‘The Lady’s Maid’ by Katherine Mansfield


The Lady’s Maid by Katherine Mansfield, 1920

The magic trick:

Making it feel like the lady’s maid is talking to the reader, which only makes the reader’s inability to advise her all the more frustrating

“The Lady’s Maid” uses a very interesting form. The story is a conversation between a lady’s maid and another woman. However, the reader only gets the lady’s maid’s side. We’re not privy to what the other woman is saying. The effect is that it feels like the lady’s maid is talking to us.

But it’s more nuanced than that!

The lady’s maid’s responses to the woman’s portion of the conversation give the reader insight into what is being said. When she begins talking with a phrase such as, “… Yes, madam, it was all left to me,” we can connect it with context and broaden the conversation in our imagination.

Ah, but it’s even more nuanced than that!

As the plot develops (I’ll try to avoid spoilers here), the reader becomes increasingly distressed by the lady’s maid’s decisions. You want to reach into the book and take her by the shoulders and shake her, in fact. You want to say, ‘No, please, wake up! Don’t do that! She’s not worth it! Stop!’

At least that was my response.

So, what you find is that this technique that puts in the conversation without actually being there becomes incredibly frustrating. You feel so close to situation but don’t actually have any power at all to change it. And that’s quite a trick on Mansfield’s part.

The selection:

… No, madam, never now. Of course, I did think of it at one time. But it wasn’t to be. He had a little flower-shop just down the road and across from where we was living. Funny—wasn’t it? And me such a one for flowers. We were having a lot of company at the time, and I was in and out of the shop more often than not, as the saying is. And Harry and I (his name was Harry) got to quarrelling about how things ought to be arranged— and that began it. Flowers! you wouldn’t believe it, madam, the flowers he used to bring me. He’d stop at nothing. It was lilies-of-the-valley more than once, and I’m not exaggerating! Well, of course, we were going to be married and live over the shop, and it was all going to be just so, and I was to have the window to arrange… Oh, how I’ve done that window of a Saturday! Not really, of course, madam, just dreaming, as you might say. I’ve done it for Christmas—motto in holly, and all—and I’ve had my Easter lilies with a gorgeous star all daffodils in the middle. I’ve hung—well, that’s enough of that. The day came he was to call for me to choose the furniture. Shall I ever forget it? It was a Tuesday. My lady wasn’t quite herself that afternoon. Not that she’d said anything, of course; she never does or will. But I knew by the way that she kept wrapping herself up and asking me if it was cold—and her little nose looked… pinched. I didn’t like leaving her; I knew I’d be worrying all the time. At last I asked her if she’d rather I put it off. “Oh no, Ellen,” she said, “you mustn’t mind about me. You mustn’t disappoint your young man.” And so cheerful, you know, madam, never thinking about herself. It made me feel worse than ever.


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