Eleven o’clock. A knock at the door (149).
Ellen, the household maid, enters the room of her Lady’s guest, who she calls “madam. ” Ellen asks if madam would like a cup of tea and nonchalantly begins the one-sided conversation that makes up the story of “The Lady’s Maid.”
Unprompted Ellen tells madam that she always makes a cup of tea for her Lady each night before bed. Her Lady is a devote woman whose spends each night on her knees praying. She stubbornly refuses to use a cushion, despite her lumbago pain, and her tea is usually served cold.
Ellen had just come from tucking her Lady into bed and told the madam that when she looked upon her Lady’s peaceful face she remembered how her Lady’s mother had looked in her coffin. Ellen had done up her Lady’s mother’s hair and had placed purple pansies by her neck and thought she was the sweetest looking corpse. “Now, if only the pansies was there no one could tell the difference” (149).
Her Lady’s mother had taken ill the previous year. She had been elderly and had started to lose her memory. Ellen often found her wandering the house looking for something she that she could never find. She died of a stroke.
Ellen pauses to listen to madam’s question (which is not written in the text) and replies that she has no family, her mother died of consumption when Ellen was four. Her grandfather had taken her in at first. He worked in a hairdresser’s shop and Ellen would sit under the table and do her doll’s hair while her grandfather worked. Her grandfather took special pride in Ellen’s hair and was devastated when young Ellen cut it all off. He burned her fingers with red hot tongs from the fireplace as a punishment and Ellen, frightened of her grandfather’s raging temper, ran away. She lived with her disabled Aunt, the upholsterer, for a time before her Lady found her and took her into service.
Her Lady dressed Ellen in collars and cuffs to signify her station as a maid. One day, when Ellen was about thirteen, she was asked to take her lady’s nieces to ride the donkeys at a nearby fair. Ellen wanted desperately to ride the donkeys too but knew it would be inappropriate. Instead she watched her Lady’s nieces as they rode the donkeys. Later that night in bed, when the rest of the house slept, Ellen cried out “I do want a donkey-ride” (151) while everyone else slept.
Answering a question by madam, Ellen replies that she had thought of marrying at one time. She had a fiancé named Harry when she was younger who owned a flower shop. Ellen dreamed of making a home for them in the little apartment above the shop where she would decorate the window that overlooked the street from their apartment. She had fantasized about decorating that window for holidays with seasonal flower arrangements but stopped herself from saying too much.
Ellen had ended the relationship not long before she and Harry were to be married. She felt guilty for wanting to leave her Lady and thought no one else could take care of her properly. One day, Ellen noticed her lady was not her usual self and had a pinched look about her nose. Watching her Lady in the mirror as Ellen cleaned, she asked several times if her Lady wanted Ellen to postpone the wedding which was quickly approaching. Each time Ellen asked, her Lady said no but Ellen watched her in the mirror and when her Lady bent to pick up a fallen handkerchief, Ellen rushed over to her and picked it up. Ellen was very upset to see her Lady so distressed and it broke her heart when her Lady said she would have to learn how to pick up her own handkerchief now that Ellen was leaving.
Ellen ended her engagement to Harry later that same day. Harry came to the door and she gave him her engagement ring, the letters he had written her, and a charm that she adored. Ellen told him she could not leave her Lady and shut the door on him. When she opened it a few moments later, Ellen was surprised to see that Harry was gone. She ran down the street looking for him but stopped short, standing there in her apron and house-shoes and said to madman “people must have laughed if they saw me” (153).
The sound of a clock striking the new hour alerted Ellen to the time. She tucked the madam into bed just as she would her Lady and said she did not know what she would do if something were to happen to her Lady. She chides herself for her thoughts and said “…-you silly girl! If you can’t find anything better to do than to start thinking!” (153.)
Katherine Mansfield’s “The Lady’s Maid” was first published on December 24, 1920 in the literary magazine Athenaeum. Ellen, the protagonist, finds solace in her one-sided conversation with “madam,” an unnamed guest of Ellen’s employer. The narrative is told in the first person and written as a dramatic monologue. Mansfield is careful; however, to include pauses and responses within Ellen’s dialogue to capture madam’s inquisitive yet silent voice, allowing for a more conversational tone.
Mansfield, a noted modernist, experiments not only with form in “The Lady’s Maid” but technique. Noted for her frequent use of internal monologue, a literary device that expresses the thoughts of a character, Mansfield’s unique use of this technique is expressed in dialogue rather than thought. Ellen’s inner thoughts emerge between the lines of what she does and does not say. The modernists were always experimenting, hoping to find news ways to express themselves in literature and although “The Lady’s Maid” is short and not as elaborate as Mansfield’s more celebrated works, it is a prime example of the experimentation that the modernists embraced and perfected in the early twentieth century.
The structure of “The Lady’s Maid” is similarly experimental. Mansfield weaves a tragic tale of lost possibilities using Ellen’s monologue as the story’s structural center. Madam’s sympathetic ear and her occasional leading questions about family and marriage are used as a sounding board onto which Ellen graciously airs her many grievances. The author uses exposition to open the story by stating it is eleven o’clock, noting the late hour and insinuating the intimacy of Ellen’s conversation with madam. The knock at the door immediately creates an interior bedroom setting. There is no indication in the text as to whom madam is or how she has come to stay as a guest at the home of Ellen’s Lady. We can assume she is either a friend or relation to the Lady as she is familiar with Ellen’s situation and is a sympathetic listener. Is it any wonder then that Ellen takes this opportunity to speak with someone from outside of the household, who may be interested in her story. She has spent most of her life putting the needs of others before her own and now that Ellen is getting older, she is beginning to regret some of her life choices.
The theme of regret/disappointment plays an important role in the shaping of Ellen’s life story. She has lived through a series of disappointments beginning with her mother’s death from consumption when she was four. Her grandfather’s temper and physical abuse caused her to run away at a young age and she found herself in the care of her Lady. At first Ellen is content in her new role as a maid and takes her responsibilities seriously. Although only thirteen, she understands that it would be improper for her to ride the donkeys at the fair and watches as her Lady’s nieces ride them instead. Later she shouts out that she wants to ride the donkeys too. Ellen’s cry is out of desperation. She wants a life of her own and that possibility comes later, in the form of her engagement to Harry, which unfortunately is sacrificed for the sake of her Lady’s wellbeing. In talking to madam, Ellen articulates the depth of her regret concerning her feelings over the many lost possibilities that she has let slip by over the years while in the service of others.
Ellen was often punished for any display of individualism, even as a child. Her grandfather had seared her hands with hot tongs from the fire when she cut her hair off. Later, she found ways of expressing herself by contradicting her Lady’s behavior but never going so far as to be outwardly rebellious. Ellen’s frequent mention of flowers is her only creative outlet and she in turn decides to marry a florist. Her engagement proves to be her biggest act of individualism but Ellen unfortunately breaks off her engagement to Harry out of fear. She is torn between misguided loyalty to her employer and her desire to start her own life away from the home of her Lady.
Ellen’s regrets and disappointments tarnish her relationship with her Lady, and yet she remains loyal. There is; however, a strange and foreboding tone to Ellen’s description of their relationship that fails to mask the resentment she feels toward her Lady. Ellen describes her initial employment by her Lady as having been found or rescued. She remarks on the collars and cuffs that she is made to wear, a visual indication of her servitude, which she interprets at first as belonging to a new family. Perhaps Ellen, who was still a child at this point, did not understand the full implications of being a servant to an upper class family in the early twentieth century. Many servants passed on their responsibilities through the generations but Ellen, an outsider, an orphan, is made to feel like one of the family and yet is never allowed to forget her station. She is safe in the home of her Lady from the physical abuse of her grandfather but finds the restrictions placed upon her as a maid as equally binding.
Having lost her mother at such a young age, Ellen’s relationship with her Lady is more than just a business arrangement. Ellen yearns for a mother figure and fears losing her Lady to illness as she did her own mother. Yet when the time comes for Ellen to leave and start a life of her own with Harry, her Lady manipulates Ellen into staying by pretending to be ill and feeble, preying on Ellen’s sensitivities. How could her Lady be strong enough to pray on hardwood floors every night but be too weak to retrieve a handkerchief from the floor? Ellen’s obvious regret at having ended her engagement to Harry as a result of her Lady’s subtle interference has plagued her ever since. Now Ellen is torn between the disappointment she feels over her lost possibilities and the guilt she inflicts upon herself whenever she thinks of her Lady’s death, a thought that is on her mind when she begins her conversation with madam.
Death, a reoccurring theme in the text, begins Ellen’s introduction of her Lady by comparing her to the corpse of her Lady’s mother. Ellen tells madam that no one could tell the difference between the two, except for the missing purple pansies. Ellen had dressed and prepared her Lady’s mother for burial and placed purple pansies by her neck. It was not uncommon for servants to help prepare the bodies of their employer’s family for burial; it was considered an honor. The placement of the pansies illustrates Ellen’s true dominant nature. She was not told to place the pansies there and yet she did so of her own accord having felt a kinship toward her Lady’s mother who was always kind to Ellen. Yet her remark that only the pansies were missing from her Lady’s body as she tucked her into bed that night is strangely foreboding and suggests Ellen looks forward to the day when she will prepare her Lady’s body for burial, a macabre thought that Ellen quickly dismisses.
Mansfield ends “The Lady’s Maid” with a note of foreshadowing when Ellen tucks madam into bed as if she were her Lady. Ellen says she does not know what she will do if and when her Lady should pass away. By ending the story here, Mansfield subtly suggests that perhaps madam will be Ellen’s next Lady or employer and she will continue a life centered on service rather than pursuing her own interests. The ambiguous ending is of course open to the interoperation of the reader.