In this lesson, we will read the short story, A Cup of Tea, by Mansfield, who, despite being a New Zealander, is now accepted in the domain of English writers. She found her forte in the short story which is often seen as the occasional by-product of the novel. We have, however, already discussed in the previous unit that the short story is not a brief novel. It is to Mansfield’s absolute credit that she infused into the short story the breath of poetry. Along with other great novelists who have also been short story writers, like Henry James, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield also developed new methods of exploring the atmosphere of the mind of the characters and interpreted human emotions into words. She is influenced by Chekhov and there is always a subtle irony in her stories.
A Cup of Tea is a beautiful story by Mansfield where there is a gentle irony in the end. The central character, Rosemary Fell has two sides to her character. At first, we see how Rosemary is motivated by the good intention to help a poor, distressed girl. Later on, however, we see how once her jealousy is aroused, all her good intentions come to nothing and she can be as mean and petty as anybody else. Mansfield has very beautifully delineated the psychology of Rosemary Fell.
This lesson will acquaint you with the story and the character of Rosemary Fell. You will also get an idea of the themes worked on, and the technique and language used by Mansfield.
Table of Contents
KATHERINE MANSFIELD: HER LIFE AND WORKS
Katherine Mansfield is one of the most important figures in the evolution of the short story. She won recognition as an original and experimental writer, and her stories were the first in English to show the influence of the Russian writer Anton Chekov. Mansfield is generally regarded as one of the finest writers of her generation. Let us now discuss the life of this admirable writer and also the numerous works written by her.
It will be interesting to know that Katherine Mansfield was only a pseudonym, i.e. it was only a pen name. Her real name was Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp. She was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1888 and was educated at Queen’s College, London in 1903. Much against her will, she returned to Wellington in 1906 where she passed the next two years. She was quite a rebel and protested against the narrow- mindedness of a remote provincial existence. In fact, Mansfield led a short but very varied and unconventional life. In 1908, she returned to London with the intention of pursuing a literary career. For her own vested interests, she entered into an unhappy marriage with George Bowden, but the marriage was dissolved soon afterwards. Bowden was, however, instrumental in Mansfield’s relationship with the periodical The New Age as it was he who suggested her to send some of her writings to the editor. In 1911, Mansfield met John Middleton Murry whom she married in 1918. Murry had a profound influence on her life and she blossomed under him. She began writing for a quarterly, Rhythm, edited by Murry, about her New Zealand childhood.
Mansfield is perhaps the first New Zealand writer to be accepted in the realm of English writing. She is also credited with giving the English short story not only new content but also a new form. Critics are unanimous in praising her rare insight into the atmosphere of the mind and her penetrating intellect. She has the ability to translate human feelings and thoughts into words. This is balanced by a delicate sense of form which is a perfect quality for the genre of the short story. The stories of Mansfield are some moments, some instances and some gleams of life to which she has added a touch of eternity. Mansfield was central to European modernism, and she was associated with the Bloomsbury circle and with writers such as D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf with whom she had a troubled relationship.
Mansfield was always of delicate health and while living in Cornwall in 1915, she discovered that she was suffering from tuberculosis, an incurable disease during that time. The death of some of her friends in World War I and her illness had a deep impact on her mind and her health deteriorated. Even then, she planned and produced almost 88 stories which established her supremacy on the short story genre. She spent her last days in the South of France hoping to regain her health but died suddenly on January 9, 1923, at Fontainebleau at the age of 34. Her death evoked comparisons to the untimely and sudden death of the Romantics poets, Keats and Shelley. Keats died of tuberculosis and Shelley by drowning.
LET US KNOW
“The Bloomsbury Group” is the name given to a group of friends who met at a common place to share their views on the importance of the arts. This group of writers, artists and intellectuals began meeting at the Bloomsbury house of the Stephen sisters, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. The group included such great people as Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, Thoby Stephen, Roger Fry and others. Their philosophy, in the statement of G. E. Moore, was that “one’s prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge.” The Bloomsbury circle was a very influential group and they reacted against the narrow constraints of the Victorian society.
Nuance: subtle difference in meaning.
Fidelity: (origin from Latin ‘fidelis’ meaning ‘faithful’) means continuing faithfulness to a person, cause or belief.
Mansfield’s reputation as a short story writer rests mainly on five volumes of stories. They are, In a German Pension (1911), Bliss and Other Stories (1920), The Garden Partyand Other Stories (1922), The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories (1923) and Something Childish (1924).
In a German Pension recounts her experiences in Germany. Mansfield, after separating from her first husband, gave birth to a stillborn son from another man in Bavaria, and this experience formed the background of the aforementioned collection. But this collection could not show her maturity as a writer. Her talent as a short story writer blossomed in the volume Bliss and Other Stories. Family relationships and people were her subjects in which she tried to explore the various nuances of life. The Garden Party and Other Stories was the last work to be published during her lifetime. This volume contains some of her best-known works like ‘The Garden Party’ and ‘Her First Ball’ where Mansfield displayed her command over style and language. In the collection, The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories, she explores the atmosphere of the mind of the characters.
Mansfield’s stories attempt to describe the true human experience and glorify honesty and fidelity without any pretensions. She is particularly skilful in portraying children, men and women, and women alone. She often makes use of the interior monologue to depict the psychology of the characters.
The works which were published after Mansfield’s death are Poems (1923), Something Childish and Other Stories (1924) and A Fairy Story (1932). The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (1945) was an omnibus volume. Her husband Murry edited The Letters of Katherine Mansfield (1928) and Katherine Mansfield’s Letters to John Middleton Murry: 1913- 1922 (1951).
LET US KNOW
An interior monologue presents to the reader the exact course and rhythm of the consciousness of the characters. The author has no part to play in the mental process. The term is often used interchangeably with ‘stream of consciousness’ which is again all about probing the minds of the characters in a literary work.
Rosemary Fell was also well-loved by her husband, Philip, who was a generous person as far as pleasing her whims were concerned. Rosemary, however, knew little about the real world which exists outside her cocoon of luxury.
One winter afternoon, Rosemary was shopping in an antique shop in Curzon Street where she made up her mind to buy an “exquisite little enamel box” for an outrageously high price of twenty-eight guineas. Just as she came out of the shop into the cold rainy afternoon, she encountered a “little battered creature with enormous eyes”, almost her age, begging her for a “cup of tea”. This chance meeting seemed to Rosemary almost something out of a Dostoevsky novel. It seemed like an adventure to Rosemary and she began to wonder what would happen if she took the unknown girl home and do things which a fairy godmother would do. She is filled with good intentions and, therefore insisted that the girl accompany her home. The girl was much surprised, but Rosemary convinced her to come along with her as “hungry people are easily led”. Rosemary was very gracious towards the girl in her home and gave her with food and drinks which the latter took with alacrity and gratitude. The rich meal had an immediate effect on the young girl and her eyes showed her contentment. Just as Rosemary was making small talk with the girl, her husband Philip came into the room.
Little: the difference between ‘little’ and ‘a little’‘little’ means ‘almost none’; ‘a little’ means ‘some’
Dostoevsky: a Russian novelist, best known for his novels, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov.
Alacrity: great eagerness.
Rosemary gets to know that the girl’s name is Miss Smith and she introduces her to Philip. He then asks Rosemary to accompany him to the library in order to discuss something private. Philip then asks her what he intends to do with the girl and Rosemary enthusiastically reveals her noble intentions to him. But Philip says that this cannot be done because she is “astonishingly pretty” and that he is “bowled over” by her beauty. Rosemary was greatly surprised to hear this from her husband. Her good nature instantly evaporated to be replaced by womanly jealousy. She could not bear the fact that her husband is praising a stranger. After a few moments of thinking, she dismisses Miss Smith gifting her three pounds out of the five that she had initially intended to give her. Rosemary then dresses herself up prettily, doing her hair, darkening her eyes and putting on her pearls in order to prove herself equally pretty. She succeeds in getting from Philip the assurance that she is really pretty. She even gets his permission to buy the enamel box for twenty-eight guineas. Philip, as usual, is very indulgent and grants her permission. Thus, Rosemary’s jealousy and possessiveness cause an end of her relationship with Miss Smith. All her good intentions of being helpful to the poor girl are reduced to nought. Womanly jealousy got the better of her warm human qualities of showing charity and compassion to the girl.
“A Cup of Tea” is basically a story of human relationships. As I have already mentioned earlier, Mansfield excels in portraying the characters of men, women and children. In the present story, her vision of life is expressed through her theme i.e. man and woman as husband and wife, in a way quite characteristic of her. She describes the truth of human experience honestly without any attempt at hiding anything.
What we find in the story is that Rosemary and her husband Philip are living in complete harmony as husband and wife. Rosemary though is hardly aware of the harsh realities of life because she is living a life of luxury. She no doubt has a sensitive and kindly side to her. However, the entrance of a third person, the ‘other woman’ Miss Smith, betrays her inherent nature and she shows that she can be a mean person indeed. This is not to say that Rosemary is a wholly bad person. Perhaps this is the way all women will behave if their marital relationship is threatened, or their husbands seem to be attracted towards other women. This is a purely womanly instinct which is inexplicable. So, the basic theme of the story is womanly jealousy, which, when aroused in a woman, negates her good qualities and she becomes petty. Rosemary’s action illustrates this well.
The basic conflict in “A Cup of Tea” is as removed from us as the society in which it is set. Another theme you may discover in the story is the artificiality of the behaviour of fashionable people like Rosemary Fell. Her concern for the poor girl, Miss Smith, is not born out of her genuinely compassionate character. Her decision to bring the girl home and take care of her is the result of a sudden urge to indulge in an adventure. But the decision to dump the girl is also equally sudden. It has got to do with her womanly jealousy. These themes have been revealed in the story with great clarity.
If you read the story carefully, you will notice that the main character in the story is Rosemary Fell. It is she who carries the story forward and it is her psychology which is laid bare for us to see. Katherine Mansfield is best known for her ability to explore the minds of her characters, how they react to situations and also how their thoughts affect their actions. She can beautifully translate human feelings and thoughts into words. And she does all this without the slightest pretension. Human relationships are her particular field of interest and she skillfully portrays the different facets of men, women and children. Her stories are interesting for the exquisite depiction of the relationship between men and women as lovers or as husband and wife as can be seen in the marital relationship between Philip and Rosemary.
Mansfield introduces Rosemary Fell as “not exactly beautiful”. Yet she was rich and led an untroubled, luxurious life with an adoring husband. We cannot decipher the character of Rosemary unless we make allowances for the social hierarchy in which she is rooted. She belongs to the upper strata of society and is well- informed about the latest happenings. Her readings of the great writers have made her an imaginative person with a touch of sensitivity. But regretfully, she has little idea about the realities of the world around her. She was ignorant of the hard life led by the not- so-fortunate people who have to struggle to have food on their tables.
As you have read in the story, Rosemary is forced to encounter the ‘other’ world- the world of poverty which was in sharp contrast to her ‘ideal’ world when she met a ragged creature one chilly winter afternoon pleading her for a “cup of tea”. This meeting with a stranger with “reddened hands” and “enormous eyes” prompts her to be a fairy godmother of the kind she has read in her fictive books. It is ironical that her knowledge of the real world is based on the books she has read and the plays she had seen. She finds it “extraordinary” that the girl has no money at all. Rich as she is, she cannot think one could be so poor as to not have any money at all. Her mind is therefore filled with good intentions to help this destitute girl and relieve her from her distress. What I would like to stress here is that the point here is not Rosemary’s desire to solve the girl’s problem, but her total inability to understand the problem itself.
Very enthusiastically, she takes the girl home and she is thrilled to be of help to her. She also imagines telling her friends later on how she had bestowed her benevolence upon the girl. But all her fervour soon evaporates when her husband Philip comments on the prettiness of Miss Smith and how he was “bowled over” by her beauty. Philip’s remarks arouse her jealousy and she dismisses the girl without much ado gifting her only three pounds. This perverse rejection of the girl lies at the heart of the story. Thus, her womanly possessiveness and insecurity got the better of her good intentions and superficial refinements. Her “Am I pretty?” is only a reflection of her insecurity as Philip’s wife.
Philip is Rosemary’s husband. He has only a small part in the story, but he is nonetheless vital in the sense that he helps to reveal the faults in her character. He hurts her female ego by praising the beauty of Miss Smith and admitting that he was overpowered by her beauty. This leads Rosemary to behave in a manner that exposes her womanly jealousy. Rosemary wanted to model herself as a woman of amiable, compassionate nature as one may find in a Dostoevsky novel. She wanted to project herself as a morally upright person. But is Philip who unwittingly reveals her true nature. She becomes jealous about the girl who is much more beautiful than her. Philip, however, is totally unaware of the effect his comments has on Rosemary. He accepts her explanation that Miss Smith has insisted on going and so she could not keep her against her will. He loves Rosemary and falls for her charms when she carefully dresses up to present herself as a beautiful and charming coquette.
Miss Smith is a relatively minor character in the story. She is the girl whom Rosemary treats with affection one moment and dismisses abruptly in another moment. Miss Smith is just a means for Rosemary to display her artificial generosity. As you read the story you may recall the moment when Miss Smith first speaks to Rosemary, asking her for a ‘cup of tea’. She is absolutely without money which seems ‘extraordinary’ to Rosemary. A sudden decision to indulge in an adventure makes Rosemary take the girl to her home. Unaccustomed to such kind of charity, Miss Smith would not believe Rosemary and thought that she was being taken to the police station. At Rosemary’s house, she was more surprised to see Rosemary taking every care to make her comfortable. Too startled at first, she now begins to shed her shyness and tales the slight meal offered by Rosemary. But Miss Smith was dismissed by Rosemary when she found that her husband Philip was being ‘bowled over’ by the girl’s beauty.
You can now understand that the whole story revolves around Rosemary and it is the workings of her mind which Mansfield wants us to see. It is the writer’s understanding of the female psyche, her concern for human feeling in a concrete situation that arrests our attention. This genuine concern gives her a delicate and personal insight into the problems of personal relationships. We are left delighted by the way in which we become intimate with the way men and women conduct themselves in real-life situations and work out their problems of living.
LET US KNOW
“The Garden Party” is one of Mansfield’s most famous stories. The story revolves around the events of a day in the rich colonial family of the Sheridans in New Zealand. The central character, like in “A Cup of Tea”, is a woman, Laura, and it is through her consciousness that all the happenings are observed. The story
undertakes to unravel the co-existence of rationality and irrationality in
STYLE AND LANGUAGE
“A Cup of Tea” has an authorial narrative voice, i.e. we hear the author speak in the third person. This is called a third-person narrative and it is the most common narrative technique in fiction. Mansfield has used the various techniques most creatively and originally. As mentioned earlier, she uses the stream of consciousness method of narration as a means to probe the inner realities of her characters. In the present story, however, she has not used this method. But her dexterity in using language places the reader directly within the consciousness of her characters. Do you not feel Rosemary’s sense of insecurity when Philip praises Miss Smith in eloquent words? Her use of language with its controlled tone very aptly infuses the emotional pulse in her story. Every character, whether it is Rosemary, Philip, Miss Smith, or even the shopman speaks in a language individual to them. We hear their own voice and get an unmistakable impression of their identity. When Mansfield narrates Rosemary’s thoughts after Philip praised Miss Smith, “Pretty. Absolutely lovely. Bowled over. Her heart beat like a heavy bell. Pretty. Lovely.”, even our hearts beat like a heavy bell. When Miss Smith says, “I’m very sorry madam, but I’m going to faint. I shall go off, madam, if I don’t have something.”, we can feel her desperation for a cup of tea. We can also sense the shopman’s flattery when he tries to sell the enamel box to Rosemary: “I love my things. I would rather not part with them than sell them to someone who does not appreciate them, who has not that fine feeling which is so rare……….”. We feel Rosemary’s rapture when she dreams of helping the poor girl: “She was going to prove to this girl that- wonderful things did happen in life, that- fairy godmothers were real, that- rich people had hearts, and that women were sisters.” Her use of language is lyrical and it seems to flow on seamlessly without any hiccups. Mansfield makes Rosemary think and speak to herself
and we can almost follow her plans which are going to occur.
Mansfield continually experiments in her stories and so there is no ‘typical’ Katherine Mansfield short story. She has no fixed concept of the short story. They are just glimpses of the life which we are so used to but fail to appreciate or analyse. Her main objective is not to impose anything of her own on the reader but to explore the personality. She makes no judgment and allows the readers to judge the characters in their own terms. And therein lies her greatness as a writer.
After going through this lesson, you have acquired an idea of Katherine Mansfield as an astute writer of short fiction. You have learnt that it is a story about human relationships particularly between husband and wife and how they react to certain situations in life. You have come across the character of Rosemary Fell as a complex human character with conflicting emotions. Though belonging to the well-to-do and the fashionable class, she is compassionate to the plight of the poor and therefore takes the poor girl to her house. She treats her as humanely as possible but she is also a woman vulnerable to the emotions of jealousy. So she abandons the girl when her own marital happiness was thought to be in danger. We have also discussed the important themes of the story and how they come out most prominently through Mansfield’s description of Rosemary in a language that is simple and lucid.
1) Abrams, M. H. (2005).A Glossary of Literary Terms.8th Edition. New Delhi: Thomson Wadsworth.
2) Cuddon, J. A. (1999). Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin.
3) Drabble, Margaret. Ed (2008) The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 6th Edition. New Delhi: OUP.
4) Hudson, William Henry. (1995) An Introduction to the Study of Literature. New Delhi: Kalyani Publishers.
5) Ousby, Ian. (1992) Companion to Literature in English. London:
Cambridge University Press.
QUESTIONS ANSWERS TO CHECK YOUR PROGRESS
Q 1: Katherine Mansfield was influenced by which Russian writer?
Ans.: Anton Chekov.
Q 2: Who was the editor of Rhythm?
Ans.: John Middleton Murry.
Q 3: What are the qualities of Mansfield as a short story writer?
Ans.: She is credited with giving short story a new form . . . her rare insight into the atmosphere of the mind . . . ability to translate human feelings and thoughts into words.
Q 4: Name some members of the Bloomsbury Group.
Ans.: Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell,
Q. How did Mansfield attempt to describe the true human experience through her short stories?
Ans.: Mansfield’s stories attempt to describe the true human experience and glorify honesty and fidelity without any pretensions. She is particularly skilful in portraying children, men and women, and women alone. She often makes use of the interior monologue to depict the psychology of the characters.
Q 8: Rosemary Fell will buy flowers in ………………
Ans.: Regent Street.
Q 9: In which street was Rosemary shopping when she met Miss Smith?
Ans.: Curzon Street.
Q 10:How many pounds did Rosemary gift Miss Smith?
Ans.: Three pounds.
Q 11: How much did the enamel box cost which Rosemary wanted to buy?
Ans.: Twenty eight guineas.
Q 12: What made Rosemary Fell appear before her husband as pretty as she could?
Ans.: She could not bear the fact that her husband is praising a stranger, so she dismisses Miss Smith. Rosemary then dresses herself up prettily, doing her hair, darkening her eyes and putting on her pearls in order to prove herself equally pretty. She succeeds in getting from Philip the assurance that she is really pretty.
Q 13:Why does Mr Philip disapprove of Rosemary’s decision to keep Miss Smith with them?
Ans.: Philip disapproves because Miss Smith is “astonishingly pretty” and that he is “bowled over” by her beauty.
Q 14: Who is Miss Smith? Under what circumstances was she brought by Rosemary to her own home? Why did she send her back?
Ans.: Miss Smith was a “little battered creature with enormous eyes”, almost her age, begging her for a “cup of tea”. She is the girl whom Rosemary treats with affection one moment and dismisses abruptly in another moment.
It seemed like an adventure to Rosemary and she began to wonder what would happen if she took the unknown girl home and do things which a fairy godmother would do. She is filled with good intentions and, therefore insisted that the girl accompany her home.
She could not bear the fact that her husband is praising a stranger. Hence, she dismisses Miss Smith gifting her three pounds out of the five that she had initially intended to give her.
Q 15: Write a short note on Mansfield as a short story writer.
Ans.: Critics are unanimous in praising her rare insight into the atmosphere of the mind and her penetrating intellect. She has the ability to translate human feelings and thoughts into words . . . a delicate sense of form which is a perfect quality for the genre of the short story . . . The stories of Mansfield are some moments, some instances and some gleams of life to which she has added a touch of eternity. . . she was central to European modernism, and she was associated with the Bloomsbury circle.
Q 1: What is the unique quality of Katherine Mansfield as a short story writer? Name some of her famous collections.
Q 2: Briefly discuss Mansfield’s life and works.
Q 3: Reproduce the story “A Cup of Tea” in your own words.
Q 4: Why did Rosemary Fell consider the fact of helping Miss Smith an “adventure”?
Q 5: Why did Rosemary try to approve as attractive as possible before her husband?
Q 6: Elaborate on the main theme of the story.
Q 7: “Philip,” she whispered, and she pressed his head against her bosom, “am I pretty?” Comment on this statement.