For my second visit to the Penguin Little Black classics, I decided to read a couple of collections of short works by two very wonderful women writers – Katherine Mansfield and Kate Chopin. Chopin is particularly known for her novel “The Awakening” in which there’s been something of a resurgence of interest recently. Mansfield, of course, needs no introduction; short story writer par excellence, she was the one serious rival to Virginia Woolf and the one author of whom Woolf was jealous. I read “The Awakening” a long time ago, and can’t recall much about it (though I obviously liked it enough to keep my copy!) But I’ve revisited Mansfield more recently, and was even more impressed by her writing than on my first reads.
Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield
This little volume contains three stories: “Marriage a la Mode”, “Miss Brill” and “The Stranger”. I recognised the stories from my last encounter with Mansfield, but this is no way spoiled my enjoyment. Mansfield is a sharp observer of the realities of life, of how events can slip out of our grasp because of our lack of ability to control someone else’s emotions. Marriage is central to the first and last stories and Mansfield brilliantly portrays the failure of two people to have a successful union; how we are still strangers within that relationship. And “Miss Brill” is a poignant study of self-deception with Mansfield’s writing capturing the turn of mind of the title character and her delusions about her lonely life. There are no huge, dramatic happenings in these works; instead, events are quietly devastating, with human frailties highlighted and human needs thwarted. Characters are unintentionally cruel to one another, and there’s the sense that human beings will never really understand each other. These are powerful little tales and Mansfield was an incredible writer.
A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin
Chopin’s work is based in the south of America, and like Mansfield’s protagonists they experience self-deception and the unfairness of the world. “Desiree’s Baby” in particular is quite devastating, touching on prejudice and heredity, topics which also feature in “Neg Creol” and “Miss McEnders”. This is a world where men hold the power, where they cannot be expected to be fair, or constant, or kind, and women are very much at their mercy. “The Story of an Hour” particularly highlights this, when a wife receives news of her husband’s death as a liberation not a loss. And the title story features another running theme, that of poverty and temptation – when Mrs. Sommers suddenly finds herself in possession of a large sum of money, it’s so easy to indulge in all the little luxuries she’d gone without while holding her family together and providing for them.
Both of these collections were striking and strong, proving that there are plenty of women writers who can claim high status in the world of short story writing. And both have made me want to go out and re-read more of their authors’ works – which can’t be a bad thing. Another pair of winners from Penguin’s Little Black Classics! 🙂