“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” by Katherine Mansfield was my lucky draw this week. Mansfield’s daughters, Josephine and Constantia, are very close and very paralyzed because their lives have been dominated by their father. As the story opens, their father, Colonel Pinner, has died and in 12 brief parts, we see the sisters trying to deal with the reality of his death. They are caught up in domestic issues; what should they do with his top-hat? What about his watch? What if he’s not really dead? Because their mother has died, apparently from a snake-bite, a long time ago Josephine and Constantia have allowed themselves to become their father’s care-givers and have not really grown up.
Written in a modernist style with shifting sensibilities and points-of-view we see the sisters vacillate in their preoccupations. Making decisions is difficult for them. Constantia thinks that Josephine should make the decisions because she is older. Josephine, on the other hand, believes that Constantia should make decisions because she is “taller’.
In part one Constantia identifies with mice–“a spasm of pity squeezed her heart. Poor little thing! She wished she’d left a tiny piece of biscuit on the dressing table”…..”I can’t think how they manage to live at all,” she laments about the lives of mice. The food and animal motif continues. Perhaps sympathy for mice is engendered by their mother’s death from a snake bite?
In Part 2 of the story they decide to keep the nurse around for a week because they don’t quite have the courage to ask her to go. Keeping their father’s nurse with them is also a small way of denying his death. One of them thinks: “Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter. Really they couldn’t help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness…” Nurse Andrews tells that that “When I was with LAdy Tukes…she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah. It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the –on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork….”
For the pudding they have a “terrified blancmange” which is a lovely description.
They have a maid who thinks of them as “old tabbies”.
The two sisters are a huddled mass, clinging together in fear and incompetence. They cannot yet know how to grieve their father’s death. If it is a liberation for them, they are left with few liberties to take—beyond the age of marriage, beyond the age of experience, they rather fear servants and undoubtedly put people off with their juvenile ways. Their nephew, Cyril, who has visited his grandfather, their grandfather, is impatient because their only topic of discussion is merengue.
The story is like a Chekhovian tragi-comedy. Are they going to be able to have lives and ideas of their own after they realize that their father is really dead, and not just hiding in a chest of drawers?