'Prelude' by Katherine Mansfield


This is the Hogarth Press edition of 'Prelude', a short story by Katherine Mansfield first published in 1918. It was later printed in Mansfield’s second collection, Bliss and Other Stories (1920).

‘Prelude’ contains many of the marks of Mansfield’s distinctive style. It opens with an assembled scene, in the middle of unexplained action: ‘There was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy’. Gradually, the reader comes to understand that the middle class Burnell family are moving away from town for a new life in the country. But, for Mansfield, the plot was always of secondary importance. Her ambition was to develop an innovative literary form, driven by exploring characters’ psychology rather than traditional plotting techniques and narrative resolution. Divided into 12 scenes, ‘Prelude’ seamlessly shifts between the multiple perspectives of a cast of characters. The mundane occurrence of moving house is drawn with depictions of overheard conversations and emerging thoughts, creating a rich psychological landscape where Mansfield subtly exposes the tensions beneath the surface of family life.

‘Prelude’s’ main ‘subject’ is the lives of women, and their role within the patriarchal family. In one of several ‘epiphany’ moments, Linda considers her relationship with her husband, Stanley. Through Linda’s attitude and behaviour towards their children, Mansfield radically questions the assumption that all women experience a natural, maternal instinct (a topic that is sensitively developed in ‘At the Bay’, a ‘sequel’ story about the Burnell family). Beryl’s restlessness and commanding of the servants stems from her desire to be free – financially and socially – from her brother-in-law.

Mansfield may have drawn elements of the story from her childhood in New Zealand, when her family moved from Wellington to the country.

Katherine Mansfield, the Hogarth Press and Virginia Woolf

The Hogarth Press was founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Prelude was the Woolfs’ second publication, entirely printed and bound by hand. Certain details reveal that the Woolfs were still printing amateurs: the story’s title, for instance, is misprinted as ‘The Prelude’ on several pages.

Virginia Woolf and Mansfield met in 1917, when the aspiring writers had each published one book. Although their friendship certainly featured jealousy and competition, their ambivalent feelings towards one another have been overemphasised. As pioneering women writers, they felt a deep affinity with each other. Woolf wrote in her diary, ‘to no one else can I talk in the same disembodied way about writing; without altering my thought more than I alter it in writing here’.[1] Mansfield wrote to Woolf, ‘You are the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another.’

[1] Diary of Virginia Woolf, p. 45.

Full title:
estimated 1920, The Hogarth Press, Paradise Road, Richmond, London
Hogarth Press
Katherine Mansfield
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Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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