An Indiscreet Journey was a short story written in 1915 by Katherine Mansfield but published posthumously in the 1924 collection, Something Childish and other stories by her husband John Middleton Murry. Initially it reads like a fairly straight forward story about a woman on a train journey to visit her aunt and uncle in the middle of the French war zone during WWI. Except she’s not really visiting her aunt and uncle, she’s meeting up her with her lover, a soldier. A very brief internet research also reveals this short story is based on the actual visit of Mansfield to her lover Carco in February 1915.
John Middleton Murry introduced Mansfield and Carco back in 1913. Murry and Mansfield were not married at until 1918, but their on again/off again bohemian relationship had begun in 1911. The affair between Carco and Mansfield seems to have run over the winter of 1914/1915.
With this story, we can see Mansfield exploring the idea of documenting the war as a social historian, as someone who is living through the thing she is describing. She shows us wounded soldiers, checkpoints and a mother reading a letter from her soldier son. She talks about gassing, firing lines, travel documents and curfews.
Mansfield leaves a lot unsaid here. The clandestine nature of the visit is alluded to but not directly approached. Most of the story is about the journey, not the actual purpose of the visit. The danger and tension of the war acts as a cover for the danger and tension of a secret assignation with a lover.
It turns out that the letter in the story, from the aunt, Julie Boiffard, inviting her to visit, is based on the real letter from Carco to Mansfield, that is now held in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand. The fake nature of this letter explains, why the niece in the story keeps forgetting the surname of her aunt and uncle. ‘Again I read the unfamiliar letter in the familiar handwriting.’
One of the curiosities that caught my eye was the ‘ordinary little woman‘ sitting in the same carriage as as our narrator. ‘She wore a black velvet toque, with an incredibly surprised looking seagull camped on the very top of it. Its round eyes, fixed on me so enquiringly, were almost too much to bear. I had a dreadful impulse to shoo it away.‘
I imagined something like this in my mind’s eye:
However, it more likely resembled the image below.
Birds and feathers were a feature on hats at this time, with many cartoons sending up this particular fashion by suggesting the addition of kittens and puppies. Mansfield seems to be tapping into this humorous vein to make fun of her own distress or guilt at her secret rendezvous, imagining that all eyes were on her and that everyone knew what she was up to.
Francis Carco depicted Mansfield as a magpie, a purloiner of gems from the lives and characters of those around her, who was incapable of putting a word on paper without having personally witnessed or experienced the sentiments it expressed. For all the distortion of his caricature, there is an element of truth in his notion that she was a writer who fed off her surroundings to an exceptional extent.1 If she didn’t ‘prey’ off life, as Carco put it, she was certainly deeply ‘rooted’ in it.
Parkin-Gounelas Ruth. (1991) Katherine Mansfield: Far, Far Nearer. In: Fictions of the Female Self
I’m not particular surprised that Carco was dismissive of Mansfield’s writing style. The two stories that feature him in some way are not very flattering. In fact Je ne parle pas Francois
shows us a very unattractive, unlikable man indeed.
In An Indiscreet Journey we see a man who seems to get off on the secretive details of the tryst – the dash in a cab, through the streets where ‘policemen are as thick as violets‘ to the door of the aunt and uncle, before being quickly bundled inside and shut up in the white room. He drops the suitcase and paper, she tosses her passport in the air and he catches it. End scene.
Their time spent in the unnamed town is filled with visits to the local cafe for lunch and dinner every day, where they have a special table, that she has decorated with a little vase of violets. The final scene is the woman sitting at the table on her, imagining the passing years, watching the passing parade on the other tables…until her lover and his friend arrive. At the end we see the two men, quite drunk, discussing the merits and differences between the English whiskey and the French mirabelle as they eat their way through a little charcuterie platter.
Mansfield wrote to Virginia Woolf in 1919, “What the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question. There must be the question put. That seems to me a very nice dividing line between the true & the false writer“.
So what is the question being asked here?
Is it, once again, the difference between the English and the French.
Who do you trust?
Escape and freedom versus fear and guilt?
The joy of these stories is that we will never really know.
The delight is in the interpretation for each and every reader.
Part of the joy for me, is the researching, as I dig deeper into Mansfield’s short life. Getting to know this fascinating woman has certainly been a highlight of my 2020 reading life so far.
- From 20 – 22 February 2015, the town of Gray, near Dijon in France, hosted a weekend of celebrations, to commemorate the centenary of the visit by Katherine Mansfield to Gray in order to see Francis Carco.
My other Katherine Mansfield posts: