first time, her certainties are eroded, but not to be definitely replaced; while for the reader, the subtlety of the conclusion and delicately shifting emotional landscape provide a much richer literary experience than most short stories.  A premier modernist stylist, Mansfield’s prose [sic] is spare and beautiful; no word in The Garden Party is superfluous or out of place … (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, p. 294)

As you’ll know if you read my review of Kathleen Jones’ comprehensive biography Katherine Mansfield, the Storyteller, Katherine Mansfield (1888 – 1923) led only a short life before succumbing to TB, and the collection published in 1920 as The Garden Party and Other Stories was written not long before she died.  Along with stories from her collections  In a German Pension (1911) and Bliss (1920), The Garden Party and Other Stories is collected into this Penguin Classics edition with an introduction by Ali Smith.  Discussing ‘The Garden Party’ Smith describes it as

a perfect working example of something Mansfield’s stories perform again and again – the disruption of the surface of social convention by a final, unavoidable, different kind of reality.  (Ali Smith, Introduction to The Collected Stories, p. xv)

The story seemed more vivid to me than the last time I read it, because I was reading it aloud.  I am good at reading aloud, and I like to do it: it was one of the pleasures of my job as a teacher-librarian that I could indulge myself performing dialogue like any wannabe actor taking on characters in a play reading.  So I enjoyed myself taking on the roles of Laura’s narcissistic family, who were totally absorbed in the business of preparing a splendid garden party complete with a marquee; with massed arum lilies from the florist and roses obligingly in bloom for the day; and with fifteen kinds of exquisite sandwiches all nicely flagged with their contents and complemented by Godber’s famous cream puffs which soon had Jose and Laura licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream. 

Mansfield gives us the youngest daughter Laura Sheridan’s point-of-view: her observations, her feelings, her certainties and her doubts.  So as the story unfolds with perfect economy, the reader sees Laura enjoying herself with the sensual delight of a perfect New Zealand summer’s day and relishing a sense of quiet pride in being entrusted with some of the decision-making.  It means she is growing up, and although she is easily cowed by workmen who want to erect the marquee anywhere but where she suggests it, she takes pleasure in her responsibility for it.  But unlike the rest of the family, Laura finds her equanimity shattered when she learns about the sudden death of a local carter, a man whose accident has left his wife widowed with five children.

(Five, that is, says Godber’s man who reports the news; or half-a-dozen says Mr Sheridan.  Without judgement, Mansfield conveys with this small detail that this poverty-stricken family within walking distance, is of so little consequence that even the number of children is not known.)

Laura wants the party cancelled.  She is alert to the incongruity of a band playing dance music while within hearing distance a family grieves.  She goes from one family member to another seeking support for her point of view but is told that nobody expects them to cancel and not to be so extravagant.  She is more hurt by her mother’s nonchalance because she seems amused and patronises Laura with a distracting new hat.

‘But my dear child, use your common sense.  It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it.  If someone had died there normally – and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes – we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?

Laura had to say ‘yes’ to that, but she felt it was all wrong.  She sat down on her mother’s sofa and pinched the cushion frill.

‘Mother, isn’t it terribly heartless of us?’ she asked.

‘Darling!’  Mrs Sheridan came over to her, carrying the hat.  Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on.  ‘My child!’ said her mother, ‘the hat is yours.  It’s made for you.  It’s much too young for me.  I’ve never seen you look such a picture.  Look at yourself!’ And she held up her hand mirror.

‘But, mother, ‘ Laura began again.  She couldn’t look at herself; she turned aside.

This time Mrs Sheridan lost patience just as Jose had done.

‘You are being very absurd, Laura,’ she said coldly. ‘People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us.  And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. (p.255-6)

Laura has irrevocably lost her certainties.  Her idealism puts her out of step not just with the family she loves, but also isolates her from the society she has so cheerfully inhabited.

It’s a terrific story…

Author: Katherine Mansfield
Title: ‘The Garden Party’ in The Collected Stories
Publisher: Penguin Classics, 2007, first published 1922
ISBN: 9780141441818
Source: Personal Library

Available from Fishpond: The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield


  1. I’ve read a few of Mansfield’s stories but nowhere near enough. I have a big collection of her stories on the Kindle but it’s probably the wrong format for something like this as I’m sure I would find it much easier to dip in and out of a physical volume. Something to address in the future, I think.

    Glad to hear your father is in Melbourne now, must make a massive difference having him close by.


    • It’s wonderful. No more of those endless trips to Qld and I can not only keep an eye on things properly, but I can enjoy his company. Two bookworms together again!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love Katherine Mansfield’s short stories and this is a lovely perceptive review, Lisa. How lovely to be able to visit your Dad when you want and to share poems and stories. I envy you:)


    • Thanks, Mairi:) I am very conscious that I am lucky to have him. *hug* to you, and to anyone missing loved ones who have left for The Great Library in the Sky.


  3. ‘People like that’. Isn’t that an expression that contains a world of prejudice.
    I love reading out loud too, though my grandchildren’s attention span may be a bit less than your father’s.


  4. I remember reading ‘The Garden Party’ in an anthology of stories a long time ago. Reading aloud does make books more vivid. I still remember clearly the stories I read aloud to my kids ages ago. If course the fact that I read them again and again helps.


    • Yes, people always say that reading aloud is great for kids, but they forget how good it is for the grownups too.


  5. A wonderful review of such a perfect story . . . one of my all-time favourites. I can picture you and your father together, as you read to him. Literature is such a bonding experience.


    • Thanks, Karenlee… one of the things I like about the litblogsphere is that reviews crop up of a book you read ages ago and it reminds you of the pleasure of reading it.


  6. How lovely for your Dad to be close to you, Lisa and how lucky he is to have someone who loves him read to him.


    • We’re reading Sherlock Holmes now. All these years I’ve seen endless TV series but never read the book!


  7. […] think this is The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, one of my favourite NZ authors.  I think I might have read it three or four […]


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