My reading group and I have just been discussing ‘An Indiscreet Journey’ by Katherine Mansfield. It’s a bright, breezily narrated tale describing the journey a young woman makes across France to visit her lover, just behind the front-line.
Like so much of Mansfield’s fiction, the story is a pen-portrait of an actual event, and in this case, written soon after the visit took place, in 1915. But why should we need to know that? A story, surely, stands alone. That the word world created should convince, as well as engage us, whether it is contemporarily familiar, or set in an environment distanced by space or time, isn’t that the real test?
This one passed. We agreed unanimously. We don’t always agree, of course. I wouldn’t expect us too. In this case though, there seemed to be something in the writing for every taste. Comic character studies, poetic descriptions and a clever digression from the apparent plot all combined to provide a comprehensive entertainment and some enjoyable discussion.
Several of the group had not come across Mansfield before, and so we discussed a little of her background – mostly the more sensational aspects, of course. Pooling our knowledge on the author and the era, brought me back to the text.
In it, there is a description of an old woman reading a letter from her soldier son, the first one she’d received in months. When I was putting my ideas together at home, I had spent some time wondering about it. The only detail Mansfield gives us out of the letter is a request for string and handkerchiefs. What could it mean? I came up with two possibilities, neither strong, but there seemed nothing more to go on. There was so much more to investigate in the text that I moved on.
It was at the class, while we were discussing the soldier with weeping eyes, from later in the story, that the solution came. Mansfield never directly states it, but we concluded that this soldier has been caught in a gas attack. When she was writing this story, Mansfield was staying at a flat in Paris, near to a hospital treating injured soldiers, many of whom had been caught in gas attacks.
When chemical weapons were first deployed, the armies were not prepared, and soldiers improvised gas masks with pads of urine soaked linen. ‘Yes,’ said one of the group, ‘they tied string to each corner of the material and looped it around their ears.’
For me, it was a eureka moment. I saw beyond the words, to the implications of the way the mother reads her letter:
‘Slowly, slowly she sipped a sentence, and then looked up and out of the window, her lips trembling a little, and then another sentence, and again the old face turned to the light, tasting it…’
The story opened out again, as if Mansfield’s words were only a window onto a much bigger and more complex view of the war. How terrible a letter it must have been for a mother to receive, and how discreetly Mansfield has conveyed this contrast between our narrator and the landscape she travels through.
I think I’ve mentioned before, that I don’t think of Mansfield as an easy read. In some ways, this is one of her more accessible pieces. The narrator’s journey provides structure. The cameo portraits flesh it out and provide colour, and we could skip past the references that don’t have apparent meaning. This was, after all, written ninety-eight years ago. On some level, isn’t story always a piece of social history, directly or indirectly, that we can choose to explore or ignore?
I think yes, and certainly not every story is worth digging into. But to spend a little time on this one is to see what was happening in the wider world at that moment. Once I started to find the patterns, even the title, An Indiscreet Journey began to acquire additional implications.
So if you’re looking for a story to re-read, pick this one. If you’re looking for a story to read with a reading group, ditto. If any story can demonstrate the merits of what a reading group achieves, this is it. As we head for the hundred year anniversary of the start of The Great War, there is certain to be a lot of re-discovery going on with literature. Here’s a suggestion for an early start you might make.