“People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us”: Katherine Mansfield’s echoes in the Covid-19 era

Emma Marns, University of Essex

In the latest in the #ModernistMoments series, Emma Marns examines the significance of Katherine Mansfield’s work for the present day and the role wealth plays in how we celebrate and grieve.

Katherine Mansfield came from an educated and socially prominent family in New Zealand; her father was knighted in 1923. Growing weary of the stuffiness of her family’s wealth – much as T.S. Eliot did in his native America at a similar time – Mansfield distanced herself from this lifestyle and its expectations through London living, broken relationships and divorce, lesbian affairs, a pregnancy out of wedlock and critical illness.

Katherine Mansfield

Her fiction presents a sympathetic and sensitive vision of poverty and suppressed people. In “The Life of Ma Parker”, tragedy is abundant in the life of a poor working woman; on occasion, such as in “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (first published more than a decade prior) readers receive an insight into her perspective on the position of Māori people in New Zealand as well.

Mansfield was merely months away from her death when she published possibly her most famous and celebrated collection of short stories, The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. The collection’s titular tale “The Garden Party” concerns the death of a poor workman on the day a wealthy family have planned an extravagant garden party, and the “artistic” daughter of the family who becomes concerned at the appropriateness of continuing with festivities in light of the recent tragedy. Exactly a century later, the word “party” is charged with anger and resentment and disunity. Political parties in the UK and Ireland are at each other’s throats as stories emerge in the press about drunken parties – at very inappropriate times in the light of so many personal tragedies during the Covid-19 emergency – being hosted by the very people responsible for making such gatherings illegal.

Mansfield’s Laura Sheridan would have a good deal to say about that. Laura, the protagonist of “The Garden Party”, is the only one in the family troubled over the death of Mr Scott (a workman who lives in one of several shabby cottages near the Sheridans’ family estate) for reasons beyond merely that his death is inconvenient for them as they’re having a party that day. Laura is horrified at the inappropriateness of continuing with the festivities within earshot of the grieving community – a concern shared by no one else. The absolute disdain for the poor from the family’s affluent point of view is palpable:

[…] the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house… True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches were nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. Washer-women lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler… Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. [1]

The Sheridan house literally towers over and looks down on the homes of the people they rely on for support and sustenance, but who seemingly have “no right” to exist. The story is set in Wellington, though could easily be read the same as if the estate was in the leafy suburbs of London high society. Even the two households’ waste products have a class divide; the Sheridan’s smoke is somehow of better quality, and more aesthetically acceptable, than the poor smoke.

In modern times where the gap between rich and poor is becoming more and more pronounced, a whole century on from tales of Her Ladyship on the hill and the poor washerwomen below, it certainly seems that the war on poor described here has never really ended. As it was then, it is still now the case that working – and working hard – isn’t enough to avoid a life of poverty.

In “The Life of Ma Parker”, the eponymous long-time widow and mother to seven dead children (and five estranged) is in such a situation. She arrives at work having buried her only grandson Lennie the day before. She is a housekeeper for a “literary gentleman” (GP 96) who merrily describes her to friends as the “hag” (97) he gets in once a week after he’s dirtied everything he owns. Yet Ma Parker is arguably a woman of considerably more sense and substance, capable of functioning practically in the world despite the enormous challenges of widowhood and poverty.

In the cases of both the Sheridans and the gentleman in question, there are references to the working classes as being a separate, incomprehensible community; in “The Garden Party” Laura’s mother confidently claims that “people like that don’t expect sacrifices from us” (GP 51) while accusing Laura of being “absurd” and spoiling the fun, and also when encouraging Laura to take spare arum lilies with her, justifies it with “People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies” (53) – as if the very recently bereaved would be sufficiently distracted from their grief by the quality of a flower.

Mansfield presents the Sheridan family as confident in their belief that they aren’t being disrespectful at all – in their opinion they are simply displaying great stoicism in a time of tragedy, a quality bestowed only on the refined classes such as themselves.  This can be read throughout these stories in fact. Ma Parker is desperate to find somewhere to finally give in to her grief that she has carried for decades but can find nowhere. Do the rich cry noisily in their mansions away from the prying eyes of others?

Mansfield in 1912

It is suggested that extremities of emotion are presented as the quality the working classes have in place of stoicism. In “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1912), the most enviable and attractive quality of the Māori women is their outward displays of happiness. The reader meets the eponymous Pearl, a young white girl who, while playing outside her parents’ home, is encouraged by some Māori women to follow them to their settlement. Pearl sees the ocean for the first time and is infatuated by various aspects of their lifestyle: their colourful clothes, happy demeanour, and exotic fruits. The story concludes with her “rescue” by white policemen, “Little men in blue coats”.[2]

What sets Laura Sheridan apart from the rest of her family – and, indeed, Pearl Button from hers – is a feeling of unexpected but nevertheless powerful resonance with the “other” community. For Laura, it is the poor people in the cottage dwellings; for Pearl Button it is the Māori women themselves. Whilst the poor and the Māori are similarly portrayed as wrongdoers by those with colonial and financial power in the stories, their behaviours presented as barbarous in contrast to refined, both daughters feel at home in their presence. Both see the lives of the other as inviting and intriguing, abundant with freedoms they themselves do not have.

Laura and Pearl both meet the edge of their world in their encounters – for Laura, it is death; for Pearl, it is the sea. However, it does not matter how strongly Laura and Pearl resonate with alternative lifestyles – their upbringing ultimately betrays them both. It is interesting that in both stories it is a case of dress: Pearl lifts her abundant skirts to sit on her petticoat, “as she had been taught”,[3] to avoid ruining her frock in the dust; Laura, after a day of being complemented on her spectacular hat, feels compelled to apologise for it once inside the confines of the Scott household. It seems not only that the poor are denied the social mobility to climb the ladder, so to speak, but also that the nature of upper-class life is rigid and constricting in both directions.

100 years later, British readers of Mansfield in particular may identify a staggering similarity between some of her characters’ contempt for the poor and what can be seen in 21st century news. The children of the poor in The Garden Party are a “swarm”; wealthy UK Conservative politician and then-Prime Minister David Cameron had to be reminded in 2015 that “we are discussing people, not insects” when he described refugees seeking solace in the UK in the same way.[4]

Laura was worried that having a band in the garden following the death of a local workman would be unseemly to his faceless and socially insignificant wife. Ma Parker’s employer thinks he ought to say something helpful when hearing of Lennie’s death, “…because these people set such store by funerals” (GP 96). It hardly occurs to him that there is a great deal of difference between hosting a funeral and merely burying a person: Ma Parker could never afford an actual funeral, and if he knew her better, he’d know there was barely more than herself to attend it.

In “The Garden Party,” Laura’s concerns for the deceased are met with prejudiced scorn from her sister, who says, “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental.” Laura then retorts with fury, “Drunk! Who said he was drunk?” (GP 50). The ignorant and baseless assumption that the dead workman was responsible for his own death by being a drunk echoes horrifically in the words of (now former) UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson – in his previous career as a “literary gentleman” – who described the poorest twenty percent of society as “…chavs, losers, burglars and drug addicts” in an article for The Telegraph.[5] If drinking heavily is indeed the benchmark by which the poor are judged, what are the partygoers in Parliament?

Elwell’s “The Wedding Dress” (1911)

Infamously, there was outrage early in 2022 after reports emerged that the United Kingdom’s decision-makers were partying, fighting and vomiting until 4am on the day of Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. The then-94-year-old Queen, a widow after 70 years of marriage, sat alone at the funeral just a few hours later in the very image of stoicism. The resulting outrage from this episode in history serves to prove Laura’s mother in “The Garden Party” wrong – people do expect sacrifices from their like, after all.

Looking at British life in terms of traditional Christian rite, one might say the big moments are birth, baptism, marriage and death – all of which were previously non-negotiable moments of the human experience. The Covid-19 pandemic restrictions altered, if not robbed, some of these life-affirming moments – fathers banned from hospitals as their children were born, weddings made illegal, the Ma Parkers of the modern day unable to hold their dying spouses and children, funerals reduced to six persons (if that) who could not legally comfort each other. Even Prince Philip’s lavish state military funeral that had been planned for decades was scaled back. This seemed on the surface, at least, to suggest Covid affected all equally, regardless of social standing. It is noticeable, however, that when the relative grandeur of the funeral increases with accelerated wealth (as in this case, a Royal funeral), the outrage over the government garden parties appeared to be greater from some sections of the commentariat.

Given the combined wealth of the Cabinet who orchestrated the parties this outrage is less a case of rich vs. poor, but rich vs. other rich. As George Orwell said, all are made equal, though some are more equal than others. Katherine Mansfield’s stories – “The Garden Party” and “Ma Parker” especially – demonstrate that death is not the great leveller that it is meant to be, and that the experience and perception of grief is, like most other things, socioeconomically influenced.  A century on from The Garden Party’s debut, it doesn’t appear lessons have been learned or much progress has been made in ending the cycles of poverty that stretch across the world from Wellington to London and everywhere in between. For some of us, life and death are not “simply marvellous” (GP 56), but depend entirely on what side of the lane we were born on.


[1] Mansfield, Katherine The Garden Party and Other Stories (Independent: The Blue Toucan, 2021), 49-50. Subsequent references to this collection are in parentheses within the text.

[2] Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories, ed. Vincent O’Sullivan ( New York, London: W. W. Norton, 2006), 39.

[3] Mansfield, Selected Stories, 38.

[4] BBC News “David Cameron criticised over migrant ‘swarm’ language,” BBC News, 30 July 2015, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-33716501 .

[5] Boris Johnson, “The poor are being robbed in Labour’s class war,” The Telegraph, 8 December 2005, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3621585/The-poor-are-being-robbed-in-Labours-class-war.html.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emma Marns has a BA Hons in English Literature from The University of East Anglia and an M.Phil. in Irish Writing from Trinity College Dublin. After a career as a sports journalist she now works at the prestigious drama conservatoire East 15 Acting School at The University of Essex, and recently presented on “Exile, Loss and Sterility in Motherless Ireland” at the Caliban’s Mirror: Wilde and Joyce research symposium in Dublin. 

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