‘That direct flick at the thing seen’: Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf as short story writers.

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


Katherine Mansfield’s and Virginia Woolf’s literary friendship would have centred on the writing of stories as part of a larger conversation on the craft of writing as they both sought to overturn the inherited conventions of realism and plot structure. This dynamic aspect of their relationship is evident in Woolf’s admiration of Mansfield’s work following the publication by the Hogarth Press of ‘Prelude’ in 1918, and in Mansfield’s enthusiastic review in the Athenaeum (13 June 1919) of Woolf’s ‘Kew Gardens’, a story which she may have inspired her to write. This paper takes for its title Woolf’s comment that Mansfield’s ‘special gift’ was ‘that direct flick at the thing seen’, and it begins by examining their creative energies and distinctive perceptual modes that triggered their stylistic innovation in the genre: for instance, the (Post)/Impressionistic rendering of phenomena, the fracturing of subjectivity, the focus on the miniature or mundane at the expense of linear narrative form. It aims to establish how both writers constructed affective representations of the significant moment or experience through registering sense impressions of sound, sight and touch, and how in tension with the documentary conventions of realism, they reconfigured the physical world as permeated by these ephemeral yet material responses. Such heightened moments of subjective perception in apprehending and engaging with the external world constitute one of the informing principles of the modernist short story. I will refer to stories like ‘The Mark on the Wall’ and ‘Kew Gardens’ from Woolf’s collection, Monday or Tuesday (1921), which demonstrate the development of her stylistic experimentation, and to stories by Mansfield which invite comparisons with Woolf’s work, such as ‘The Garden Party’ and ‘In the Botanical Gardens’. Their appraisal of each other’s aesthetic and affective qualities – to Woolf Mansfield’s writing is as ‘clear as glass’ and to Mansfield ‘Kew Gardens’ shows that ‘something – for no reason that we can discover – gives us pause’ – hints at an artistic empathy; and the paper will suggest that their literary innovation in the short story genre became the nucleus of an impressionistic, female-oriented modernism. In Woolf’s case this was developed further in the novels, and in Mansfield’s it appears in the experimental boldness and precision of her narrative technique and a unique aesthetic which ultimately elevated the status of the modernist short story.
Period11 Jun 2016
Event titleKatherine Mansfield and the Art of the Short Story
Event typeConference
LocationBandol, FranceShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Virginia Woolf
  • short story
  • 'Kew Gardens'
  • 'Miss Brill'
  • literary modernism