- “Blown to Bits!”: Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden-party” and the Great War
“Blown to bits!”
That is how Katherine Mansfield, still in shock just a few days after learning of her brother’s death in the war, described him to a friend. Twenty-one-year-old Leslie “Chummie” Beauchamp had been stationed in France for less than a month when on 7 October 1915, as he was giving a hand grenade demonstration, a defective grenade blew up in his hand with a force so strong it killed both himself and his sergeant (Alpers 183). Mansfield’s succinct description of her brother’s death is brusque and colloquial but also literally true of uncountable soldiers who fought in the Great War. In her semiautobiographical novel We That Were Young, Irene Rathbone describes the wounded soldiers whom women in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) routinely tended: men with “limbs which shrapnel had torn about and swollen into abnormal shapes, from which yellow pus poured when the bandages were removed, which were caked with brown blood, and in whose gangrenous flesh loose bits of bone had to be sought for painfully with probes” (194), a man “who, when his innumerable and complicated bandages were removed, revealed flat holes plugged with gauze where a nose had been, and pendulous shapeless lips” (200). [End Page 513]
Another V.A.D., Mary Borden, evokes the same sense of nightmarish mutilation in a collage of body parts:
There are no men here. . . . There are heads and knees and mangled testicles. There are chests with holes as big as your fist, and pulpy thighs, shapeless; and stumps where legs once were fastened. There are eyes—eyes of sick dogs, sick cats, blind eyes, eyes of delirium; and mouths that cannot articulate; and parts of faces—the nose gone, or the jaw. There are these things, but no men. . . .(60)
This essay begins with the maimed and mangled men of the Great War in order to highlight what is distinctive, indeed peculiar, about the dead man found in Mansfield’s 1921 short story “The Garden-Party.” Like the men who perished in the mass, industrialized killings of the Great War, the carter, whose horse shies at a traction engine, falls victim to mechanized modernity. However, his corpse is very different from the mutilated bodies that pervade the literature of the Great War. It is “wonderful, beautiful,” and “peaceful” (296). It is, in fact, “a marvel” (296). To view this body is not “awful,” is, instead, “simply marvelous” (297). In “The Garden-Party,” Mansfield creates a story that depends on a man’s violent death even as it erases the traces of injury from his body. After the Great War, to imagine a beautiful corpse might seem either a grotesque act of escapism or a courageous feat of imagination. However, if we resist such simplistic reactions, the beautiful carter can give us insight into the way a society recovers from a war that jeopardizes the integrity of physical bodies as well as the stability of social categories.
Set in the New Zealand of her youth, Mansfield’s “The Garden-Party” perhaps seems worlds away from the Great War. Indeed, while this is one of Mansfield’s best known stories, previous critics almost universally have failed to read it in relation to the war. A notable exception to the critical neglect of this story’s war context is No Man’s Land. In this study of gender in twentieth-century British and American literature, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar point to a variety of texts, including “The Garden-Party,” in which there are female characters “who achieve heroic stature through witnessing or facilitating male death, who feel inexplicably empowered by male deaths, or whose lives yield them fortuitous victories over dead or dying men” (1: 94–95). [End Page 514] For Gilbert and Gubar, this trope signifies the empowerment many women experienced during the Great War, feeling “even at the height of the conflict that not only their society but also their art had been subtly strengthened, or at least strangely inspired, by the deaths and defeats of male contemporaries” (2: 307). Gilbert and Gubar...