The daughters of the late Colonel; Jane Mansfield

English Literature of XIX Century. British Narrative. Argument. Characters

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THE DAUGHTERS OF THE LATE COLONEL, by Jane Mansfield

THE EMPIRE

The Late Colonel's family had a history of living and working in one of the colonies. The empire is present in the house where the old retired officer lived. Thanks to Katherine Mansfield's subtle touches we picture a house full of memories of Ceylon: A photograph of a mother who had been killed by a snake long before they were grown-ups and which shows her ear rings shaped like tiny pagodas; the horrible dancing figures on the carved screen, the Indian carpet, Constantia's favourite Buddah. Also the mention of the 23 letters with the notice in them which they had to post to Ceylon, the mention of father's Anglo-Indian friends, their brother Benny, whose wife they had never met, whom they picture in the veranda, dressed all in white and wearing a cork helmet and to whom they won't send father's watch "for men so seldom wear waistcoats in those hot climates". When Constantia wants to get away from the painful realities of this world, she gazes "away, away, far over the desert, to where that lines of camels unwound like a thread of wool". Last but not least the pervading influence of the retired colonel who was in control of his daughters in the same hard military way as he had commanded his troops.

All these allusions to the empire show the writer's intention to portray the attitude of the British middle/ upper class towards people living in the Empire. The writer masterfully depicts the patronising attitude that the British had to their subjects overseas. This is shown when both sisters start thinking who they should give their father's watch to. They express their contempt to the so-called mail service of Ceylon, at that time a British colony, saying that such does not exist at all. It merely consists of runners taking ages to deliver parcels. They imagine parcels are delivered by natives who are not to be trusted. On the other hand, their brother Benny (the Englishman) is impressively visualised standing on the veranda, dressed in white waiting for the "native" to bring the parcel he so much desires to get.

THE SISTERS

These sisters are two middle-aged ladies who have lived their whole lives under the hand of an authoritarian father; secondly, that they grew up in an empire (some letters had to catch the `Ceylon mail', `would you trust a gold watch to a native?') and under very tight conventions (`But nobody sees us', and they couldn't have a `little communion' because they were not in a church, and about the funeral `One suitable to our father's position').

It is really amusing how Mansfield portrays these two sisters who are at a loss after their iron handed father's death. In the first part of the story, the reader concludes that both Constantia and Josephine are quite immature, not to say childish. Right from the start we are presented with hilarious comments about giving the porter a top- hat ("father's head!") and their absurd conclusions about the need of dyeing their dressing gowns and having to wear, as Josephine pictures "...two pairs of black woolly slippers, creeping off to the bathroom like black cats."

Their shortcomings are emphasised in the second part, as we see them intimidated by the nurse and incapable of asserting themselves as the ladies of the house with regard to their cheeky maid - "She snatched away their plates... and slapped down a white, terrified blancmange". Neither of them can speak their minds but their attitudes differ. While Josephine makes a mild attempt to put a brake to the Nurse: "I think those things are very extravagant", Con shuns: "... and she gazed away-away-far over the desert, to where the lines of camels unwound like a thread of wool". Her dreamy nature is further confirmed, in contrast with the more practical Josephine "Constantia in despair went back to her camels" , while her sister thinks hard and comes with a solution: "I know...Marmalade. There's some marmalade in the sideboard".

For the sake of brevity, I shall not dwell on the many more examples of their meekness and their fear of their father when they try to go through his things, which Mansfield conveys in a really hilarious style. However, the flashback of their nephew's visit merits some comment, as it shows clearly how dull their lives are and how unusual it is for these women to have company "Cyril to tea was one of their rare treats". It is pathetic to read that they sacrificed their needs to buy the delicacies which he didn't even taste "...the rich dark cake that stood for her winter gloves or the soling and heeling of Constantia's only respectable shoes".

Another eloquent portrayal of the sister's different characters is given by their thoughts in the last part of the story. Josephine reflects sensibly, she remembers her mother and wonders "If mother had lived, might they have married?" and "How did one meet men? Or even if they'd met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers?". All her life has been subjected to her father's command: "The rest had been looking after father, and at the same time keeping out of father's way. But now? But now?". Constantia, on her part, experiences feelings and emotions that she will never reveal, as shown by her attitude towards the Buddha and her recollection of how she used to get out of bed in the middle of the night to lie on the floor "...with her arms outstretched, as though she was crucified...The big pale moon had made her do it". It appears that in this part of the story Mansfield ultimately suggests that this woman is suffocated by a sexual repression that she cannot even allow to appear in her fantasies. "What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?". She has endured her wretched existence by making her dreams and fantasies the actual protagonists of her life, while "...arranging father's trays and trying not to annoy father. ... seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn't real"; her moments alone enjoying her senses are her real life.

And then, the hidden feeling of freedom, hidden probably because it wasn't proper, when the organ grinder starts playing and they don't have to stop it and it seems to sing and repeat `It (the stick) never will thump again', “Never would sound that loud strange bellow when father thought they were not hurrying enough. It will never thump again! What was Constantia thinking? She had a strange smile; she looked different.” `A week since father died'. Jug and Con feel relief and they `forgot to be practical and sensible' which was what conventions called for. They allow the sun to come in and stay for a while but when the organ stops, they let their lives slip back to the daily routine their father had forced them into. It shows the power that the dead sometimes have over the living.

To conclude, Josephine and Constantia differ only in that the first is practical and sensible and the latter is imaginative and dreamy, but they are similar in their weakness of character, their indecision and their total lack of life experience. As mentioned above, both are asking themselves what will happen now.

THE COLONEL

He had always controlled his family, especially his daughters to the extent of restricting their rights to freedom of speech, of choice, of feelings. He had not allowed them to develop their personalities, to grow free from preconceptions and misconceptions about life, not permitting their feelings to be expressed until they no longer "seemed" to exist.

From the very beginning we infer the colonel had been a fearful, cold, intolerant and authoritarian father who, although dead and buried, continues inspiring fear in both his insecure daughters. There are few scenes in which we actually see father: one, on his deathbed, narrated as a memory from the sisters' point of view, that describes him using words which connote violence and anger even in his deathbed 'dark, angry purple'...'never even looked at them'...Even his death is terrifying “...glared at them '- with one eye- and then went.” (terrifying memory of his last moment, isn't it?) .Both daughters recall the moment and cannot not help thinking that “that eye wasn't at all a peaceful eye”. Their father's personality can be clearly imagined when Josephine recalls the “absolute terror” they felt at the cemetery, “while the coffin was lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing without asking his permission”. She could even hear his “stick thumping” and concluded in tears “father will never forgive us for this- never” . His cold, dark and awful room also helps to characterise him; we can deduce he had a strong and imposing personality since although he has been dead for weeks, his daughters still feel he “was watching there...ready to spring.”

Josephine's recalling Cyril's last visit also adds more to this father's characterisation. The words used in this part (part IX) convey more details about Grandfather Pinner's personality. Jug remembers him “in front of a roaring fire, clasping his stick”, shooting his eyes at his grandson, Cyril feeling “like a perfect imbecile” in his presence and desperately groaning to her “Oh, Aunt Josephine, must we go now?”, eager to leave that torturing moment! In the very last part of the story, another reference is made to their father's utter intolerance when they listen to the barrel-organ and suddenly remember with relief “they would never have to stop the organ-grinder again. Never again would she and Constantia be told to make that monkey take his noise somewhere else. The organ-grinder might play there all day and the stick would not thump.”. However, the Colonel's irate temper was not limited to the members of his family only, “There had been father's Anglo-Indian friends, before he quarrelled with them”. On the whole, it is through Josephine's stream of consciousness that we are able to imagine what colonel Pinner had been to family and friends alike.

KATE AND NURSE

Kate and Nurse Andrews are secondary characters and at the same time could be defined as synonymous characters as regards their function which seems identical in the development of the plot. Both help to reveal and highlight the sisters vulnerability and lack of resolve when dealing with matters that require a firm and decisive attitude. In Kate's case in particular, we can sense her role being that of a constant reminder of the sisters' inability to cope with powerful and devious personalities who show off their power and control over them as did their father in the past. Her actions thus indicative of her meanness and deliberateness .

These female characters or vehicle characters, therefore serve as vehicles; they help to convey the issues marked above together with other facts revealed through characters' consciousness , such as their plain submissiveness to others as in the case of the meal: "Nurse Andrews waited, smiling at them both. Her eyes wandered , spying everything behind her eyeglasses . Constantia in despair went back to her camels. Josephine frowned heavily- concentrated . If it hadn't been for this idiotic woman she and Con would, of course have eaten their blancmange. Nurse Andrews is hereby portrayed as abusive and demanding, benefiting from the sisters' kindness and goodwill.

Kate is characterised as not the typical British maid of the 1920s. She is impertinent, cheeky, disrespectful. Takes advantage of sisters' incapacity to give orders, to make up their minds even about trivial things. Perfectly sure of her position in the house.

She “snatches away” plates, she “bursts open” pieces of furniture, “bursts through doors” without knocking and waiting for permission, questions the sisters in a “bold voice” , “stalks off” and “bounces back leaving their door open and slamming the door of her kitchen”, thus openly showing a careless and rather disrespectful attitude towards her polite, humble (and rather frightful!) landladies. Her actions show her meanness and deliberateness. A line that can summarise Mansfield's characterisation of Kate can be the one that reads: “And proud young Kate, the enchanted princess, came in to see what the old tabbies wanted now”. There seems to be a reversal of roles: the maid looks down on her employers evidently and explicitly while the latter sometimes prefer to do things on their own in order not to “disturb” Kate! They even find it really difficult to make up their mind as regards Kate's continuity in the household although Josephine firmly says they should “come to a definite decision” this time.

These female characters are vehicle characters because they help to convey the issues marked above together with other facts revealed through characters' consciousness , such as their plain submissiveness to others as in the case of the meal: "Nurse Andrews waited, smiling at them both. Her eyes wandered , spying everything behind her eyeglasses . Constantia in despair went back to her camels. Josephine frowned heavily- concentrated . If it hadn't been for this idiotic woman she and Con would, of course have eaten their blancmange. Nurse Andrews is hereby portrayed as abusive and demanding, benefiting from the sisters' kindness and goodwill.

Nurse Andrews, is characterised as a “tactless” woman who possesses the “maddening habit of asking for just an inch more” of whatever the sisters offer to her. At the beginning of the story we learn Con and Jug really regret having invited her to stay with them one more week after the colonel's death. Instead of being a helpful lodger, something naturally expected considering her occupation, she is characterised as a person who “complicated matters” and “took advantage of their kindness” devouring all the butter and marmalade that appeared within her reach.

STYLE

The story is definitely open-ended and as far as Mansfield wrote, the characters have not developed. However, there are two possibilities to consider: a) that given the time they would get used to their new way of life and might start to see things in a different light. The question is, will they have the courage to face the change? b) There's almost a climax, a turning point in the sisters' attempt to open up and talk about 'the future' or freedom and possibilities...but it quickly fades away in a cloud of embarrassment, fear, insecurity.

The use of stream of consciousness occurs constantly throughout the story from both Josephine's and Constantia's points of view. For me the most imitate and revealing is on Page 124 "She remembered . Now?" The inner moment in this particular passage has the force of revelation when the character of Constantia comes to see her life more clearly. As a reader I felt surprised by the contrast of their restricted "everyday life" and the sense of freedom and communion she revealed in her silent musing, on the edge of the sea or by the moonlight or into a thunderstorm, when she only "really felt herself".

There are several instances of this technique in the story:

- Josephine at the cemetery (part V)

- Their reflection on the runner (part VII)

- Josephine recalling Cyril´s visit (part VII)

- Constantia analysing Kate (part XI)

- Both sisters' final pondering on the organ-grinder's music (part XII)

The techniques of stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse serve to feature the main characters as we gain access to the characters' consciousness or thought processes.

As regards the first one the attempt is to reproduce their consciousness with no respect for the rules of syntax. just the reproduction of thoughts as these are generated, thus jumping from one subject to the other, "She never had .The whole difficulty was to prove anything. How did one prove things, how could one?. Suppose Kate had stood in front of her and deliberately made a face at her "If Kate answered "No"_ and of course, she would say "No" _what a position!"

In the case of free indirect discourse, the technique oscillates between narrative comment and character's consciousness, in this way the author gains access into the characters thoughts in a sort of third person reproduced monologue. in the particular case when Josephine is fondly thinking of their nephew Cyril whom she thinks is the only one who truly deserves to have their father's gold watch. “Josephine made no reply. She had flown off on one of her tangents. She had suddenly thought of Cyril. Wasn't it more usual for the only grandson to have the watch? And then dear Cyril was so appreciative and a gold watch meant so much to a young man...."


THE LUMBER ROOM

The lumber room Is a forbidden place "dark and dimly lit", "full of treasures not to be spoilt by use", whereas the rest of the house is "bare and cheerless". This gives the impression that the aunt herself is "bare and cheerless" and everything that was exciting and beautiful was forbidden by her, such as the lumber room or the gooseberry garden. This of course made every object within the lumber room more interesting to a child, especially something as horrific as a tapestry depicting a hunting scene, and the possibility of a horrific slaughter of the hunter and hounds by wolves. It would the modern equivalent of a violent film or video game that would hover in the mind of a child. Even more so because of the bleakness of the rest of the house, where the only excitement is to outwit the adult authorities, even such an extreme as to smile seems to be an excess "it was probably the first time for twenty years that anyone had smiled in that lumber room". Nicholas sees himself as the hunter in the tapestry, whereas the hunter must outwit the wolves and sacrifice his prize of the stag to save his life and those of his dogs. Nicholas must outwit his aunt and sacrifice an outing or risk punishment in order to enjoy the thrill of his "hunt". One can imagine him always being the daring one in future, yet ultimately coming out on top; perhaps admired but not necessarily liked.

Nicholas would be a demanding adversary to have to outwit constantly. Perhaps his parents could have handle him better by harnessing his intelligence but his aunt was no match for him. I'd detest his use of a helpless frog to outwit adults, unnecessary cruelty just to prove his point. I would worry about his influence on his younger brother and cousins and wonder where his cruelty would end? How would you punish such an adult - child for whom getting "one up" on everyone is obviously the whole point of his life? Ideally he'd need a full-time tutor who could match him in daring and intelligence and guide him to use his natural audacity in positive ways. But I wonder if he hasn't been through endless tutors and outwitted them all?

On the one hand, Nicholas's aunt is a symbol of the adult world. She possesses all the features found in a typical adult, especially in terms of her relationship with children. Adults are portrayed as prejudiced towards the world of children; they always have a high opinion of themselves and do not listen to what children say. They assume children are stupid and take them for granted. Besides, they justify their lies for the sake of their children. They tend to overreact to stupid events; they make a fuss of unimportant issues, as is the case of the lumber-room. Nicholas's aunt created a mystery around something that wasn't mysterious at all.

The issue of "revenge" can be analysed taking into account two different approaches. One which assumes that Nicholas reveals a revengeful trait in his personality and therefore this trait will account for the forceful drive behind his actions, or another which will justify the fact that his actions had been triggered off by his aunt's perverse and unfair treatment in the past, "It was her habit , whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred."

The 3rd person narrator focuses on the character of Nicholas, and it is through this standpoint that we learn about the character's consciousness. The latter is effectively conveyed through telling, having access into the characters' mind and thus getting to know what he thinks and feels. Especially in the case of his aunt and of adults in general "Older and wiser and better people had told him that here could not possibly be a frog in his bread-and-milk" The statement loaded with irony, already conditions the readers in their appreciation of adults in the story.

The character of the aunt is also constructed both directly and indirectly, we are told she is not his real

Aunt but she considers herself as such and therefore with full authority over Nicholas.

Indirectly we learn about her through speech, characterising her as authoritarian and controlling. She likes to show her authority over the little ones and to exert power over them by imposing rules, regulations and banning mischief and misconduct through punishment and penance. Her punishment can be considered altogether arbitrary and unfair. Some aspects of her personality are made known to us through "telling". The narrator provides us with information about her actions in the past, and it is through a particular statement that we can sense the shift in the perspective, now being that of an adult and not that of Nicholas , the narrator becomes omniscient, "She was a woman of few ideas , with immense powers of concentration"

Her perversion and meanness are shown throughout the story mainly through her actions. It is with reference to her past that we picture her as someone who derives pleasure in the affliction and suffering of the defenceless and weak little ones.

Even in the last instances we are witnesses of her deceitful and perverse nature. "Will there be strawberry jam for tea? "asked Nicholas innocently

"Certainly there will be, "said the aunt , privately resolving that Nicholas should have none of it.”

On the other hand, Nicholas proves to be very smart and cunning for his age. He tricks his aunt easily when he refuses to help her in the gooseberry garden. He appears to be extremely talented at creating stories and understanding the facts of life. He is meticulous and pays attention to details as shown when he replaces the key in its original place. He doesn't seem to understand the world of adults at first until he discovers it and uses it in his favour. Ironically, he reveals the stupidity of the conventions created by adults. However, there is a trace of cruelty in his behaviour at a certain point; he sees his aunt is suffering and instead of helping her, he sniggers at her misfortune.

The incident of the frog in the bread and milk makes Nicholas appear like a naughty boy who has done something quite witty to avoid drinking his breakfast. However, this image soon changes and we realise that he is a true enfant-terrible. He is burning with curiosity and is relentless in his quest to satisfy his desire to know what the forbidden lumber-room conceals. To ensure his success, he has to be alone in the house and undisturbed by the presence of the other children, therefore, he has carefully planned the unforgivable misdemeanour of putting a frog in his bowl and confessing to the crime in the certainty that he will be punished in the usual manner by his predictable soi-dissant Aunt.

However, his purpose does not become clear at this stage and it is surprising that he welcomes his punishment gladly -to his Aunt's disappointment his does not even shed a tear. Ironically, those who are rewarded with the promise of an exciting outing are not leaving in the best of moods, as one is crying because she has got hurt and another one is sour because his boots are too small. Only later the reader understands that putting the frog in the milk is the initial step of a carefully planned scheme.

It is in this part of the story where Saki's message is absolutely clear: how wrong adults are in their treatment and understanding of children. Indeed, in his days the belief was that adults were always right and should never be contradicted, which the frog incident proves to be utterly wrong. Further on, he introduces another issue, how adults can be deaf to children's remarks. (Indeed, the rule that "children should be seen and not heard still prevailed in my infancy and it only started to change in the sixties under the influence of Dr Spock!).

Saki's portrayal of both characters is definitive: the Aunt is a righteous, narrow-minded judgmental woman who has no understanding of children's behaviour or needs, while Nicholas is a surprisingly clever boy who has a clear insight of adults' reactions to children.

It becomes clear that Saki chose special terms for each of the two. Those related to the Aunt show that she exaggerates children's faults to extremes. Her bigotry is skilfully shown by terms that are used in the confessional, e.g. "the sin of taking a frog..."; "...whenever one of the children fell from grace"; "if all the children sinned"; "you are in disgrace"; "Aunt often tells me that the Evil one tempts me". These terms eloquently show how this woman magnifies the children's mischievous antics, regarding them as unpardonable crimes. But what is more, she also appears to have the puritanical practice of denying herself and others comfort and pleasures. For example "she was one of those people who think that things spoil by use and consign them to dust and damp..." "Such parts of the house as Nicholas knew best were rather bare and cheerless". While the lumber-room stores things that would have served the make the house a more pleasant and warmer place to live in, her home is cold and bleak.

Nicholas is shown as a really strong-willed little boy. From the start, Saki makes us see him as an army officer in the battlefield "a skilled tactician who does not intend to shift from favourable ground". To emphasise this idea of a campaign to conquer enemy territory -the lumber-room- Saki continues using military terms such as "Nicholas made one or two sorties" and the Aunt is on "self-imposed sentry duty".

However, this little boy has not only a shrewd mind that can easily outwit the Aunt, who is not very bright indeed. He has a creative mind that can easily introduce drama into a scene that does not satisfy him completely. He does not find the picture in the tapestry exciting enough - "... it would not have been difficult to creep up to the feeding stag" - and immediately adds to it an element of suspense: the huntsman being threatened by wolves.

Nicholas's world seems to be one of rules and punishment rather than freedom and affection. On the contrary, the world of imagination as portrayed especially in Nicholas' interpretation of the tapestry, is a rich universe, full of excitement and freedom, even danger. It is a world of possibilities in which the hunter might even get a chance to either escape with his hounds or shoot the wolves with the two arrows in his quiver; the wolves could be just the four that gallop towards the hunter, but there could be more hidden; he could be an extremely dextrous archer, or else a lousy one who can only kill a stag at short distance. Notice that in this case, in the world of fantasy, oppositions are plenty and varied.

This of course leads us to the child's interpretation of the tapestry at the very end, being symbolic in relation to his own situation in the house. Nicholas finds 'a way out', maybe 'just possible', for the hunter, which resembles his own escape from the punishment in the risks it implies, the excitement, the adrenaline.

Some binary oppositions

1) Children / "older, wiser and better people".

2) Expedition supposed to be punitive for Nicholas / Expedition turns out to be punitive for the rest of the children. The tide is high, there were no sands, the tightness in Bobby's boots.

3) True Parents / "soi-dissant aunt"; "aunt by assertion".

4) "decent tears" which were looked for on the part of Nicholas when the moment of the departure arrived / All crying was done by his girl-cousin who scraped her knee.

5) Nicholas wriggling his way with obvious stealth of purpose / He had no real intention of trying to get into the gooseberry garden.

6) Lumber Room "unknown land stale of delight, a mere material pleasure" / a) gooseberry garden;/

b) the rest of the house "bare and cheerless".

7) Teapot fashioned like a china duck / Dull and shapeless nursery pot.

8) Coloured pictures of exotic birds / Few and non-interesting birds Nicholas came across when he went for a walk.

9) Being alone in the lumber room / group of children going to Jagborough's sands.

10) Freedom gained by imagination / Grown-ups repression.

11) Nicholas' imagination, fantasy, creativeness / Aunt's little imagination, rigidity, strictness.

I think that binary oppositions are so countless in the story because Saki is deliberately trying to show and describe opposite worlds, which will always remain as such.

Besides, the author is criticising society and a way to do it is by emphasising the difference between these two worlds (children/grown-ups).

And we, as readers, cannot remain passive. After reading the story, we must make up our minds to whether we like or dislike the two main characters/worlds.