Monday, 31 December 2007

Short Story Monday - Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield


In this elegant little story, written in 1922, Miss Brill makes her regular Sunday visit to the park, to sit on her regular seat and listen to the band. Her solitary pleasure is to observe the comings and goings around her. We are not told much about Miss Brill directly, but we can infer a good deal; she is a genteel person of limited means who teaches English for her living and doesn't have many friends.

Since almost all the story is told in free indirect speech, we can observe the anticipation Miss Brill has for her day's entertainment. She takes her old but precious fur from its box, strokes and brushes it like a small animal being readied for an outing, imagining its sharp little teeth holding onto its tail. We know her thoughts about her fellow park visitors and her interest in their individual stories. As she watches a sudden thought occurs to her: they are all actors on a stage and she herself is part of the performance. She feels a pleasant sense of importance and imagines herself telling an elderly acquaintance that she has been an actress for a long time. However, when she is joined on her bench by a young courting couple her pleasure is banished; they mock the treasured fur that she has taken so much pride in taking out and brushing that morning. The final two paragraphs describe how – too saddened to buy her usual treat from the baker's – she goes home to return the fur to its box, never, we can guess, to be worn again.

This is a finely honed piece of writing, an example of a story that does exactly what it should. We are given precisely the information we need; the change in mood, from Miss Brill's vicarious pleasure in the lives of others to loneliness and humiliation takes place in a brief exchange in direct speech by the young couple, 9 lines in all, followed by the final two paragraphs of third-person narration which complete our distancing from Miss Brill. Its careful structure is belied by the simplicity and clarity of the writing.

If anyone would like to enjoy this excellent story, the full text is here.

3 comments:

  1. Told as indirect free speech appeals to me greatly. Thanks for the link!

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  2. As you know, I'm no reader of short stories, but I do know Katherine Mansfield's complete output - she was a set author in my final undergrad year - and I think she is sublime. Thanks for reminding me of how worthwhile her writing is. And a very happy New Year.

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  3. I shall be reading more of Mansfield's stories - hope you enjoy this one, John.

    TT, I thought you would be familiar with her work.

    Happy new year!

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