atherine Mansfield’s experiences growing up in colonial New Zealand heightened her awareness of the discontinuities, lacunae, and tensions of modern life. She was born in 1888 in Wellington, a town labeled “the empire city” by its white inhabitants, who modeled themselves on British life and relished their city’s bourgeois respectability. At an early age, Mansfield witnessed the disjuncture between the colonial and the native, or Maori, ways of life, prompting her to criticize the treatment of the Maoris in several diary entries and short stories. Mansfield’s biographer, Angela Smith, writes: “It was her childhood experience of living in a society where one way of life was imposed on another, and did not quite fit in” that sharpened her modernist impulse to focus on moments of “disruption” or encounters with “strange or disturbing” aspects of life.
Her feelings of disjuncture were accentuated when she arrived in Britain in 1903 to attend Queen’s College. In many respects, Mansfield remained a lifelong outsider, a traveler between two seemingly similar yet profoundly different worlds. After briefly returning to New Zealand in 1906, she moved back to Europe in 1908, living and writing in England and parts of continental Europe. Until her premature death from tuberculosis at the age of 34, Mansfield remained in Europe, leading a Bohemian, unconventional way of life. The Domestic Picturesque
Mansfield’s short story “Prelude” is set in New Zealand and dramatizes the disjunctures of colonial life through an account of the Burnell family’s move from Wellington to a country village. The story takes its title from Wordsworth’s seminal poem, “The Prelude,” the first version of which was completed in 1805, which casts the poet as a traveler and chronicles the “growth of a poet’s mind.” Although the Burnell family moves a mere “six miles” from town, the move is not inconsequential; it enacts a break with their previous way of life and alerts the family members to the various discontinuities in their lives. Beneath the veneer of the Burnells’ harmonious domestic life are faint undercurrents of aggression and unhappiness. The haunting specter of a mysterious aloe plant and a slaughtered duck in their well-manicured yard suggests that the family’s "awfully nice" new home conceals moments of brutality and ignorance toward another way of life that was suppressed and denied. As I will propose, these two incidents echo the aesthetic concept of the sublime, as they encapsulate a mysterious power that awes its beholders and cannot be fully contained within their picturesque home.
Through her subtle, dream-like prose, Mansfield deploys traditional aesthetic conventions like the picturesque while simultaneously transfiguring, subverting, and reinventing them in a modernist context. The concept of the picturesque was first defined by its originator, William Gilpin, an 18th century artist and clergyman, as “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.” Thus, a scene or representation is beautiful when it echoes an already-established, artistic conception of beauty, revealing the self-reinforcing way in which art creates the standard of beauty for both art and life. Mansfield presents these picturesque moments in order to demystify them and reveal the suppression and violence they contain. In addition to “Prelude,” her stories “Garden Party” and “Bliss” dramatize the transformation and inversion of picturesque moments of bourgeois life and domestic harmony. While she seems to exhibit a certain attachment to these standard aesthetic forms, Mansfield subtly interrogates many of these conventions in a strikingly modernist way.
Through her childhood in a colony, Mansfield also became attuned to the violence and inequalities of colonialism. As Angela Smith suggests, her early writings demonstrate a keen sensitivity towards a repressed history of brutality and duplicity. In her 1912 short story “How Pearl...
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