Katherine Mansfield, born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, lived a short life, but she established a literary reputation at a young age. Her first published book, In a German Pension, was published in 1911, when she was only twenty-two years old. She became friends with some of the great literary figures of her day, including D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and married the writer and critic J. Middleton Murry.
Her stories are full of detail and small, albeit significant, incidents in her characters’ lives. In an often-quoted letter published in The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, she says of “Miss Brill”: “I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her, and to fit her on that day at that moment.” Katherine Fullbrook notes in her biography titled simply Katherine Mansfield that”while the surface of her stories often flash with sparkling detail, the underlying tones are sombre, threatening, and register the danger in the most innocent seeming aspects of life.”
“Miss Brill,” is one of her finest stories, capturing in a moment an event that will forever change the life of the title character. Miss Brill is an older woman of indeterminate age who makes a meager living teaching English to school children and reading newspapers to an “old invalid gentleman.” Her joy in life is her visit to the park on Sunday, where she observes all that goes on around her and listens to the conversations of people nearby, as she sits “in on other people’s lives.” It is when she tries to leave her role as spectator and join the “players” in her little world that she is rebuffed by that world and her fantasy falls apart.
On this particular Sunday, she has taken her fur necklet out of its box, brushed it, cleared its eyes, and put it on. She is glad that she wore it, because the air contains a “faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip.” It is a beautiful day, the first Sunday of the Season, so everything seems nicer than usual. Even the band seems to play “louder and gayer.”
Miss Brill is somewhat disappointed that there are only two older people near where she is seated. They do not speak, and her observations of the life around her begin in silence. It is clear at this point in the story that she considers herself a spectator, detached from the activities around her. She expects entertainment from the strollers and sitters, but she has been disappointed more than once. Last week, we learn, an Englishman and his wife held a boring conversation which drove Miss Brill to the point of wanting to shake the woman. But she didn’t shake her, because that would have meant involving herself in the actions she so quietly observed.
Mansfield’s eye for detail and the telling moment exhibits itself here as we, along with Miss Brill, watch the activities in the park: “… couples and groups [parade], [stop] to talk, to greet … children [run] among them, swooping and laughing. ” A “high stepping mother” picks up her child who has “suddenly sat down ‘flop.'” It is a scene made up of details that we have all, at one time or another, witnessed ourselves. And that is all that Miss Brill does right now: witness the world parading past her.
But then she takes note of the people on the benches. She sees “something funny about nearly all of them.” And as she looks at these “odd, silent, nearly all old” people who look as if they have “just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!” she does not see that she is one of them. Mansfield’s prose gives us an objective look at the people and events around Miss Brill while at the same time allowing us to see the subjective interpretation Miss Brill makes of that world. We don’t know what she thinks of herself, or even if she thinks of herself at all. But if she does, she must not see herself very clearly. She must not believe that she is old or odd or funny.
Now the band strikes up, and the procession continues with young girls and soldiers and peasant women leading donkeys and a nun and a beautiful woman who drops her flowers and, when a little boy picks them up for her, throws them away “as if they’d been poisoned.” Miss Brill doesn’t know “whether to admire that or not!”
Then an older woman wearing an ermine toque (a hat made of white fur) meets a man. The ermine is “shabby” and bought when “her hair was yellow.” Now her hair, as well as her face and “even her eyes” are as white as the fur. She makes superficial, yet somehow strained and desperate conversation but the man walks away after lighting his cigarette and blowing smoke in her face. The band plays more softly as the woman stands there, exposed and alone, but it picks up the tempo and plays even more loudly than before after the woman has pretended to see someone and walks away.
The fur connects them—her toque and Miss Brill’s necklet—and we see, as the woman is snubbed by the man, a foreshadowing of what is to happen to Miss Brill later in the story. The woman tried to engage the man in conversation, and Miss Brill will later try to engage with the world.
The pageant resumes with an “old man with long whiskers” nearly being knocked over by “four girls walking abreast.” Miss Brill is lost in her fantasy world now, thinking how wonderful it all is. She decides, suddenly, that it is “exactly like a play.” The scenery is perfect enough to be a painted backdrop. When a little dog trots on-stage, then off again, she realizes that not only is she—and everyone else—the audience, but they are also the actors. She has her part to play; that is why she comes at the same time each week: so that she will be on time for her performance! This wonderfully romantic idea captures her imagination. It is, she thinks, the reason that she “had quite a queer, shy feeling at telling her English pupils how she spent her Sunday afternoons.” (In those days, the theater was not considered a proper or legitimate career and also had dark, often sexual connotations). She imagines telling the old man whom she reads to that, yes, she is an actress, that she “has been an actress for a long time.”
She has entered fully now into the world she has previously only observed. She is a part of the play, someone in the cast who would be missed if she were not to come on Sunday afternoons. She delights in this newfound role as the band begins to play again. The music is “warm and sunny,” yet there is a “faint chill” to it, echoing the beginning of the story. It makes her want to sing and, as the music gets brighter, she believes that the whole company of actors in her little theater in the park will start singing together at any moment,”and then she, too, and the others on the benches.” Having entered the world, she is on the verge of becoming active in it. She feels at one with all the other actors. Her eyes fill with tears and she knows that they understand, although what they understand she is not quite sure.
It is at this moment of epiphany, when she feels a connection to the world, that a young couple arrives and sits on the bench. Miss Brill casts them immediately as the hero and heroine of her drama. She imagines them as just having arrived from his father’s yacht and “with that trembling smile,” she listens to their dialogue. But the dialogue is not heroic, but vulgar and common. The boy is trying to seduce the girl, and she is playfully, half-heartedly resisting his advances.
In the next few sentences, Miss Brill’s illusions are shattered, and she is forced to confront her life as it is. Brutal and direct, the boy asks: “Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home.” And the girl answers: “It’s her fu-fur which is so funny … . It’s exactly like a fried whiting,” comparing the woman’s stole to dead fish. Miss Brill has discovered her part in her play, and now she finds that it is a tragedy, not a romance.
She leaves the park and goes home. She does not even stop at the bakery for her Sunday treat. Instead, she goes straight to her “little dark room— her room like a cupboard,” which again connects her to the old, odd, silent people on the park benches whom she has imagined as having come from just such rooms. She sits on the bed and puts her fur away in its box, but as she does, she hears something crying. She has now withdrawn so far from the world that has hurt her, that she does not realize that it is she who is crying.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Katherine Mansfield, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Robert Peltier, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997