“The week after was one of the busiest of their lives” (52). Josephine and Constantia, daughters of the late Colonel Pinner, sat awake in their beds trying to remember if they had forgotten anything.
Constantia asked Josephine if they should give their father’s top hat to the porter. She had noticed during their father’s funeral that the porter only had a bowler hat and she thought he should have a top hat instead, as thank you gift for being so nice to their father. Josephine balked at the idea and for one moment of madness she thought she might laugh at the idea that their dead father’s head would be cold if they gave his hat to the porter. She controlled herself with some effort.
Constantia then suggested they dye their nightgowns black to show they are in mourning, to which Josephine rejected the idea saying it wasn’t necessary because no one would see their nightgowns. Then a mouse scurried across the room and Constantia felt sorry that she hadn’t left a biscuit out for it and she speculated to her sister that the life of a mouse must be very hard. Josephine told Constantia she was not making any sense and to go to sleep but her sister had already done so. Josephine could not sleep and instead rolled herself into a ball pressed her face against her pillow.
Nurse Andrews stayed on with them for a week after the Colonel’s death. It was Josephine’s suggestion since Nurse Andrews had been so attentive toward their father. Both sisters agreed it was for the best.
Their optimism was short lived; however, as it became very obvious early on in the week that Nurse Andrews was a difficult houseguest. It was a trial for the sisters to sit down to meals at proper times and ask their maid, Kate, to accommodate Nurse Andrews’ particularities. She was fearful of butter, for whatever reason, and she had an annoying habit of taking more bread than was necessary and then helping herself to seconds. When this happened Josephine restrained herself from commenting by staring fixedly at the tablecloth and Constantia retreated into her imagination.
Today was no different. They had finished their meal, Nurse Andrews having eaten twice as much as the sisters, when Kate came out of the kitchen. Young and proud, Kate came with the dessert and to clean up after the “old tabbies.” She set the dessert on the table and reluctantly got the jam pot from the cupboard at Josephine request before stalking off. The jam pot was empty. Nurse Andrews was not surprised, probably having eaten the jam herself. Constantia did not want to bother Kate again and so they had marmalade instead. Nurse Andrews hoped it was not too bitter.
Despite their private opinions of Nurse Andrews, the sisters agreed that she had been very kind toward their father and was simply devoted to his care during the last few days of his life. Although the sisters privately thought Nurse Andrews had overdone things at the end. When they came in to say goodbye to their father, Nurse Andrews insisted on staying in the room and kept checking the Colonel’s pulse. Josephine worried their father wanted to say something to them in private but couldn’t because of Nurse Andrews. In the end he opened one eye and glared at them for before dying.
The glaring eye made it very awkward for the sisters whenever they were asked if their father had died peacefully. That eye did not look peaceful at all. Mr. Farolles of St. John’s Church called on the sisters soon after their father’s death to talk about funeral arrangements. He offered to give them Communion at the house but both sisters were horrified at the idea. Josephine imaged Mr. Farolles using the piano as an altar and Kate barging in on them as they received the holy sacrament. The sisters politely sidestepped the issue.
Mr. Farolles offered to make all of the necessary arrangements for the funeral since he had known their father so well. Josephine said she wanted the ceremony to be simple and not too expensive and one that was appropriate toward their father’s station. Mr. Farolles agreed and departed.
Neither of them could believe that their father wasn’t coming back. At the cemetery Josephine had a moment of panic when the coffin was being lowered into the ground. They had not asked their father’s permission to do so and she knew he would find out about it and be furious. She thought she heard his walking stick thumping against his bedroom floor in irritation. “You two girls had me buried!” (56). Everyone else at the funeral seemed to see the burial as a natural turn of events but Josephine knew her father would find a way to blame her and Constantia, even for his death.
In the cab on the way home from the cemetery, Josephine worried that they had spent too much money on the funeral. She dreaded having to show her father the bills. What would he say? Weeping into her handkerchief, Josephine said to her sister they never should have let their father be buried. Constantia replied that there was no other choice. They couldn’t keep the body in the house. Josephine said they should have been absolutely sure that he had been dead before they buried him and that their father would never forgive them for any of it.
The thought that their father would never forgive them for burying him was on their minds as Josephine and Constantia went into their father’s room to go through his things and decided what should be done with them. Hesitating outside of the door, Josephine was reluctant to even touch the handle but then they were inside and it was as if they had never been in there before. Terrified they stared around at the cold, white room and Constantia half expected snow to start falling. The noise of a car outside shook them from their thoughts and Josephine walked to the window to let in some light. Her hand barely touched the blinds when it suddenly flew up and rolled itself up.
It was too much for Constantia who wanted to come back another day. Josephine felt relieved by her sister’s unease and told her they had to press on and snapped at Constantia to stop staring at the empty bed. Upset by her outburst, Josephine walked over to a chest of drawers and tried to open it but drew back her hand immediately. Startled, Josephine had the horrible thought that perhaps their father was inside the chest of drawers waiting for them. He was in with the neckties and the pajamas and the suits or maybe he was behind the door watching them, ready to pounce.
Constantia suggests again that they leave, that it is acceptable for them to be weak considering their circumstances. “It’s much nicer to be weak than to be strong” (60). Josephine watched as Constantia locked their father’s wardrobe and removed the key. She half thought the wardrobe would fall on top of her sister but it did not. Leading the way, the key held aloft, Josephine followed Constantia out the door.
Distressed, the sisters sat in the dining room and asked Kate to bring them hot water. Once they were calm Josephine brought up the subject of their brother Benny and if they should send him something of their father’s. Benny lived in Ceylon, an island off the coast of India.
Josephine did not know what to send to Benny, fearing whatever she sent would be lost. Ceylon did not have post, they had runners who hand-delivered packages all over the island. Josephine and Constantia stopped what they were doing to imagine two dark skinned men running to deliver something of their fathers’ to Benny who stood on his veranda. His hand shook the same way their father’s did when he was impatient. Behind Benny was his mysterious wife, Hilda, who the sisters had never met. Their fantasy faded.
Josephine said she would send their father’s gold watch to Benny and she would disguise it by wrapping it in a large and odd shaped package. Constantia said it was a good thing the watch no longer worked or the ticking might give it away.
Josephine began to have second thoughts about sending the watch to Benny, so far away and in such a hot climate. She imagined men did not wear pocket watches in Ceylon. Instead she thought they should give the watch to Cyril, their father’s only grandson, who worked in London and who would use the watch. She thrilled at the idea of having Cyril over for tea and asking him to produce the watch for them to talk over.
Cyril had not come to the funeral. His note had been a blow to the sisters but they understood how busy he was in London. He promised to visit his aunts as soon as he could.
A visit from Cyril was a rare treat for the sisters. The last time he came they had purchased expensive desserts, which had eaten into their monthly budget; as a result they had to go without shoe repairs and new gloves. Josephine cut Cyril a large slice of cake but he rejected it, saying he wasn’t hungry having just had a large lunch with a work associate.
Disappointed, Constantia insisted Cyril have a piece of meringues. It was his father’s favorite dessert.
Cyril accepted half of a meringue and said he did not know what his father’s favorite dessert was, a comment that sent his aunts into a small frenzy. How could he not know his father’s favorite dessert? Josephine became almost snappish and Constantia looked at him pointedly but her voice was soft when she questioned him. He broke down and said that meringues were his father’s favorite after all and he was almost shocked at the extent of their happiness when he said this.
Josephine asked Cyril to go up to his grandfather’s room. On the way up Cyril noticed their clocks were slow and said so to Constantia. He had to meet someone at five and couldn’t stay long with grandfather. Constantia stared at the clock for some time, unable to decide if it was too fast or too slow. Josephine called to her and they all went to visit the Colonel.
Cyril followed his aunts into his grandfather’s stiflingly hot sick room. The old man was sitting by the fire, his walking stick in his hand. Josephine grabbed Cyril’s hand and led him over to his grandfather like a child. Cyril tried to pull free. Grandfather Pinner shot him the stern, assessing look he was most famous for. His aunts hung back, Constantia feebly waiting by the door, her eyes never leaving the old man’s.
Grandfather pounded his stick on the floor and asked bluntly “Well…what have you got to tell me?” (64). Cyril panicked and could not think of anything to say. Josephine came to his rescue and said loudly that Cyril’s father still likes meringues. Grandfather did not hear her and to Cyril’s deep embarrassment he had to repeat the phrase twice. Grandfather knocked his walking stick against the floor in agitation. Josephine quietly apologized to Cyril and said Grandfather was going deaf. She yelled that Cyril’s father still likes meringues. Grandfather looked perplexed at first and then said it was a stupid thing to come all the way up there to say. Cyril agreed wit him.
Josephine decided she would send Cyril the watch after all and Constantia said she thought it was a wonderful idea, remembering that Cyril had mentioned the clocks the last time he was there.
Kate suddenly burst through the door and asked them without pretense “fried or boiled?” Perplexed but used to Kate’s abrupt demeanor Josephine asked nicely what was to be fired or boiled. Kate said fish with rude sniff of her nose. Constantia said that she would like it fried but then also said she wouldn’t mind if it was boiled, her voice trailing off dreamily. Kate muttered the word “fried” under her breath and walked out, slamming the kitchen door.
Josephine rose from her chair and beckoned her sister into the drawing room so they could discuss Kate in private. Josephine addressed her sister in a business-like fashion and said they must come to a final decision about whether or not to keep Kate. They had teetered with the idea of letting Kate go before but never had the nerve to go through with it, especially when father was alive. Now Josephine thought they could do without a maid.
Constantia agreed saying that now that father didn’t eat anymore… her words failed her. Josephine told her to pay attention and said that, since their father was now gone, they could do their own cooking; having never done it before, they assumed it was a simple process. Josephine suggested they live mostly off eggs, to start.
The question of letting Kate go depended entirely on if they could they trust her.
Constantia could never make up her mind about Kate. She thought she was rude and disrespectful but whenever Kate did something to provoke Constantia into forming a concrete opinion of her, Constantia would make excuses for Kate’s behavior and question her own judgment.
She tried laying traps for Kate. One night Constantia arranged her chest of drawers in such a way that she would know if anyone touched something inside. She had a suspicion that Kate went through her drawers when no one was looking. Constantia invited Josephine to observe the drawers’ contents as well. Unfortunately, when Constantia checked the drawers she could not tell if Kate had tampered with them or not.
Josephine was equally indecisive on both matters.
While the sisters pondered Kate’s future a barrel organ began to play outside. Josephine and Constantia sprang up and ran to get money to bribe the organ player to stop making noise but then they remembered. Their father was dead and they would never hear his stick pounding on the bedroom floor to make the organ music stop playing. They would never hear him yell at them again.
Constantia thought she might cry but then she smiled and said it had been a whole week since their father’s death and there was hidden joy beneath her words. Flickering sunlight shone onto the carpet at her feet until dusk began to settle. She tried to catch the fading light with her hand but withdrew her fingers at the last moment. Walking to the mantelpiece she stood before her favorite Buddha statue and thought he might know something about her future.
Josephine watched the sunlight settle on their mother’s portrait above the piano. She wondered, “Why did photographs of dead people always fade so?” (68.) She had often imagined what their lives would have been like had their mother lived to raise them but she did not often dwell on this fantasy. Their Aunt Florence had lived with them until they were out of school and then they had moved three times and different servants had come and gone in their lives…Young sparrows interrupted her thoughts. They chirped from the window ledge but as she listened she began to believe they were not really chirping at all but crying and that the crying sound was coming from somewhere inside of her. It was a weak and forlorn sound.
She thought if her mother had lived she and Constantia would have been married by now but there had only ever been father and he had quarreled with the only eligible men in their lives long ago. They had never met anyone who was suitable. One year at boarding school, a mysterious man had left a note on their water jug but by the time they noticed it the note’s writing had been washed away in the water. They never even knew to which of them the note was addressed. The man left the next day and the rest of their lives had been spent taking care of their father. Now though…
Constantia continued to listen to the barrel organ and watched the Buddha, the familiar longing she felt inside of her was sharper somehow, no longer vague and unfocused. She remembered coming into this same room when she was a child and lying on the floor, pretending to be crucified. She wasn’t sure why she did it but she had not been afraid. At the seashore on holiday Constantia would stand by the water’s edge and sing watching the restless sea before her.
She and Josephine spent the majority of their lives running errands and buying food on credit. Mostly they tried to stay out of the way and not annoy their father. Now, their lives were changing and Constantia thought she had only ever felt alive in brief moments by the sea or during a thunderstorm. All of the other moments were dream fragments and whenever her true self awoke she was greeted with a tremendous wanting. For what, she did not know.
Constantia walked over to Josephine determined to say something important about their futures, but both sisters spoke at once, “Don’t you think perhaps” (70). They politely encouraged the other to speak but neither of them could express their true feelings. Instead, they said they had forgotten what they wanted to say just as a large cloud filled the sky exactly where the sun had been.
“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” was written by Katherine Mansfield and first published in May 1921 in the literary magazine the London Mercury. Told in a chronological structure, separated by chapter, this episodic story takes place over the course of a week. The primary setting is the Pinner household, located somewhere in New Zealand. The tone of the story is both somber and slightly lighthearted. Mansfield, ever the modernist, experimented with narration and characterization in an attempt to express the mindset of the Pinner sisters in the wake of their father’s death. Utilizing the third person narrative, Mansfield expertly transitions from one sister’s perspective to the other as they try to come to terms with their changing circumstances.
In order to understand the sister’s behavior after their father’s death, the reader must first look objectively at the characters’ backstory. Mansfield began “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” in medias res, allowing the character’s histories to unfold as the story progresses. Although a stylistic choice, it is sometimes difficult to realize the full emotional implications of a character’s circumstances if told in fragments. A careful reader will recall that Josephine and Constantia lost their mother at an early age. They and their brother, Benny, were raised by an Aunt while their father the Colonel was away and later by various servants until they were sent to boarding school. At some point after their return their father quarreled with any eligible man that the sisters could possibly have married insuring, that they both remain single and living at home. Benny became estranged from the family and moved to the island of Ceylon. A grandson, Cyril, of unknown parentage, visited the Colonel and his daughters infrequently despite his popularity with his Aunts. Colonel Pinner aged and became ill as his daughters grew older. Josephine and Constantia seem to have spent the great majority of their adult lives catering to their father’s needs. Servants like Kate took care of the household responsibilities while the sisters took care of their father who was apparently confined to his bedroom.
Mansfield hints at the emotional and mental abuse dealt out by Colonel Pinner to his daughters. Constantia’s retreats into her imagination to avoid conflict, Josephine’s naïve worldview, and their physical reaction to the sound of the organ grinder, suggest that they were deeply afraid of their father’s quick temper. Note several references to the pounding of a cane on the floor. Although ill, his strong personality dominated the household and his daughters became indecisive, fearful, and sheltered as a result. Mansfield’s beautiful description of the sister reaction to their father’s death and how child-like they appear in their fear of his continual presence in their lives and home speak of a lifetime of mental abuse that is only beginning to heal by the story’s end.
Emotionally stunted yet innocently naïve, the Pinner sisters seem utterly lost as to how to carry on with their lives now that they are finally free of their father’s emotional tyranny. As a character Josephine has assumed most of the duties associated with her father’s care and the running of the household. Although she is heavily dependent on the support of secondary characters like Kate and Nurse Andrews who do the physical work, Josephine cares deeply for family and home. Often bad tempered and ill at ease, Josephine is dismissive of her sister’s opinions to a point and yet lacks the strength of character to confront Kate’s rude behavior and Nurse Andrews’ bad table manners. Josephine wants to be in control of her life and her home situation but emotionally crumbles at the first sign of confrontation, an aftereffect of having lived in fear of her father for so long. In turn, Josephine tries to bully Constantia into a submissive state by not taking her sister’s opinions seriously but again lacks the follow through. She’s a contradictory character, one that is both sympathetic and obstinate. Only a hint of mysterious sadness saves her from her more unflattering characteristics. Although Josephine is obviously in mourning for her father’s death, she feels guilty that her grief is mixed with a sense of relief. This guilt manifests into her belief that their father isn’t really dead and that he will be furious and at them for burying him. Later, she imagines he is hiding in his room and is going to attack them. Her fear for her father has not yet abated and although she would love to move on with her life she is still coming to terms with her changing circumstances.
As the younger sister, Constantia has taken a secondary role in her father’s care and of the running of the household. She sees his death as an emotional escape from the constant fear of his temper and perhaps too of Josephine’s reactionary personality. Having lived her life in fear of her father, Constantia developed the habit of retreating into a dream world whenever her reality became too difficult. As a result Constantia became extremely absentminded and indecisive to the point where she cannot even decide how she wants her fish cooked for dinner. Obviously intelligent, Constantia’s mind is filled with small details of the past that intermingle with the present. This makes her indispensable to Josephine after the funeral. She also has a strong sense of self and was able to protect her inner self from their father’s influence, something Josephine failed to do. Keeping her fanciful thoughts to herself, Constantia yearns for a life she could have had if their mother had lived and if their father had been a better man.
The lives of both sisters were interrupted once their father became ill. The theme of duty often reoccurs for the women The Garden Party and Other Stories who in turn tend to either submit to or rebel against familial obligations. The Pinner sisters give up the possibility of having families and lives of their own in order to take care of their sick father. Benny and Cyril Pinner, in comparison, ran away from the same responsibilities and did not even attend the funeral. Josephine and Constantia’s perpetually submissive behavior toward their father has left them ill prepared for a world without him. Death, another ongoing theme in the text, is the catalyst of change that is needed in order for the sisters to strike out on their own but like two caged birds, Josephine and Constantia balk at the possibility of freedom. Afraid to move on with their lives the sisters watch the sun set on their lost dreams. Josephine feels as if something inside of her is crying at the loss of freedom while Constantia pulls her hand back from the sun’s warm rays. They want to leave, to move on but nether is willing to do so without the other and so like the cloud that replaces the sun at the end of the story, the sisters mask their true emotions from one another and choice to stay where they are for the time being.