Katherine Mansfield's "Bliss":
"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. …