"The Rare Fiddle" as Emblem of the Political and
Sexual Alienation of Woman
CHANTAL CORNUT-GENTILLE D'ARCY
In the final part of To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, the amateur artist, is contemplating her painting and pondering on the elusive nature of mass and form:
Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. (Woolf 264)
Such a "visionary" insight helps establish the basic shape and nature of Katherine Mansfield's1 short stories in that it immediately points to a certain "doubleness" in what, at first sight, could appear to be no more than dainty and sentimental little fictional pieces. In other words, the reference to Lily Briscoe's painting serves as a warning to readers not to allow themselves to be deluded by the delicately elusive surface of Mansfield's tales. On the contrary, they should be attentive to the implicit criticism which is engraved-sometimes, with the sharpness of steel-precisely "beneath the fabric" (or between the lines) of the stories.
Indeed, Mansfield's succinct narratives, collected as In a German Pension (1911), Bliss, and other stories (1920), and The Garden Party, and other Stories (1922) (Sanders 517-18), are triumphs of style, a style which challenged the conventional parameters of nineteenth-century realism, constrained to plot, sequential development, climax and conclusion. Essentially, Mansfield's work and that of avant-garde artistic contemporaries such as E. M. Foster, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf or Dorothy Richardson2 (among others) can be defined against the example of more traditional writers like Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells or John Glasworthy who continued to exploit received literary conventions in the first decades of this century. In the aftermath of several significant events of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the new century, people's view of themselves and their representation in Art was greatly altered-so much so that Virginia Woolf located what she saw as a notable change in human character "in or about December, 1910" (Pykett 6). This same conviction led Roger Fry to comment in an essay that was later to be included in Vision and Design, "the artist is [now] free to choose any degree of representational accuracy which suits the expression of his feeling" (qtd. in Halliday 281; italics mine). Although Vision and Design was primarily dedicated to reconsiderations of painting and sculpture, the implication of its theoretical formulation for Mansfield's Modernist short-stories is considerable. As is known, the experimental fiction of Modernism sprang from an urge to establish new ways of seeing, observing, and recording distinct from the existing lines of story-telling and representation. However, the determination to move away from those "stuffy" discourses, ordered by all-wise and authoritarian authors, and to concentrate instead on communicating impressions, moods, and transient sensations does not mean that innovative Modernist work was, in any way, divorced from the great social, political, and cultural happenings of the time.
With these shifts in mind, the purpose of this essay will be to demonstrate how the shimmering elusiveness of Mansfield's short story "Bliss" only serves to hide more subversive themes and attitudes (Dunbar ix) which evidence the author's deep commitment with historical issues.
The author lived through a period which saw the end of the long reign of Queen Victoria and of the stability which the country had so long enjoyed. At the turn of the century, society was assumed to be developing according to certain laws. But these laws, now "interpreted" with reference to post-Darwinian science, or the complexities of the human psyche unraveled by the newly fashionable Freudian theory, threatened old, orderly assumptions by introducing notions of flux, chance and (non)adaptation. Although the roots of the idea of (non)adaptation or alienation can be found in the theology of St. Augustine and Martin Luther, it was Marx who converted the concept into a radical and secularized critique of society. For him, the key problem was alienated labor under capitalism. In his view, human beings need to realize themselves in work. If this natural drive is not fulfilled then, the essence of Man remains unrealized. The Marxist tradition, however, represents only one stream of thought concerning alienation. For Sigmund Freud, (self-)estrangement is seen to lie in the split between conscious and unconscious forces in the personality. In other words, the individual is unadapted in the sense that repressed and unacknowledged desires motivate her/his behavior.
Even though Mansfield never openly acknowledged any profound engagement with Freudian approaches to sexuality or psychic disorder, the truth is that several members of her circle were quite convinced by the analyst's revolutionary diagnosis of Man's psychological condition: A. R. Orage, who, as editor of New Age, published some of her early stories, was a passionate disciple; likewise, her friends Leonard and Virginia Woolf,3 publishers of perhaps her best known story, "The Prelude," also produced the first English edition of Freud's works in 1924. Accordingly, as a (fringe4) member of the Bloomsbury group, Mansfield moved in a context which undoubtedly indicates she was aware of Freud's ideas and discoveries. It can therefore be argued that one of the seminal features of Mansfield's technique, her quest to present inner consciousness directly through narrative voice in part confirms the closeness of the author's writings to historical or cultural circumstances in her own life. In other words, the dates of publication of Freud's early work (Studies in Hysteria ; the Interpretation of Dreams ; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality ) could suggest that they formed the theoretical groundwork for Mansfield's oeuvre since all her stories highlight, in one way or another, the mode in which the mind's depths work against its conscious intentions -something which the then revolutionary practice of "psycho-analysis" was intended to reveal. A clear revolution, therefore, may be appreciated in Mansfield's work from an awkward over-use of quotation marks to demarcate direct thoughts from sequences reported in the third person as in, for instance, "A Birthday" (1911), to a smoother presentation of the psyche in later stories such as "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" (1920), "Bliss" (1920), or the tale significantly entitled "Psychology" (1920), in which the author describes the difficult relationship of a modern couple and actually has them mention in conversation the avant-garde subject of "psycho-analysis" (Dunbar 100-03).
Whereas, as I shall argue, unequivocal Freudian shades may be traced in the gaps, silences, and ambiguities of "Bliss," there is another subversive aspect of the story which has not been fully recognized. It seems that Mansfield's reputation as a "delicate female stylist," engendered by her homely and domestic choice of subject-matter, has tended to obscure the radical nature of her political commentary (Gregor 65-67; Head 128). A broad overview of social and political happenings at the turn of the century will help underline the seriousness of the sexual politics that lie "beneath the fabric" of this particular tale.
The period after the Boer War (1899-1902) was a time of colonial outback, when attention was diverted from overseas possessions to very immediate social problems at home. The re-awakening of social conscience was made patent in the atmosphere of political passion and activism that marked the emergence and rapid growth of the Labour Party during the last decade of the nineteenth century. These years of political effervescence were also characterized by serious social instability, mainly connected with the growth of trade unionism and the question of the vote for women. What distinguished the newly arising British Left from radical parties in other European countries was that it emanated more from …