I say disruptor, and what do you see? A tech company with a cool office? A team of 10 groundbreaking people, mostly men probably. Do you think an app, a new logo, a new line of products?
But disruptions come in all sizes and a small moment of inspiration that shifts a thought or behaviour also has an impact. Today on you, tomorrow a friend and after that an exponential spread of different ideas and perspectives.
As I start my journey into short fiction, I’m drawn back into the world of Katherine Mansfield. We’re just shy of 100 years since the writer’s death, but I still get that sense of disruption from her thinking, her behaviour and her legacy of short stories.
As you read Katherine’s stories, her irony, humour, her clamour is still so present.
Her stories are replete with gender observations, a poke at the class restrictions and stuffy and harmful colonial perspectives — all sources of dislocation.
Born into an affluent banking family in New Zealand in 1888 she had the opportunity to visit Europe from a young age and was greatly affected by the fin de siècle literature and art movements of the time.
At a period when the empire was still thought of positively, Mansfield came from a society that considered itself British and behaved with a strange allegiance to a country that many in New Zealand had never been. On the flip side of this, Katherine’s place in London was amongst people who probably viewed her as an outsider while still holding tightly onto their idea of citizenship of the empire.
The disjointed narrative at both ends of her journey reflects throughout her writing. Outsider status apart it did, however, make her a natural fit to the modernist movement. Her contemporary, Virginia Woolf, described Mansfield as the only writer she had ever been jealous of.
I feel a common certain understanding between us — a queer sense of being ‘like’ — not only about literature — & I think it’s independent of gratified vanity. I can talk straight to her.
That quote is from this article in the Heroine Collective, which includes a lot more about her life. I highly recommend a read.
Her stories often described worlds that were contained and fit the modernist belief that life could be experienced, or shattered in a day moving away from the previous era of literature that tended to express stories over longer periods.
The characters in the three stories listed below: Bliss, At The Bay and The Garden Party experience a disruption to their lives that is unshakeable. Sometimes the interruption is accidentally invited, sometimes yearned for, other times put upon them but to the female characters of these short stories the change is permanent.
Bertha returns home to prepare for a dinner party of her own design. Life is blissful; she muses as she drops in on her baby, arranges the fruit for the evening and marvels at the inexpressible beauty of the world.
The details of the party might be agonisingly middle class if not for Mansfield’s bold irony the whole way through. “I saw myself driving through Eternity in a timeless taxi” claims a guest as he greets Bertha and her guests in their dining room.
Bertha’s star guest is Miss Pearl Fulton, whose mysterious qualities are as elusive to Bertha as her ability to describe her feelings. Bertha has invited Moss Fulton, ignoring the protests of her husband and yearning throughout dinner to explore this feeling of togetherness, connectivity she feels with her guest.
The disruption is heartbreaking; a moment of transformation for Bertha: innocent to savvy, dreamer to realist and from someone who feels such an intense connection with the world to someone who realises her emptiness.
At The Bay
Disruption hits early in this multi protagonist story. Stanley Burnell flies from his beach bungalow; desperate to be the first in the ocean and “beat them all again” but no, his neighbour has stolen his victory by getting there first.
“Why the Dickens didn’t the fellow stick to his part of the sea.”
Throughout the story, the characters are snatched from their status quo by external distractions. The final one belongs to Beryl, whose internal yearning for love and intimacy is answered from an unexpected quarter. Will she accept this disruption and satisfy her desire or live out her fear of solitude?
The Garden Party
Over one day Laura’s insular world is opened up from the secluded privilege of affluence. Her distractions start early. Instructed by her mother to oversee the construction of the marquee in the garden, she encounters fresh energy among the male workers who weren’t constrained by “absurd class distinctions.”
“Why couldn’t she have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came for dinner on a Saturday night? She would get on much better with boys like these”
Laura’s senses are heightened further when she hears the news that a working man in the cottages is killed and a funeral is taking place down the hill. She is mortified to think of the grieving friends and family overlooking their garden party; it seems cold and heartless but nobody in her house shares her concern.
Laura experiences total disruption of thought and values when she is unwittingly drawn to the house of the dead man.
As I read Katherine’s work, I’m experiencing multiple disruptions of my own; of my world, my sensors, of my purpose and the possibilities for my work.
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All quotes taken from: Mansfield, Katherine, Selected Stories, Oxford University Press, 2002, Ed. Angela Smith