1 June 2021
Jonathan Ellis, University of Sheffield
In a famous letter in 1919, Katherine Mansfield, reflecting on the effect of war on those that had made it home, wrote of the experience of seeing ‘death in life’. She gave as examples ‘a boy eating strawberries or a woman combing her hair on a windy morning’. ‘That is the only way I can mention them. But they must be there’. What might ‘death in life’ look like in a story? If it could be present in a boy eating strawberries, might it also be present in a young man carelessly eating half a meringue?
In ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ (1921), nothing much happens aside from the Late Colonel’s death, which has taken place a few days before we are introduced to the main characters, his daughters Constantia and Josephine. In other words, this is a story about the aftermath of the father’s death on the sisters’ lives, or rather their inability to deal with the aftermath, whether it be arranging his burial or distributing his possessions. The Colonel may thus be physically absent from his daughters’ lives now that he is dead, but his impact and legacy take centre stage, as can be seen even in the choice of title. This continuing dominance is reflected in a series of poignant moments in the story when either or both sisters believe that the father will never forgive them for the expenditure of his own funeral, that he lives in the chest of drawers in his bedroom, and that he will still be upset by the sound of a street-organ.
The psychological damage the Colonel has inflicted on how his daughters communicate with each other and the world outside their claustrophobic dyad is irreversible. They are stuck in an eternal present trying to comprehend what has happened, incapable of taking charge of their affairs or even asking their housemaid for a glass of hot water. The story records the effect their father’s death has had on them and paradoxically the fact that it has made no difference at all. Their desires have long since been obliterated by the Colonel’s will, their presence in the house reduced to the status of (unpaid) servants.
As part of this role, they prepare food for other people rather than themselves, recalling a tea party before their father’s death to which their nephew Cyril was invited. At this awkward tea party for three, the two sisters ply Cyril with expensive cakes as a sign of their affection. The meringue is more than just an accompaniment to tea. Bought to please Cyril, its purchase involves a significant degree of self-sacrifice on the sisters’ behalf. As the narrator observes in drawing attention to the young man’s tactlessness (he agrees to eat just a half), the meringue could have bought some ‘winter gloves’ for Josephine or a new heel for Constantia’s ‘only respectable shoes’. The meringue not only costs money, then. It will probably cost the two sisters their health in winter.
If this conversation about meringues reflects badly on Cyril’s social skills, it does not say much for Constantia and Josephine either. The questions they almost but never quite ask about Cyril’s life and particularly that of his father are all deflected or forgotten. These questions hover in the air, ‘poised’ like the knife over the chocolate-roll (241). Do they (and we) read too much into Cyril’s encounter with ‘a man at Victoria’ who gave him a ‘terrific blow-out’ (241)? Might this be why the sisters consider him to be ‘most unmanlike in appetite’ (241)? Cyril is on his way to another rendezvous with a man ‘at Paddington just after five’ (242). Could going off meringues be a sign of Cyril taking a queer turn in other ways? He appears to do an awful lot of socialising with anonymous men at railway stations.
The Colonel in his ‘hot, sweetish room’ nearby (242) and the friend who kept Cyril ‘hanging’ (241) around at Victoria are not the only male ghosts at this feast. For Cyril, there is something about the meringue’s association with his father that he cannot quite literally stomach. The confession that begins ‘it’s such a long time since—’ (241) would presumably have concluded with the words: ‘I saw him’. Why has Cyril not seen his father recently?
The sisters are equally fearful of their brother, Benny, in particular what might happen if they were to send ‘something of [their] father’s’ to him in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where both imagine differently dressed but equally frightening Black men stealing a family heirloom:
Both paused to watch a black man in white linen drawers running through the pale fields for dear life, with a large brown-paper parcel in his hands. Josephine’s black man was tiny; he scurried along glistening like an ant. But there was something blind and tireless about Constantia’s tall, thin fellow, which made him, she decided, a very unpleasant fellow indeed…. On the verandah, dressed all in white and wearing a cork helmet, stood Benny. His right hand shook up and down, as father’s did when he was impatient. And behind him, not in the least interested, sat Hilda, the unknown sister-in-law. She swung in a cane rocker and flicked over the leaves of the Tatler. (239-40)
This passage reveals the two sisters’ failure to imagine a life outside their house in anything other than stereotypical ways. Josephine deals with her fear of otherness by comparing the Black man to an ant. Constantia at least recognises his humanity. To her, he is a ‘tall, thin fellow’, anonymous but not particularly threatening. Josephine remains wary, declaring Constantia’s fantasy figure ‘a very unpleasant person indeed’ without giving any reason why. Either Josephine is not sure why she thinks this, or she does not want to put her ideas into words. The reader is left trying to bridge the gap, wondering what lies in the space between.
The Black men in the sisters’ imaginations are not the only people we do not see very clearly here. Benny is just as invisible. What do we find out about him aside from the fact he is ‘dressed all in white’? Hilda, ‘the unknown sister-in-law’, is equally not really there, flicking over the pages of a gossip magazine. If Constantia and Josephine cannot see beyond the colour of Black men, apart from seeing them as creatures, they appear just as incapable of imagining what a white couple might do, feel, or think. Their fantasies are banal if fairly indigestible clichés.
The ghosts at the tea party that takes place before the Late Colonel’s death are thus not only heterosexual desire and patriarchal power but also colonialism and racial superiority. Mansfield’s meringues are the sickly spoils of colonial conquest (basic meringues being made out of egg whites and sugar), a whiteness nobody in the story (aside from its writer) cares to acknowledge.
 Katherine Mansfield, in The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Bonnie Kime Scott (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 306.
 Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’, in Selected Stories, ed. by Angela Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 230–49 (p. 241). All subsequent references are to this edition and given in parenthesis.