The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Queer Connections in Katherine Mansfield’s “The Singing Lesson” and “Bliss”

Lauren M. Rosenblum
Adelphi University


In her two short stories “The Singing Lesson” (1921) and “Bliss” (1918), Katherine Mansfield uses the telegram and the telephone as plot devices that potentially enable queer connections but ultimately further fortify heteronormativity. However, while Mansfield’s characters maintain their straight relationships, their potential queer affect emerges both because of and despite the imperial networks that align them with heteronormativity. Reading Mansfield through Sara Ahmed’s concept of queer orientations presented in Queer Phenomenology offers a discursive framework that extends the possibility of queer, and gratifying, connections even as it shows the straightening power of imperial communications networks in the early twentieth century.

Keywords queer / orientation / network / technology / phenomenology

“Off at last the goodbye would have been too awful,” Katherine Mansfield’s brother Leslie Beauchamp wrote to his sister in what might have been his final telegram (Beauchamp).1 Predictive of the truly awful goodbye caused by his death a month later, the September 1915 telegram communicates both a sudden departure to military training in France and signals how telegrams, intended to bring people together, also served as alerts to missed connections. After hearing of her brother’s untimely death, the result of a premature grenade explosion during a training exercise, Mansfield wrote of her devastation in her diary: “I’ve touched bottom. Even my heart doesn’t beat any longer” (“Unbound Papers” 16-17). Eventually Mansfield finds the energy to “walk a little.” She writes, “So I went to the Post office [. . .]. When I reached the road I heard a singing. A funny thought. . . ‘the english have come’-but of course it was not they.” (“Unbound Papers” 17, sic). Mansfield dismisses the apparently random “the english have come,” yet the British-run General Post Office—through which telegrams were also sent and received—is an accurate representation of England’s imperial power. This national operation called people to war and just as efficiently alerted their loved ones that they were deceased.2 “The english have come” is in fact fantastically accurate; not only are the English there, they never seem to leave.

Communication networks that inform people of departures, arrivals, apologies for missed goodbyes and news of life events, both quotidian and shattering, figure prominently in Mansfield’s life and fiction, especially given her Antipodean childhood. The first official post office—which would become the home of telegrams in 1904—opened in New Zealand in 1840; telegraph lines began to be built in the 1860s; and the telephone network launched in 1878. In the space of 40 years, New Zealand became much closer to England, and vice-versa, by virtue of technological advances that compress distance through speed. These transpacific and transatlantic networks—the post, telegram, and telephone—invited additional, even queer, connections, despite what we might call their dominantly straightening mode. Bonnie Kime Scott’s foundational work identifying the “tangled web of modernists” reveals the “value of literary connections, for anything from creative stimulation to contact with publishers” (9)3 as well as for affective affiliations.4 Scott argues that “sexual orientation […] can be read” but these connections are tenuous because “our understanding of modernism depends on an inadequate number of sources and is accordingly sketchy and oversimplified” (12). Thus, while attending to network connections “affords a certain infinite extensiveness,” it does not clearly articulate the relationships that these communications technologies might convey (Levine 117). For example, the telegram that alerted Mansfield’s family to her brother’s death severed rather than maintained the unusually close sibling bond between Katherine and Leslie. Mansfield implicitly discerns this paradox during her walk to the post office: compelled by her love for Leslie, she seeks community with the English, suggesting they have “come.” Indeed, they are responsible for not only his death, but also the cold notification of it. Yet, their implicit presence cannot offer her solace. As her grief exceeds the perception of the loss of a traditional sibling relationship, the post office ironically opens the possibility for queer affect. Mansfield exposes its limitations in its ability to provide a satisfactory communication outlet for her intense and unique emotions. The post office’s deficiency inspires her to seek more.

In Mansfield’s fiction, imperial communication networks are similarly controlling, yet these networks also demonstrate the pull towards personal connections beyond the reach of the empire. This article explores this tension in Mansfield’s two stories “The Singing Lesson” (1921) and “Bliss” (1918). In these stories, potential queer affect is expressed via a letter and a phone call, respectively, but the imperial network that operates with the assumption of heteronormativity maintains control of what is communicated.5 While Mansfield’s characters maintain their heteronormative relationships, queer orientation emerges both despite and because of the imperial networks that align characters with heteronormativity. In “The Singing Lesson,” a near-queer revelation is introduced via a coded letter, though quickly dismissed with the arrival of a telegram. In “Bliss,” a phone call eliminates rather than abets the revelation of a woman’s erotic desire, yet this call turns the protagonist towards additional possibilities of queer pleasure. While the telegram in “The Singing Lesson” serves a major purpose in the narrative, the telephone call in “Bliss”—an ordinary interaction with technology—is nonetheless a significant plot point because of the way it encourages and then quickly interrupts potential queer affect. My focus on the way Mansfield engages technology in these stories reorients reading strategies to release latent queer energies. This reading demonstrates that even, or especially, in quotidian moments, struggles against heteronormative networks reveal a yearning to exceed their boundaries.

Mansfield’s characters reside uncomfortably within heteronormative structures rather than directly engaging with the possibilities of desire that characterize more recognizably queer writing, such as the work of Mansfield’s contemporary and friend Virginia Woolf, whom Melanie Micir describes as “always already queer” (350). Despite the queer elements of Mansfield’s life,6 Mansfield does not represent queerness in literature as Woolf does, as “an identity category or a set of specific sexual practices,” and she sidesteps Woolf’s status as a queer literary icon (Micir 353). Mansfield presents women’s sexual desire in her stories—perhaps most notably in the “erotically charged” story “Bliss” (Murphy and Walsh 82). But as Maria J. Lopez and Gerardo Rodriguez Salas explain, this representation does not result in satisfactory queer connections: “In spite of Mansfield’s ardent desire to find spiritual and intellectual shelter in other women, in her fiction the journey invariably ends in failure” (19). Rather, queerness in “The Singing Lesson” and “Bliss” “is fluid, that which does not follow verticality’s ‘straight line’” (Watson 77). Sara Ahmed describes this fluidity as “what makes specific sexualities describable as queer in the first place: that is, that they are seen as odd, bent, twisted” (161). These two texts, I claim, “move between sexual and social registers” of queerness demonstrating a pull towards nonheteronormative desire and women’s sexual desire, the latter of which—even when heteronormative—is viewed as unnecessary, excessive to women as wives and mothers, and therefore queer (161). Queering Mansfield moves towards Micir’s concept of “generative indeterminacy” because her stories envision “sexuality as a process rather than identity” (356). The ambiguity of queer desire in “The Singing Lesson” and “Bliss” reveals Mansfield’s questioning of not only the bind of heteronormativity but also of binary sexual identity.

This reading of Mansfield channels modernist networks and queer methodologies through Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Ahmed writes that “Bodies [. . .] are shaped by their dwellings and take shape by dwelling” (9). The British imperial communication network, figured here as the “dwelling,” can be deterministic as well as rhizomatic, enforcing containment and order for what is communicated, how and to whom. As Ahmed writes, “We don’t know that we have followed a path” (19). This path can be described as compulsory heterosexuality; a social habit that enforces such a sublimation of nonheteronormative desire that it occurs without one’s knowable action or awareness. As Mansfield’s characters process everyday communications (letters, phone calls, telegrams), the messages are straightened, causing them to miss implicitly queer meaning or to disable their ability to express themselves queerly. According to Ahmed, homing in on “the orientations we have towards others” just beyond these paths can reveal essential consanguinity (3). Thus Mansfield’s characters do not have to identify as queer to become orientated towards the potential of queer affect. Instead, as Ahmed argues, they first almost become aware of how being in the world is influenced and reframed—straightened towards heterosexuality (3). Then, the impossibility of queer desire ironically opens up the very possibility it was meant to foreclose. As Ahmed proposes, “The unreachability of some things can be affective; it can even put other worlds within reach” (153). The impossibility of relief from the persistent heteronormative network makes the possibility of queer connections seductive.

This concept of orientations provides opportunities to recognize potential queer affect in Mansfield. Rather than easily recognizable queer desire, queer orientations “shape the contours of space by affecting relations of proximity and distance” (Ahmed 3). Queer affect might seem distant but it is closer than it appears, like the English presence at the post office. Approaching networks in this indirect way leads to a shift in perspective of what is very far and what is very close. When it comes to the study of Mansfield, an indirect approach can, as Ahmed writes, “make some rather different points” (4). Imperial networks push towards heteronormativity but as Ahmed explains, facing away from these networks towards what one might desire creates queer potential: “To be turned toward certain objects [. . .] help[s] us find our way” (1). This approach adds to the study of modernist networks by focusing on what is tangentially connected and what is just out of reach. Reading “The Singing Lesson” and “Bliss” through Ahmed suggests the possibility that characters in these stories turn toward the queer. As Ahmed explains: “Investments in specific [queer] routes can be hidden from view [. . .]. And yet [. . .] chance encounters do happen, and they redirect us and open up new worlds” (19). Likewise, the complex networked relations that Mansfield represents can be constructive. Characters and readers at first only see the networked paths, but they are nonetheless pulled towards the queer.

The Straightening Telegram in “The Singing Lesson”

Less well-known than “Bliss,” “The Singing Lesson” begins with a letter and ends with a telegram, demonstrating both its reliance on the imperial network as a plot device and the network’s outsized influence on potential queer desire. The narrative tells the story of a conventional epistolary breakup: Basil has sent a letter to inform his fiancé, schoolteacher Miss Meadows, that he is ending their engagement. He smooths over the attempted breakup via telegram near the conclusion. Most of the story takes place while Miss Meadows teaches her singing class at a girls’ secondary school while she simultaneously goes over the details of the devastating letter in her head. She leans into the rhetoric of a broken heart, feeling that she is “bleeding to death, pierced to the heart, to the heart” (Stories 268). However, while Miss Meadows bemoans her loss, Mansfield plays with the boundaries of heteronormative desire until, with three brief sentences, Basil’s telegram attempts to straighten the queer spiral caused by his letter: “Pay no attention to letter. Must have been mad. Bought hat stand today” (271). Miss Meadows’ relief is immediate and upon returning to her class, she invites her students to joyously resume their singing lesson (270). The story ends with a presumptive resumption of the heteronormative romantic fantasy it initially interrupted.

Basil’s letter reveals more about him than Miss Meadows acknowledges before she happily resumes her engaged status. Mansfield’s narration strategically shrouds the potential meaning of the letter to hide the target: the presumption of heteronormative love. Unlike a telegram, punched out on keys word for word—any error primarily the fault of the emotionally detached technician—the sloppy editing of the letter may indicate Basil’s considerable depth of feeling. Basil writes:

“The idea of settling down fills me with nothing but’—and the word ‘disgust’ was scratched out lightly and ‘regret’ written over the top” (268).

Basil does not merely reject marriage; it “disgusts” him so much that the word either cannot be effectively crossed out or he cannot make the effort to do so. (Miss Meadows believes it is the latter, and this is proof “he didn’t love her”). The error is not the word choice but the careless, incomplete cover-up. However, this cover-up also might be interpreted as a half-hearted confession: “Accidents,” as Ahmed explains, “might generate new possibilities” (19). His error and ensuing careless correction reveal more than the word “disgust” alone would have revealed: he does not love Miss Meadows as a future wife, yet he claims the double negative “not that I don’t love you” and potentially trusts her as confidante. Basil’s explanation suggests a problem with straight coupling: He writes, “The truth is I am not a marrying man” (268). He admits that he loves her only “as much as it is possible for me to love any woman” (268). Basil implies that the problem is with their gender: he is not a marrying man; he cannot fully love a woman. This near-confession suggests that Basil’s connection to Miss Meadows is sincere but does not—or cannot—inspire the sexual desire presumed to be shared between a heterosexual couple. His hard-to-hide disgust might not be of the mere thought of marriage but of straight sex.

Rather than offering an additional mechanism of communication or explanation, the letter suggests a modernist ellipsis in which Miss Meadows—and arguably Mansfield’s contemporary readers—fail to fill in the constitutive gap. On one level, Basil’s rejection of heteronormativity demonstrates a personal intimacy that employs “the dominant critical tradition [that] equates letters and love,” in which relationships are formed, developed, and solidified—and sometimes institutionalized—via the agreement to marriage (Gilroy and Verhoeven 3). However, on another level, Mansfield confounds the role letters have traditionally played in literature, constructing a new “pattern” described by Kym Brindle as “less about intimacy and connection and more about distrust and deception” (17). These fictional letters disrupt what would otherwise be predictable relationships and “exacerbate problems of separation and distance rather than serving to connect” (21). Alice Kelly explains that Mansfield was often frustrated by the unreliable post during her relationship with John Middleton Murry and would repeatedly “[associate] the non-arrival of a letter with death” (82). This strong emotional attachment to letters, even to letters that have not arrived, is consistent with Miss Meadows’ language of the letter “[piercing] her heart” (268).7 Basil’s near revelation and its disruptive consequences represent how letters operate narratively in Mansfield’s personal life and in her fiction, engendering miscommunication, disappointment and emotional turmoil.8

Basil’s emotionally charged and coded letter invites additional possibilities for potential queer affect in the story as it unravels idealized heteronormative love for Miss Meadows, too. Miss Meadows’s reaction at first appears predictable for a straight woman who, in addition to being heartbroken, is quickly aging out of possibilities for romance and marriage, but careful attention to Mansfield’s prose reveals challenges to such a conventional reading. The description of Miss Meadows’s feelings for Basil suggests that, for her, the “miracle” of their relationship is primarily sociocultural: “People had been surprised enough that she had got engaged [. . .]. She was thirty. Basil was twenty-five” (270). Her focus on social concepts about ideal marital age difference and women’s viability after age 30 suggests that she values the social capital she will gain from marriage more than the romantic connection. When Basil ends the engagement, she loses a social position and experiences loss that is worse had she never been engaged in the first place: being a so-called old maid is somewhat tolerable, being a jilted old maid apparently is not. She believes she will not only have to “leave the school” because of the humiliation but that she will have to “disappear somewhere” (271). While as a married woman she would have to leave the school anyway, this disappearance is closer to death than a happy send-off. It implies a profound loneliness that is more than the loss of a romance but of women’s society: She repeats the refrain of the song she is teaching, “passes away,” quietly to herself as if speaking of her own upcoming death (271). She will die of embarrassment and self-enforced isolation, not of a broken heart.

Miss Meadows’s silent recitation of lines from the hurtful letter and her consistent return to the narrative of her straight, broken heart conceals the intensity of her relationships with the other teachers and her pupils. Mansfield presents Miss Meadows as deeply connected to her students as they manifest the distress she internalizes. The facts of these connections are not necessarily queer but the focus on heterosexual romance nonetheless masks consistent returns to the heightened emotional attachments between women. Miss Meadows performs heteronormativity by bitterly repeating the lines of Basil’s letter but enacts a “search for a different kind of sociality” by whipping up her students emotionally (Ahmed 105). For example, after Miss Meadows intentionally ignores her “favorite” student Mary Beazley the narrator notes that “Mary blushed until the tears stood in her eyes” (269). As Miss Meadows conducts her choral students, her feelings appear as outward symptoms on their bodies: “the older girls were crimson; some of the younger ones began to cry” (270). When the class pauses so Miss Meadows can collect her telegram, the girls are emotional wrecks: “Most of them were blowing their noses” (271). It is possible to read this scene as the product of the intensely close-knit relationships that can emerge in all-women learning environments; but this closeness contradicts the assumption that Miss Meadows is only wrapped up in Basil because she is quite engaged with her students emotionally.

Mansfield continues her focus on woman-to-woman relationships, which in a story ostensibly about a heterosexual breakup subtly decentralizes the failed engagement. In addition to her emotional connection to her students, Miss Meadows repeatedly thinks about one of the other teachers, the Science Mistress: Miss Meadows wonders after she receives the letter if the Science Mistress “noticed anything”; the Science Mistress “did not believe at first” that Miss Meadows was engaged (267, 270). During the break-up with Basil, Miss Meadows feels that “she would never be able to face the Science Mistress and the girls after it got known” ( 271). The description of the Science Mistress suggests a pleasing white English femininity: “everything about her was sweet and pale, like honey. You would not have been surprised to see a bee caught in the tangles of that yellow hair” (267). With “blue eyes opened wide,” the Science Mistress inspires “hatred” (267). Miss Meadows describes her smile as “sugary”—implying a certain calculation to the Science Mistress’s self-presentation. Their small talk, in which Miss Meadows describes the weather as “sharp” and only offers a “quick grimace,” illustrates resentment (267). A straight reading suggests that Miss Meadows dislikes the Science Mistress because she is jealous of her easy performance of femininity (267). However, the consistent interest in chronicling Miss Meadows’s relationships with women can be read as exemplifying a queer practice among women of the “[repetitive] act of tending toward other women” (Ahmed 102). If, instead of centering the heterosexual love plot, the focus is on a community of women, then the broken engagement might be seen as a device that provides an opportunity for Mansfield to demonstrate the range and depth of Miss Meadows’ relationships with her peers.

Further, when compared to the description of Basil, this representation of the Science Mistress demonstrates Mansfield’s troubling of the performance of masculinity and femininity. The narrator describes one of Basil’s outings with Miss Meadows in terms that highlight his stereotypically feminine attention to his masculine appearance:

Basil had worn a rose in his buttonhole. How handsome he had looked in that bright blue suit, with that dark red rose! And he knew it too. And he couldn’t help knowing it. First he stroked his hair, then his mustache; his teeth gleamed when he smiled. (269)

Like the Science Mistress’s femininity, Basil’s masculinity is less effortless than performative and artificial. The narrative voice openly critiques the Science Mistress’s performance; Basil blames his own inauthenticity on women. He tells Miss Meadows that he finds the wife of his boss to be a “nuisance,” but he must please her because “it doesn’t do for a man in my position to be unpopular” (270). The man she wants to marry is similar to the woman she pretends to dislike.

However, the telegram short-circuits these explorations of character and relationships and the plot snaps back to heterosexual romantic norms. Although the letter might suggest queerness, the subsequent telegram effortlessly reverses the narrative model of the bad news telegram that also reinforces heteronormativity. Mansfield does not reveal the reason for Basil’s change of heart, and the brevity of the telegram requires no explanation. The telegram, known as a mechanism of “information” delivery rather than correspondence, does not impart such a personal dynamic (Worth 81) and lacks the emotional complexity of a letter. Telegrams perform “idea of connective sociability: connecting in order to connect” that supersedes personal (and potentially queer) intimacy (Trotter 38). Thus the telegram resets the plot and Miss Meadows changes the tone of her interaction with her students. She joins them “[o]n the wings of hope, of love, of joy” and instructs them to sound “warm, joyful, eager” (272). While her “voice sound[s] over all the other voices—full, deep, glowing with expression” (272), her conventional feminine success may not have eradicated her students’ earlier emotional trauma. The telegram has perhaps caused the isolation she feared in the first place as the students and the Science Mistress have, in a sense, disappeared.

Nonetheless, the telegram does not necessarily set a course towards compulsory straightness for Basil or Miss Meadows because the letter has already initiated what Ahmed calls “disorientation,” a necessary step prior to becoming aware of nonheteronormative orientations: “If orientation is about making the strange familiar through the extension of bodies into space, then disorientation occurs when that extension fails” (11). The imperial network’s enforcement of heteronormative-oriented connectivity is both uncomfortable and persistent—a feeling of strangeness familiar to those who “twist” themselves to fit within it (161). The resulting disorientation, which “[disturbs] the order of things,” results in the possibility of a queer orientation (161). In other words, the network cannot contain “what makes queer lives queer” (161). Instead, it inadvertently directs bodies to their potential queer orientation, first by causing disorientation. Bodies turn towards disorientation when they become increasingly aware that the strangeness of the standard orientation is not the fault of the bodies but is rather intrinsic to the networks attempting to orient the bodies in a heteronormative direction. Pretending to be straight ironically forces one to confront their queerness.

Significantly, the narrator neither mentions Miss Meadows’s first name nor assigns Basil a surname that would improve her position or signify his symbolic ownership as a man with a wife. These incomplete names suggest their indelible nature as people who will only have half identities; something will always be kept out of reach. Basil does not request a reply and gets the last word of the telegram, though not the story. His final remark, “Bought hat stand today,” reiterates their performance of marital bliss through the procurement of domestic home goods, but he has complicated the seemingly inevitable reproduction of heteronormative relations. At first revealing disorientation with heteronormativity, the narrative becomes oriented ultimately towards an interruption of standard coupling rather than a resolution. In other words, “The Singing Lesson” is compelling because of the queer spiral it causes: Basil’s brief interruption of a straight coupling invites Miss Meadows to explore emotional connections with her women-centered school community. Perhaps the network is predetermined—Basil and Miss Meadows are not likely to have an honest talk even if they do marry—yet the revelation of the briefly acknowledged disorientation reveals an ongoing, unknowable potential.
The Missed Telephone Connection in “Bliss”

Compared to the outsize role of the letter and the telegram in “The Singing Lesson,” the role of a telephone call in “Bliss” appears minor, yet it illustrates another interpretive dimension offered by connecting theories of networking and queer orientations. In “Bliss,” Mansfield entertains the possibility that queer desire might derail a conventional, heteronormative marriage,9 and technology enabled by the imperial network sets things straight. Given the presence of the child in “Bliss,” there appears to be heterosexual coupling, but not the sexual connection that Basil suggests disgusts him in his letter. Perhaps this marriage is what Miss Meadows envisions, for the protagonist Bertha enjoys all the privileges marriage offers to a woman of her class: suitable connections and children, a home with servants and a nanny, and a role as hostess. The pivotal phone call in “Bliss” could give Bertha an outlet to express her more authentic desire, but the conventions of technology use prohibit it, like the straightening telegram in “The Singing Lesson.” As a wife and mother in the upper class, Bertha is wired into the network that ensures predictable social connectivity. But Bertha also is wired in a more contemporary sense, a sensation that can be simultaneously pleasurable and anxiety-provoking.10 She experiences such intense eagerness to challenge the forces keeping her sexual desire contained that she feels uneasy and uncomfortable. The tension of the story revolves around Bertha’s unresolved disorientation: she resides permanently in a place that Ahmed calls “becoming queer,” never quite revealing a queer orientation but never quite disavowing it either (163). “Bliss” centers Bertha’s flirtation with her own sexual desire and illustrates the boundaries heteronormative interpretive models place on understanding its potential.

Bertha’s sexual evolution unfolds with an increasing awareness of ways in which her physical body is restricted. The narrator describes Bertha’s feeling of physical exuberance: “Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps [. . .], to throw something in the air and catch it” (Stories 143). But, she thinks, “There is no way to express it” (143). Bertha asks, “Why be given a body if you have to shut it up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle,” a simile that emphasizes both Bertha’s objectification and commodification (143). The fiddle case also refers to her constricting clothes. As Drewery explains, “in ‘Bliss,’ clothing is a prominent reminder of the tension between socially sanctioned modes of sexuality and those which are rendered taboo” (444). Thus, Bertha’s desire to break free from the gender-class dynamic involves passionate undressing: “Bertha threw off her coat; she could not bear the tight clasp of it another moment” (143). This action invites the next revelation—of being “overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss”— suggesting a nascent desire for women’s sexual pleasure (143). Bertha’s “bliss” briefly releases her from the physical path of heteronormativity that centralizes male gratification. And it also implies that she will seek more opportunities to find what pleases her. However, her bliss in this apparently inconsequential action is simultaneously a delightful relief and a forceful reminder of the restraint under which she functions in “idiotic civilization” (144). Annie Williams calls this intractable desire “perpetual anticipation” (31). “Bliss” consistently sets up, and does not fulfill, this longing.

Linking Ahmed’s concept of disorientation with the operations of networking technology offers a path towards a queer interpretation of Bertha’s emotional state at this point in the story. Disorientation is an emotional feeling of being alienated by compulsory heterosexuality but also a physical disconnection with the idealized straight body (Ahmed 159). Ahmed describes the fitful, corporal, and dramatic encounter with disorientation as “bodily experiences that throw the world up, or throw the body from its ground” (157). It is a feeling of “shattering” (157). And indeed Bertha is split in two. She is the “rare, rare fiddle,” an inanimate wife and mother whose sexual purpose is at the will of its fickle husband/owner, but she also has some self-awareness of her role as a commercial object that enhances other people’s status. In other words, she is a lifeless object who simultaneously sees herself as the object. Her bodily experiences—feeling like a fiddle shut in a case; feeling stifled by her clothes—make her aware of her own objectification. For example, after she throws off her coat, she sits alone in the dining room and “hardly dare[s] to look into the cold mirror—but she did look” (144). She sees herself in the mirror as “a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips” (144). Here, she is the object. But because she also is the sentient subject, she is the woman in the mirror who can offer rare—if not insightful—interiority: she is “waiting for something . . . divine to happen . . . that she knew must happen . . . infallibly” (144). Bertha claims to see this other woman and to possess the woman’s self-knowledge and (too optimistic) foresight. The bodily experiences are confusing and conflicting. While Bertha is not yet moving towards a complete refusal of heteronormativity, there is a split between the body and mind that reveals emerging awareness of her physical needs (herself as subject) separate from her social role (herself as object). This split suggests, in Ahmed’s terms, a disorientation from the compulsory heteronormativity that has defined her. She is not yet queer, but not comfortably straight.11

Bertha’s disorientation continues when she is given the chance to finally, authentically, connect with her husband via a phone call and she confronts the networked technology’s practice of reorientating nonheteronormative desire. Queer orientations are “hidden” from her (Ahmed 19), and her social connections. Thus Bertha’s inability to name her feelings during this phone call points her towards a queer orientation.12 The content of the call is innocuous enough—Harry calls to say he is running late and therefore will arrive by taxi—but it recalls Bertha’s straying body and mind from her position as upper-class wife and mother. She struggles to complete the tasks assigned by the technological demands of the telephone. She tries to respond honestly but gets stuck in her internal monologue: “What had she to say? She'd nothing to say. She only wanted to get a moment. She couldn't absurdly cry: ‘Hasn't it been a divine day!’” (146)—because she is attempting to communicate a desire outside the gender norms that the technology reinforces, those that she cannot explain with heteronormative language. Bertha’s hesitation to use technology for emotional expression is typical for the period; as Mark Goble writes, the telephone represents a “commercial transaction [. . .] [and] an accumulation of economic determinants” (114). Even by 1930, “the majority of residential [telephone] subscribers were in the top 5% of the income distribution” who used it the device to conduct the “‘business’ of the household” (P. Scott 802). When Bertha briefly pauses the transactional nature of the conversation, Harry responds with annoyance in a “little voice” (146): the word little diminishes him in relation to Bertha’s outsized bliss, and demonstrates how, nonetheless, men stereotypically are presumed to dominate their wives. The disruption of the telephone call highlights the fissures between Bertha’s desires and the matrimonial state that is supposed to fulfill her. She again blames—correctly—“idiotic civilization” for limiting her desire for of connection. One might expect more from the telephone than the telegram—one can hear another's voice, for example, or interpret pauses a speaker takes—but the telephone in this story demonstrates the network's power to perpetuate heteronormativity rather than invite intimacy.

Bertha has another opportunity to turn her disorientation into a decidedly queer orientation. Bertha’s queerness is dramatically teased by the entry of Pearl Fulton, an elusive character with whom Bertha feels she shares an attraction, who appears at her dinner party “all in silver” (150).13 Bertha and Miss Fulton exchange what Bertha believes is a moment of authentic affinity while looking at Bertha’s garden: “the most intimate look” (153). Alex Moffett glosses Bertha’s feeling as a more generalized than specific attraction for Miss Fulton: her “passion is simultaneously sexual, celebratory, and generative, [but] with no fixed object” (66). Her desire is for desire, and she is “opening up lines of connection” believing “Miss Fulton was feeling just what she was feeling” (Ahmed 105; Mansfield, Stories 153). The potential for queer affect is yet again pushed back by wired technology when the electric light is “snapped on” by another guest (153). Indeed, Miss Fulton serves as a reminder that networked connections are disruptive and constitutive: she arrives late to the party, and she appeals to Bertha’s bliss, but then she undermines that bliss as the possible mistress of Bertha’s husband. Miss Fulton can float in and out, seemingly without a care in the world and unaided by technological supports. Bertha’s desire might be unfixed but her role as wife and mother is enforced by her class and maintained by modern communication devices. When Harry offers to phone a cab for Miss Fulton, she responds, “Oh, no. It’s not necessary” (156). If she indeed is having an affair with Harry, her connection to Harry is personal—and physical. And their extramarital relationship is in fact very straight and conventional. It does not require the network’s technological “straightening devices” (Ahmed 107).

“Bliss” concludes not with a representation of networked technology but with a natural image, the pear tree in Bertha’s garden. It offers a provocative image of Bertha’s emerging queerness. The tree, turning silver, with its implied network of roots, at first serves as metaphor for the silver-clad Miss Fulton. However, the tree offers a representation of the ways in which networks can provide foundational opportunities for queer affect without guaranteeing visibility. At the end of the story the tree anthropomorphizes Bertha’s staid class function: “lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still” (156). Moffett argues that this final statement emphasizes Bertha’s immobility, but it could also be more promising for Bertha: “It could suggest something more rooted and substantial [. . .] [implying] that Bertha’s bliss is more enduring than the environment in which she moves” (68). If indeed Bertha sees a reflection of herself in this last image, the pear tree recalls her earlier reflective moment in the mirror, when she sees “a woman, radiant” who is “waiting for something” (144). Bertha briefly sees herself as an object and this experience at first causes disorientation. Encountering herself as an object, however, could lead to an emerging orientation towards the queer. Set against Ahmed's idea that objects have the potential to move—to become orientated—when bodies interact with them (163), Bertha's gaze as subject may animate Bertha/the tree as object. Ahmed explains further, “As soon as we notice the background, then objects come to life, which already makes things rather queer” (168). Bertha was in the background and now she has come to life, perhaps briefly, but rather queerly. Whiting likewise suggests that “nothing in the story necessitates that we read [the ending] as [. . .] the dissolution of her nascent erotic feelings” (462). Queering Bertha means validating her desire rather than requiring impending sexual fulfillment (or disappointment) with Harry or Pearl. As the final image in the story, the pear tree offers a metaphor for this infinite potential and growth, both upwards towards the sky and down towards the earth, in a network of branches and roots.

The telephone solidifies Bertha’s inevitable reorientation towards conventional heteronormative relationships, however, Mansfield employs the technology so that it also implies the paradoxical nature of networks: communication tools that silence, connections that sever relationships. More systemically, this technology has a straightening effect on the narratives of modernism. Feminist scholars have helpfully used network technology to crack open a canon dominated by white men to a more inclusive repertoire of writers and artists. But relying too much on the network and its artifacts as evidential archive limits what and who is included and frames interpretative strategies.14 As Caroline Levine argues, what the networks are connecting can never thoroughly be revealed: “We may intuit the overwhelmingly complex webs of social interconnections in glimpses and hints, but the networks that connect rich and poor, city and world, the dead and the living, are never fully present to the consciousness” (129). There is so much hidden by the networks, or that exists beyond them, and we might miss the very things we are attempting to recover. This essay explores the ways in which the network can enable queer orientations if we look for what is implied rather than what is evidenced: Bertha’s bliss does not outwardly challenge the networks that seek to redirect it, therefore she might be left with the opportunity to further explore her sexual desire. “The Singing Lesson” highlights imperial power structures moving things towards their inevitable networked path, but these structures cannot erase queer journeys. Homing in on the technological straightening devices can alert us to these examples of potential queer affect that can emerge. What is not immediately present is still viable.

In these stories, there is the network’s containment but there is also what seeps from its barely perceptible edges. As a woman from New Zealand who was both British and never quite British enough, Mansfield was keenly aware of what imperial powers can and cannot control. While Mansfield represents the steering of relationships towards heteronormativity via the government-run network, elusive—and elusively queer—love and desire are shifting, formless and ubiquitous bodily experiences that exist beyond the nation state. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick further helps to articulate what is left unexplored in discussions of gender and sexuality: “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (7). In short, there is no one way to read sexual desire. Attending to Mansfield’s representation of failed technological connections reveals harder to track but potentially queer directional pulls. We might not be able to make specific claims about the nature of desire in Mansfield’s stories. However, taking note of their queer potential suggests exciting new possibilities in the way we read Mansfield’s work, and the work of early twentieth-century women writers more broadly.


1. Mansfield used her middle name for her published work.

2. The Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1904 gave control of the telegram industry to the General Post Office.

3 Danius further emphasizes that such technologically-connected experiences are not only a “background” but constitutive of modernist aesthetics (28).

4. As Usiskin and their colleagues describe, this network narrative of modernism invites us “to map the cultural domain of modernism.”

5. Latour’s “actor-network” theory argues that the actor is passive in the face of the networks: “An actor in the hyphenated expression actor-network is not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming towards it” (46).

6. Mansfield and Woolf had a particular kinship. Woolf claimed in her diary to feel “a queer sense of being like,” which Lopez and Rodriquez take for the title of their article. Mansfield also writes to Woolf of being “a bit ‘haunted’ by you” following an evening together (Letters 313).

7. According to Kelly, the reliance on letters during World War I created an additional tension to epistolary lovemaking when the post was more likely to be delayed and letters lost, in addition to being subject to censorship, undermining the very connection on which wartime relationships relied for their sustenance (82).

8. Indeed, Mansfield sent a telegram to Murray that is similar to Basil's, perhaps a joking reference to her story, “Pay no heed my letter illness exasperated me” (qtd. in Brindle 19).

9. Many contemporary scholars read “Bliss” as a story of Bertha's emerging awareness of both heterosexual and queer desire. In the recent The Bloomsbury Handbook to Katherine Mansfield (2022), for example, Drewery explicitly describes the “powerful sexual attraction” in “Bliss” as an example of “latent bisexuality” (444). For additional critical examinations of sexual desire in “Bliss,” see Whiting; Moffett; and Murphy and Walsh.

10. Despite the adoption of wireless technology, the word wired also is still used to describe networked tools that are connected and ready for use.

11. Part of the challenge of discussing the nature of sexual desire in the story is that Mansfield does not offer a clear view of Bertha’s consciousness. According to Whiting, even Bertha’s innermost thoughts are a curated performance in which she self-consciously presents herself to others: Bertha engages in “evasive operations of thinking [to] protect herself from exposure,” habits that both Miss Meadows and Basil practice as well (438).

12. Basil, Miss Meadows and Bertha all express an inability to articulate queer desire and that makes them no less queer.

13. Though some scholars interpret that it is Harry who is likely having an affair with Pearl, there are differing points of view (Drewery 446).

14. I am following the lead here of Black women writers such as Morrison, Hartman and Hall who, as Morrison writes, “fill in the blanks” that the archival record does not provide (93).

Works Cited

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