No. 72: Miss Brill, Katherine Mansfield

I have been enormously excited to read Miss Brill. My friend Claire selected it after we visited the Ladybird by Design exhibition back in August. Her choice of classic came with a glowing review.

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The book consists of three short stories: Marriage à la Mode, Miss Brill and The Stranger. Importantly, a woman stands at the core of all three stories – the thread that binds the three together.

Marriage à la Mode and The Stranger appear remarkably similar. Both magnify an amorous husband, hankering for his wife having spent time apart from her. Both wives, in contrast, are distracted and apathetic.

The wife in Marriage à la Mode seems to prefer the company of her extensive group of glamorous friends. In a particularly cruel moment, she reads a charming love letter from her loving husband aloud to her (in my opinion) pretentious friends, before the party laugh hysterically.

“… laughing, sneering, jeering, stretching out their hands while she read them William’s letter.”

She immediately realises the error of her ways and decides to write her husband a love letter in return. She is soon distracted by her clamouring friends and promises herself she will write to him later, the implication being that she is preoccupied with her friends and doesn’t.

In The Stranger, a husband is reunited with his wife after she has returned from what seems to be a cruise, where she befriended everyone from the passengers to the captain himself.

The introductory quote summarises the wife perfectly – distracted and brief.

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The wife reveals to her husband that a man, who suffered from a heart condition, died in her arms when the two were alone together on board the ship. She makes it clear their relationship was perfectly innocent, she was simply there when it happened.

But alas, for her husband, she had

“Spoilt their evening! Spoilt their being alone together! They would never be alone together again!”

They were both great short stories – easy to whip through and I loved their fractured endings.

Miss Brill, however, was the star attraction. My friend Claire had first read Katherine Mansfield in school and fell in love with her short story The Doll’s House.

Having never encountered Mansfield before, I settled down on a train earlier this month to tuck in.

Miss Brill is an English Teacher living in France and we follow her on her usual Sunday routine.

The opening line immediately drew me in

“Although it was so brilliantly fine – the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques – Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur.”

This fur is integral to the story. It takes on a life of its own, later mirroring Miss Brill herself

“Little rogue biting its tale just by her left ear. She could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it.”

And so swathed in her beloved fur, Miss Brill heads for her traditional constitutional around the public gardens, enjoying the live band who sounded “louder and gayer” that day.

She observes every minute detail of the band – the conductor’s new coat, a new musical phrase – along with all the parties that emanate out from the band, before perching on a bench where she can better people-watch.

“She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives for just a minute while they talked around her.”

I could entirely relate to this. I relish people-watching, whether sitting at a pavement cafe with a cappuccino on holiday in Venice, or leaning by a fountain with a dodgy latte in Trafalgar Square, just down the road from my office.

Miss Brill watches children play, the band trumpet, lovers meet. She nostalgically recalls regularly reading a newspaper to an old man who would doze in the public gardens.

“How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play.”

A pair of young lovers enter stage left. The hero and heroine, as Miss Brill names them, approach the bench.

Sitting alongside Miss Brill, the young girl is evidently hesitant to kiss her hero. The boy queries her hesitation.

“Because of that stupid old thing at the end there? … Why does she come here at all – who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?”

The girl giggles, “It’s her fu-fur which is so funny … It’s exactly like a fried whiting.”

Her usual routine includes calling in at a local bakery en route home to purchase a slice of honey cake, sometimes with a crowning almond, and putting the kettle on for an accompanying cup of tea.

Alas, on this occasion, Miss Brill passes the bakery by, heading straight home.

She arrives back at her “little dark room” where she sits for a long time. She removes her fur, not bearing to meet it’s eye, and places it back in its box.

The story’s closing words are

“But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”

Poor Miss Brill! My heart broke for her. I resented those young people and their vicious words wounding an innocent, isolating her even more in “her room like a cupboard.”

The closing image of the fur, her familiar, on some level grieving for her is just brilliant. You can picture the entire scene, Miss Brill here performing her own play for us.

Having finished the book, I decided to honour Miss Brill by donning my own fur coat and taking a stroll around a public park.

Please rest assured that my fur is very much a fake (£80 from Zara, Autumn 2014). Depending on what I wear it with, the coat can make me feel fabulously glamorous, like Elizabeth Taylor, as I clip-clop around London, or a bit like I’ve stepped out of an old dusty wardrobe, like Narnia’s Mr Tumnus.

I thought about Miss Brill and, having been written in the 1920s, assumed that she wouldn’t leave home without a hat and gloves. I therefore chose a suitable set and left my flat.

I was to meet my lovely friend Lois for a stroll but alas she had a rather heavy night on the town the night before and overslept. We were booked in for an exhibition at 11am, and she was running half an hour behind schedule.

Rather than taking in the sights of Hyde Park, where I could picture Miss Brill strolling of a weekend, I found a nearby public garden that I decided would do just as nicely. We’re very lucky to have so many public gardens in London.

And so, rather appropriately, I sat on a bench wrapped in my fur and people-watched on a lovely Autumnal morning. I saw young couples walking dogs, children whizz by on scooters, women in joggers carrying eggs and sliced bread for their breakfast and an elderly man with a walking stick stretch his legs.

Lois texted me “are you wearing your fur?” having spotted me from the opposite side of the park (I’m hard to miss in that fur). She collected me from my bench and we were on our way.

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It made for a delightful morning, particularly as, lucky for me, there were no cruel words. If only Miss Brill had experienced the same.

Thank you Miss Brill Claire for choosing this Little Black Classic. You’re right to love Mansfield and thank you for introducing her to me!

Next time I will be reading Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.

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