Miss Brill is a short story by New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield. It was first published in Athenaeum on 26 November 1920 and later included in The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922).
I knew I wouldn’t have the time or reading energy to tackle a novel published in 1920 for this week’s 1920’s Club with Kaggsy
; so I chose a short story (or two). Just a little dipping of the toes into the bohemian waters of 1920!
Until I read this story, I knew very little about Mansfield’s rather short and tragic life. I had thought that I might find a story which referenced WWI and the Spanish Flu that swept around the world in 1919, little realising that Mansfield had enough health concerns of her own to go on with. In December 1917, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 29. She was dead five years later.
For someone so young, she managed to leave behind a huge body of work, mostly in the form of short stories, book reviews and letters. She grew up in a ‘socially prominent family’ in Wellington. Her childhood included a few years finishing off her schooling in Europe. She returned to NZ and started writing seriously, but found the ‘provincial life’ not to her liking and in 1908 she moved permanently from NZ to London.
She enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle in London, having relationships with men and women, as well as meeting Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence. There was a miscarriage, a couple of on again/off again marriages, eventually resulting in her mother cutting her out of her will.
Her beloved baby brother was killed in Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium, 6th October 1915 causing her to feel nostalgic about their childhood in NZ. Her reminiscences eventually lead into a prolific period of writing.
She died on the 9th January 1923 and was buried at Cimetiere d’Avon, Avon, France.
But let’s get back to poor Miss Brill.
Her story may be short, but it packs a punch. Miss Brill is an ageing, unmarried woman who lives quietly on her own, her only pleasure is walking around the Jardins Publiques to people watch. The story opens with a sense of excitement and anticipation. The long winter is over; the new Season is begun. Miss Brill brings out her fox stole from storage for the occasion. She freshens it up, brushing it’s fur, and rubbing the life back into it.
She heads out feeling smart and self-contained.
But, as you learn to expect from Mansfield, there is an underlying sadness or melancholy that swells up when you (or Miss Brill) least expect it.
By the end of this short story, Miss Brill is confronted to see how others perceive her. She goes from feeling like all the world’s a stage with everyone a player, including herself, to realising that she is a figure of ridicule, on the outside of a brand new world dominated by youth.
Loneliness, isolation and illusion. Themes that have taken on a new meaning in our own brand new coronavirus world.
Thank you to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting the #1920Club.
My other Katherine Mansfield posts: