Jenny McDonnell

‘At the mercy of the public’

‘At the mercy of the public’: Katherine Mansfield and ‘The Garden-Party’

Katherine Mansfield’s career was characterised by her fundamental anxiety of what it meant to be an author and to have her work read by a variety of audiences: editors, publishers, fellow authors, and the general reading public. Throughout her professional career in Britain, she expressed frequent doubt about publishing her work – or ‘throwing her darlings to the wolves’ as she once put it. However, she ended her career having concluded that ‘being at the mercy of the public is somehow right. After all, we express these things because we want a bigger audience than ourselves’.  Mansfield’s final work is characterised by her ambition to achieve a commercially viable modernist aesthetic. Her increased awareness of the position of literary fiction within the marketplace contributed to her resolution to challenge to the categories of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture in the publication of her short stories, and she published her final work in both ‘popular’ forums such as the illustrated newspaper the Sphere and more ‘literary’ journals such as the London Mercury, as well as in book form in a series of collections. This synthesis between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ and its associated attempt to undermine the distinction between these categories is particularly evident in the publication of ‘The Garden-Party’ in 1922. 

‘The Garden-Party’, and the collection of short stories to which it gives its name, may be read a key text of 1922, the annus mirabilis of high modernism. However, the publication of ‘The Garden-Party’ indicates that Mansfield’s successful career as a modernist short story writer may best be understood in terms of her ability to place formally innovative work within popular formats. In effect, this challenges the representation of the antagonistic relationship between ‘high modernism’ and ‘popular culture’ that has been espoused in such studies as John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, and the final years of Mansfield’s career are characterised by her refusal to cater exclusively for either an intellectual or a mass audience. ‘The Garden-Party’ was first serialised (with some editorial excisions) in the Weekly Westminster Gazette in February 1922 – the same month that saw the appearance of The Garden Party and Other Stories. This dual publication allowed Mansfield to deliver her work to a variety of different audiences, and meant that the story itself existed in two distinct forms – a disposable (and incomplete) version in the newspaper, and the ‘prestige’ publication for the collection. This paper will argue for a reading of ‘The Garden-Party’ in terms of Mansfield’s attempts to negotiate a space for her work within the categories of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. The story ultimately enacts the destabilisation of the categories of ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ which characterises Mansfield’s career as a modernist short story writer within a commercial publishing realm; and in publishing it in a variety of formats, Mansfield fundamentally attempted to overcome her career-long anxiety about the tension between popularity and literary respectability and of being ‘at the mercy’ of her various reading publics.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.