Later she heard her children playing in the garden. Lottie’s stolid, compact little voice cried: “Ke—zia. Isa—bel.” She was always getting lost or losing people only to find them again, to her great surprise, round the next tree or the next corner. “Oh, there you are after all.” They had been turned out after breakfast and told not to come back to the house until they were called. Isabel wheeled a neat pramload of prim dolls and Lottie was allowed for a great treat to walk beside her holding the doll’s parasol over the face of the wax one.
“Where are you going to, Kezia?” asked Isabel, who longed to find some light and menial duty that Kezia might perform and so be roped in under her government.
“Oh, just away,” said Kezia. . . .
Here, in Mansfield’s Prelude, the mother Linda, overhears the conversations of her children in their new garden which in this description seems part innocence, part experience in terms of indoctrination. (See Blake for ‘fallen’ places and think of Eden too!)
Perhaps the fact that the family have recently moved, accentuates the need for their roles to be reestablished after their relocation/dislocation? Lottie’s fears of being lost and of ‘losing people’ emanates perhaps from this dislocation and from her mother’s unconcern at her whereabouts . Futhermore, being ‘at home’ or not at home seems a major theme of Mansfield whose own experience of exile was both self chosen and to some extent imposed upon her by her ‘frontier’ status in London as well for her (at that time) unconventional sexuality.
The accidental aspect of this scene is essential to its meaning as both private and public identities are explored, in a seemingly natural way, through the symbolic incident of the ‘neat pramload of prim dolls’: surely something which anticipates both the final New Zealand story about the Burnells(The Doll’s House) and recalls Ibsen’s famous play about gender roles and oppression, ‘A Doll’s House.’
Dolls are lifeless: these dolls even look conventional and ‘prim’; they accept their social role and condemn females to waxen purgatory beneath a toy parasol!
Conventionality is the norm and only Kezia has the imagination to behave in an individual and spirited manner. ‘Oh , just away.’ The resting mother Linda, needs space from her children finding them too draining of her energies and being too much a reminder of her fertility which she fears may kill her literally as well as metaphorically through fatigue and possible depression. ‘They had been turned out after breakfast..’
The three children’s identities are seemingly ‘naturally’ differentiated through a seamless intermingling of third person narrator with direct speech so that as Linda ‘hears’ the children, so do we. The children come alive before us as they speak; indeed the resonance of what each child says even becomes symbolic of their individual identity.Thus the controlling Isabel esquires of Kezia ‘Where are you going to, Kezia?’ in her best quasi adult, tone of reprimand, whilst Kezia’s vague, elusive response shows she is too free a spirit to be governed:’ ‘Oh, just away,” said Kezia…” note too the telling use of ellipsis suggestive of mystery , abstraction and even creativity.
For Kezia is a character who wishes to write herself, rather than to be scripted by the conventions and expectations of her gender that time. Like Mansfield she grows into a reflective yet defiant figure, willing to think differently and to write her role anew. Remember it is Kezia who notices the singular lamp in the final New Zealand story, ‘The Doll’s House and it is Kezia who breaks the class rules and shows compassion to the socially inferior Kelveys who are snubbed by the rest of the Burnells for being too poor. Kezia like KM will not be ‘roped in’ by debilitating social convention.
The Kelveys came nearer, and beside them walked their shadows, very long, stretching right across the road with their heads in the buttercups. Kezia clambered back on the gate; she had made up her mind; she swung out.
Notice the telling clause following the semi colon, ‘she swung out.’ A choice has been made and rather than keeping ‘within’ the gated, regulated world of the Burnells with their oppressive class values, Kezia chooses kindness instead. She imagines another person with compassion. Once again in Mansfield, thresholds are crossed, ‘moments of being’ or epiphanies experienced, and changes suggested through the simplest of metaphors. And the semi colon gives narrative space to the defiant decision. The first semi colon after the noun ‘gate’ anticipates the second. Choice is a process, it takes physical as well as mental time. We can almost hear Kezia’s breath as she chooses to behave ‘otherwise’ .
I also love the Impressionist image of the approaching Kelveys through ‘their shadows…with their heads in the buttercups’- beautifully ‘painted’, evoking surely the spirit of Monet and his contemporaries? Innocence is communicated through the simple allegiances of nature- in this case buttercups!
The Woman in Black
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