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'The Wrong House' by Katherine Mansfield


Introduced by Laurence Miall

 

In the 1990s and early 2000’s, as an English literature professor at the University of Alberta in western Canada, my father used to survey large cohorts of postsecondary students, who were asked to read a work of literature and highlight the verses, sentences or specific words that emotionally resonated the most. One of the studies he conducted was into “The Wrong House.”

Students were struck by Katherine Mansfield’s description of the setting of her story. For example, on the street where the main character lives, the houses opposite seem to have been “cut out with a pair of ugly steel scissors and pasted on to the grey paper sky.” One student was reminded of her hometown in southern Alberta. It seemed appropriate to me that a resident of one Commonwealth country, Canada, find literary kinship with a resident of another Commonwealth country—New Zealand. Another student noted the old woman’s heightened emotional state and opined that a contemplation of one’s own mortality can make it impossible to think clearly.

This study led me to another essay, in which my father had described his own reaction to the story.  I discovered this particular paper only six months after his funeral. He had zeroed in on the old woman’s habit of knitting. The way Mansfield evokes the repetitive nature of this habit, “woolinfrontoftheneedle,” sent my father’s thoughts back to childhood, when he was obliged to recite the liturgy at church, somewhat mindlessly. The words became mashed together, stripped of meaning. Why, he now wondered, was the old woman so obsessed about time and punctuality, when she wasted so much time on purposeless activity?

As one of the most skilled creators of short stories, Mansfield has shown up in the Scratch series more than once. In “The Wrong House,” terror lurks at the edge of a scene that at first seems commonplace. As the terror comes closer, Mansfield has readers in her grip, and she doesn’t let them go.

 

The Wrong House


[To read this story please open this link to The Katherine Mansfield Society's publication]


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Laurence Miall is the author of Blind Spot (NeWest Press, 2014) and is currently working on his second novel, The Mariner & the Mission.


 


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