Does Laura Sheridan prefer 'fashion victim' or 'ensemble-y challenged'? Musings on the oddly poignant literary role of a hat.
Words by Julia Merican
In her most well-known short story, The Garden Party, it wouldn’t be wrong to say, as perhaps William Carlos Williams might have done had he ever written a sixteen-word poem about Katherine Mansfield, that so much depends upon a black hat, trimmed with gold daisies, and a long velvet ribbon.
‘I believe that people are like portmanteaux,’ says the writer in another short story, Je ne parles pas francais, ‘packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings the on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle ...’. A particularly charming few lines that morph into something significantly more dark and indecisive.
It’s rather introspective of how she treats her stories, filling them to the brim with ‘certain things’ that recur and set events in motion. Silver rings in ears, tangerines and apples stained with strawberry pink, conspiratorial stars, dark gardens glittering with ivy; even blue teapot lids have a sort of sentience and physiological consequence to them in Mansfield’s stories. What other writers might supply in the form of society she supplies in artefacts, in a deluge of objects that are inanimate yet sanguinely humane. Paraphernalia is significant because it is not flung into the stories in a careless attempt to set a scene; every item is breathily detailed, delightfully present in the tableau.
The Garden Party is classically Mansfield: it has her charming, ineluctably light-hearted tone, tinged ever so poignantly with a moral fear and fatalism; it is packed with seemingly innocuous paraphernalia that actually carry the weight of painful psychological significance; it primarily concerns the middle-class Sheridans, and provides brief, terrifying glimpses into the lives of their social inferiors. The Sheridan family oozes a sense of moneyed superiority. All they touch is significant only in relation to themselves; all things in their lives seem laughably accessible with the snap of a few fingers. Everything is hyperbolically charming and languid in their world: Jose does not laugh, she cooes; it isn’t a backyard they have fitted out for the party, but a lily-lawn; and Meg is not merely unable to supervise the men setting up the marquee; in fact, she could not possibly go. The idea of a work-man fallen dead at the bottom of the lane while they prepare for a party is fine as long as it hasn’t happened in the garden, but the thought of cream puffs ‘so soon after breakfast’ is enough ‘to make one shudder’.
And why not? The weather, after all, was ideal, as the story so conversationally begins; ‘they could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it.’ Surely, even money can’t change the weather, but in the Sheridans’ world, it’s only to be expected that the day would shine and clear just for them. Everything is an arrangement in this little microcosm, from the flowers blooming in the garden to the dark wet curl stamped on each of Meg’s cheeks as she sits drinking coffee in a green turban. The colour green crops up again later: at the party, an obnoxious guest comments on the ‘green-coated band’: “Aren’t they too like frogs for words?” she trills nastily, adding, “You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf”. Again, the obsession with arrangement, connoting not just a sense of authority and control, but also one of artificiality. Maybe that’s why the death on their doorstep is such an affront to the Sheridans: it is so unprecedented and unplanned; so very much the opposite of ideal.
Laura Sheridan’s little black hat has been interestingly overlooked as a key feature of the story’s apparel. It is as much a character as any of the people; once donned, it is weaponised and put to a myriad of uses: the hat classifies, it appeases and distracts, and, ultimately, it shames.
Like her sister, Jose, ‘the butterfly’, who is defined by her ‘silk petticoat and kimono’ and, later, her sardonic sympathy - ‘I’m every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic’, she says, as her eyes harden, ‘You won’t bring a drunk workman back to life by being sentimental’ - Laura becomes identifiable by the hat her mother sets upon her head, a non-consensual act of transference and, simultaneously, placation. The hat is used to silence her ethical conundrum of whether a garden party should still be held ‘with a man dead just outside the front gate’. Laura, the feeling one, the girl with the moral compass, the nice Sheridan, is transformed suddenly, steered away from what she initially considers to be important into a realm of lily-lawns and passion-fruit ices, ‘with people who are all happy’, who ‘press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes’. It is the hat that becomes the obstruction for Laura’s moral rectitude. As soon as she sees herself in it, the glimpse she had of ‘that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house’ fades and blurs, to be replaced by the image of the ‘charming girl in the mirror’. Ironically, it is Mrs Sheridan, with her indulgent beam of “Look at yourself!”, who prompts the self-reflection and existential confusion in her daughter, perhaps for the first time. Laura no longer wants to argue with her mother about whether it is prudent to carry on with the party; in fact, she begins to hope that her mother is right, and she is the one being silly: ‘Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant.’ Later, when she tries to speak to Laurie about her ethical conundrum, it is the hat that stands in her way once more, bristling atop her head like a gold-trimmed, flower-bedecked devil: Laurie interrupts her weak attempt at bringing up the subject by telling her she looks stunning, and “what an absolutely topping hat!”, to which she replies, faintly: “Is it?” and ‘didn’t tell him after all’.
When she visits the workman’s bereaved family, however, the hat’s glamour wears off, and instead, it becomes a thing of shame. In the dreary atmosphere of the ‘mean cottages’ and the grieving people, Laura’s ensemble appears to her hideously inappropriate: ‘her frock shone’, the hat seems obnoxious in its velvety beauty; perhaps she realises then that this is what extravagance is. ‘Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come’.
The mistake lies not so much in her fashion faux pas, but in what it glaringly represents: the lording of superiority, a rich family’s charity to their fiscally and emotionally bereft compatriots. And Laura’s brazen hat represents it just as much as the basket of ‘scraps from their party’ she brings with her. What is first perceived as triviality in Mansfield’s work – the trappings of the middle-class, conversations at soirees, charming letters both sent and received, little black hats – are in fact infinitely more profound. She ascribes magnified importance to little things, taking a moment to pause on how they reflect seminal events in her characters’ lives in the contracted space of the short story.
And Mansfield does not just use these nebulous, lovely things and situations to set moods; she also uses them as stalling devices, to delay the somewhat inevitable meandering into the abyss. These moments of excitement in the mundane give a sense of motion in her stories, despite the lack of outright action, and there is something chilling about the dreamy, ambling way she leads her reader into the void. The perceived triviality of her sentences, her allusiveness, and moments of serene contemplation create a false sense of security that, at the same time, is not false at all: her characters all seem secure and tenderly unfazed by their descent. Nothing is too trivial in a Mansfield story; whatever reveals the human soul to us is important, be it a dead man or a small black hat.
There is a sort of cheerful futility that pervades her work; her writing conveys the impression that she is all at once enamoured with, repulsed, and deeply saddened by life. The sense of futility is somewhat metacognitive, surpassing the novel into Mansfield’s own artistry. Jose’s cold assertion that ‘you won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental’ is poignant because it is true, if ruthlessly so – and yet, although writing about it has not the power to resurrect, still Mansfield creates this story; still she writes.
To assuage the guilt of one’s privilege, she seems to say, one must accept the accoutrements of privilege as meaningless. Laura tries to explain this to her brother: ‘“Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life –” But what life was she couldn’t explain’. Laurie understands her, though: he understands her inability to put life into words, but he embraces it, in the middle-class coo of his “Isn’t it, darling?”. The ending of this story leaves us feeling unhinged but comfortable; safe in our privilege, while dreadfully aware of it. The sheer futility of society ever changing is countered with a cheerful smile that, like the story, allays our existential anxieties ever so slightly by telling us that injustice is tolerable because it doesn’t matter; in fact, nothing does.
Mansfield’s stories are charged with the overarching mantra of finding beauty in the mundane, of accepting loneliness as a prerequisite of satisfaction, and coping with it all by realising that it is futile to care so much about anything. This is what allows for the satirical distance between herself and her characters: they can mockingly convey the tenderest pronouncements of what it is to be human, and it can be funny because life is. The reader is soothed because in her writing, they find not the brooding nihilism or fatalistic anxiety that is made manifest in other modernist works, but comfort in the idea that they are not alone in these thoughts. Her message is edifying, but at the same time reassuring: she tells us that awareness of the world’s pointlessness does not prevent us from being able to indulge in its wonders, however small and velvety.