Europe between the Wars
In the 1920s, Europe was rebuilding after World War I, the most destructive and deadly war in history. As the economy grew, spurred on by the advances in medicine and technology gained during the war, a newfound era of wealth and cultural growth permeated many Western European countries. France, especially, became a haven for expatriate artists and writers from England and the United States drawn to its affordable living conditions. The values of the “Jazz Age” spread to the continent, where the dismantling of strict Victorian protocol resulted in the rise of controversial art like Expressionism and Surrealism and explicit literature from writers like James Joyce.
“Miss Brill” is set during this tumultuous time period, when the sight of an older, single woman wearing an outdated fur stole represented a genteel world forever obliterated by the atrocities of trench warfare, the promise of air travel, and the cynicism generated by the millions of casualties in the war. Like others of her day, Miss Brill is a foreigner living in France, but she is alienated from the thriving community of artists and writers who formed the “moveable feast” in Paris during the 1920s. Instead, Miss Brill has a few students to whom she teaches English and she reads to an elderly gentleman until he falls asleep. Miss Brill’s association with this man further represents her alignment with an era now obsolete. The young couple on the bench are of a younger generation, and their comments reveal the attitude towards which young people now regarded their elders.
Katherine Mansfield, whose numerous affairs always marked her as a bit of a free spirit, fit into this new social order quite comfortably. However, by the time she wrote “Miss Brill,” she was weak from tuberculosis and exerted the bulk of her energy writing stories and letters. In England, the Bloomsbury writers, a loosely-knit group that included Virginia Woolf and whose main literary goal was to eradicate the old social order of the Victorians, were in frequent correspondence with Mansfield. In “Miss Brill,” Mansfield created one of her most famous characterizations; one that illustrates the illusions of the old order and how they are shown to be just that: illusions
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Katherine Mansfield, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.