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prelude katherine mansfield

prelude katherine mansfield

prelude katherine mansfield

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Prelude is a short story by Katherine Mansfield. It was first published by the Hogarth Press in July 1918, after Virginia Woolf encouraged her to finish the story. Mansfield had begun writing Prelude in the midst of a love affair she had in Paris in 1915. [1] It was reprinted in Bliss and Other Stories (1920).[2] The story was a compressed and subtler version of a longer work The Aloe,[3] which was later published posthumously in full.

The story is based on the Beauchamps’ move to Karori, a country suburb of Wellington, in 1893. Alpers says that some readers may not pick up the numerous hints that Linda is pregnant.[4]

‘Prelude’, the long short story which opens Katherine Mansfield’s 1920 collection Bliss and Other Stories, is a modernist masterpiece. But like much modernist fiction, its meaning and its subtle use of symbolism and other narrative devices are unlikely to be fully apparent after a first, or even a second reading. You can read ‘Prelude’ here; on Tuesday we offered a detailed summary of the ‘plot’ of the story; now, we venture to put down some words of analysis about this story.

Burnells’ house-move

Because ‘Prelude’ is a modernist short story, the emphasis is on character rather than plot, as is also often the case with James Joyce’s short stories or Virginia Woolf’s short fiction. Mansfield is using the Burnells’ house-move, and the period when they are busy settling into their new home, as a situation around which she can make a number of local observations about family, women, and class, among other things.

‘Prelude’ is partly an observation about family relationships, and how the dynamic of a family alters. With their mother and grandma absent, Lottie assumes the role of the ‘important’ one (‘Lottie was very important’, the narrator tells us in part II; this statement should be read as an example of free indirect speech, with the third-person narrator relaying Kezia’s own thought that her older sister was enjoying being in charge).

prelude katherine mansfield
prelude katherine mansfield

Another theme of ‘Prelude’ is the way women speak to each other, and here family, class, and gender might all be regarded as interrelated themes. Consider the way Alice, the servant girl, dislikes the way Beryl speaks belittlingly to her, making her feel ‘low’; or the way Linda speaks to her mother ‘with the special voice that women use at night to each other as though they spoke in their sleep or from some hollow cave’.

Nan Pym

Beryl adopts a ‘flippant and silly’ tone to her friend Nan Pym when she writes her letter to her, reflecting when she reads the letter back only a few moments later that ‘she’d always write that kind of twaddle to Nan Pym’ and that her letter-writing tone ‘was faint already, like a voice heard over the telephone, high, gushing, with something bitter in the sound’.

This is the Hogarth Press edition of ‘Prelude’, a short story by Katherine Mansfield first published in 1918. It was later printed in Mansfield’s second collection, Bliss and Other Stories (1920).

‘Prelude’ contains many of the marks of Mansfield’s distinctive style. It opens with an assembled scene, in the middle of unexplained action: ‘There was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy’. Gradually, the reader comes to understand that the middle class Burnell family are moving away from town for a new life in the country. But, for Mansfield, the plot was always of secondary importance. Her ambition was to develop an innovative literary form, driven by exploring characters’ psychology rather than traditional plotting techniques and narrative resolution.

12 scenes

Divided into 12 scenes, ‘Prelude’ seamlessly shifts between the multiple perspectives of a cast of characters. The mundane occurrence of moving house is drawn with depictions of overheard conversations and emerging thoughts, creating a rich psychological landscape where Mansfield subtly exposes the tensions beneath the surface of family life.

‘Prelude’s’ main ‘subject’ is the lives of women, and their role within the patriarchal family. In one of several ‘epiphany’ moments, Linda considers her relationship with her husband, Stanley. Through Linda’s attitude and behaviour towards their children, Mansfield radically questions the assumption that all women experience a natural, maternal instinct (a topic that is sensitively developed in ‘At the Bay’, a ‘sequel’ story about the Burnell family). Beryl’s restlessness and commanding of the servants stems from her desire to be free – financially and socially – from her brother-in-law.

Mansfield may have drawn elements of the story from her childhood in New Zealand, when her family moved from Wellington to the country.

Katherine Mansfield, the Hogarth Press and Virginia Woolf

The Hogarth Press was founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Prelude was the Woolfs’ second publication, entirely printed and bound by hand. Certain details reveal that the Woolfs were still printing amateurs: the story’s title, for instance, is misprinted as ‘The Prelude’ on several pages.

prelude katherine mansfield
prelude katherine mansfield

Virginia Woolf and Mansfield met in 1917, when the aspiring writers had each published one book. Although their friendship certainly featured jealousy and competition, their ambivalent feelings towards one another have been overemphasised. As pioneering women writers, they felt a deep affinity with each other. Woolf wrote in her diary, ‘to no one else can I talk in the same disembodied way about writing; without altering my thought more than I alter it in writing here’.[1] Mansfield wrote to Woolf, ‘You are the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another.’


Over multiple viewpoints Mansfield shows that Kezia still has the future before her. (Some commentators believe Beryl has the future before her as well.)

In this reading, Mrs Fairfield is a warm and encouraging grandmother.

These commentators point to numerous examples of preludes:

  • The family’s move is a prelude to a new kind of suburban living.
  • There’s the children’s prelude to adolescence.
  • Beryl experiences the prelude to spinsterhood.
  • Mrs Fairfield experiences the prelude to death.

Unfortunately Linda gets no prelude. She’s done. This explains why she’s a little down, I guess.


In a dominant feminist reading, Mansfield uses imagery to reveal the power struggle between men and women. Kezia is all caged up. Linda is trapped within marriage, but experiencing an hysterical rebellion. Stanley exerts dominion over not just the house he bought, but also wants to expand to buying a pew at church etc.


“Prelude” follows the Burnell family, who are moving from the city of Wellington into the nearby countryside. A narrative camera moves gracefully between these characters as they prepare to move then settle in (or not, as the case may be).

The writing of “Prelude” followed a visit from Mansfield’s brother, with whom she shared memories of childhood, and it coincided with an awakening from artistic fatigue. Her revision of the story before publication followed her brother’s death in World War I and her interest in creating a story in his honor. Based on both their childhood memories, “Prelude” was apparently to end with an announcement of a pregnancy that would herald the birth of a boy child, her brother just deceased. But the story stops before the pregnancy is announced, although images suggest that the mother, Linda, is pregnant.

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield, pseudonym of Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, married name Kathleen Mansfield Murry, (born October 14, 1888, Wellington, New Zealand—died January 9, 1923, Gurdjieff Institute, near Fontainebleau, France), New Zealand-born English master of the short story, who evolved a distinctive prose style with many overtones of poetry. Her delicate stories, focused upon psychological conflicts, have an obliqueness of narration and a subtlety of observation that reveal the influence of Anton Chekhov. She, in turn, had much influence on the development of the short story as a form of literature.

After her education (in Wellington and London), Katherine Mansfield left New Zealand. At the age of 19 to establish herself in England as a writer. Her initial disillusion appears in the ill-humoured stories collected in In a German Pension (1911). Until 1914 she published stories in Rhythm and The Blue Review, edited by the critic and essayist John Middleton Murry, whom she married in 1918 after her divorce from George Bowden.

prelude katherine mansfield
prelude katherine mansfield

The death of her soldier brother in 1915 shocked her into a recognition that she owed what she termed a sacred debt to him. And to the remembered places of her native country. Prelude (1918) was a series of short stories beautifully evocative of her family memories of New Zealand. These, with others, were collected in Bliss (1920), which secured her reputation and is typical of her art.


In the next two years Mansfield did her best work, achieving the height of her powers in The Garden Party (1922), which includes “At the Bay,” “The Voyage,” “The Stranger” (with New Zealand settings), and the classic “Daughters of the Late Colonel,” a subtle account of genteel frustration. The last five years of her life shadowed by tuberculosis. Her final work (apart from unfinished material) published posthumously in The Dove’s Nest (1923) and Something Childish (1924).

From her papers, Murry edited the Journal (1927, rev. ed. 1954), and he also published with annotations her letters to him (1928, rev. ed. 1951). Her collected letters edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (1984–2008); Scott also edited Mansfield’s notebooks (1997).

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