Miss Meadows, in utter despair, made her way to the music hall. She was dressed in her usual academic attire and was on her way to teach her first signing lesson of the day. Girls of all ages passed her in the hall, laughing, running, calling out to one another. Miss Meadows was immune to their happiness. Basil, her fiancé, had called off the wedding.
The Science Mistress stopped Miss Meadows in the hallway. They were fellow faculty members in the all girls’ school in which Miss Meadow’s taught singing lessons. She hated the Science Mistress for her cheerfulness, her beauty, and charm; today, she hated her especially for her sweetness, and would not have been surprised if bees sprang from her sun-kissed hair.
Miss Meadows exchanged strained pleasantries with the Science Mistress and walked down the hall to her classroom where forms Four, Five, and Six were waiting. She marched onto the stage, looking down at the row of students before her and gave two sharp taps with her baton for silence. Mary Beazley, her favorite pupil, was at the piano and would play accompaniments.
Miss Meadows sensed her student’s irritation with her but she could not hide her anger for long. “What could the thoughts of those creatures matter to someone who stood there bleeding to death, pierced to the heart, to the heart, by such a letter - ” (122.)
“…I feel more and more strongly that our marriage would be a mistake” (122) began Basil’s letter to Miss Meadows. He went on to say that he was not a “marrying man” and that although he loved her the thought of marrying her filled him with regret. Miss Meadows saw he had written “disgust” first and had crossed it out and wrote, “regret.” She thought he could not love her at all if he had not the decency to make sure she would not have been able to read of his “disgust” toward her.
Ignorant of the world around her, Miss Meadows walked to the piano where Mary tried to engage Miss Meadows in conversation as part of their usual morning routine but Miss Meadows only barked at her to start at page fourteen, “A Lament.” She did not even take the beautiful yellow chrysanthemum that Mary had brought for her. Fighting back tears, Mary began to play.
Addressing her class, Miss Meadows instructed them to sing without expression and the result was indeed tragic. “Every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness” (123). Miss Meadows led her students through the dreadful dirge all the while thinking of Basil. How could he have written such a letter? What had prompted him to do so? In his last letter he had talked about buying a hat stand. How could he have changed his mind so quickly?
The song ended and Miss Meadows said they would begin again this time with expression asking the girls to use their imagination and find meaning behind the words of the song. For example she instructed them to single “drear” as if a cold wind were blowing through. Miss Meadows spoke as if her voice was made of stone, and the youngest students began to feel frightened of her.
Down came the baton and the lament began again as did Miss Meadow’s inner turmoil. If their engagement were off, then she would have to leave her job. People had been surprised that she had finally got engaged at all especially to Basil who was in his twenties and five years younger than her. She knew could not face the Science Mistress or her students ever again. She was in disgrace.
Beckoning the girls with her baton, the music sped up. The older girls were red in the face, the younger girls began to cry and Miss Meadows stood before them her mind miles away begging Basil to love her or to allow her to love him and perhaps her love would be enough for both of them but she knew her pleas were useless. She would have to disappear. On this thought the song ended and her students’ voices faded.
Just then the door opened and a student entered and told Miss Meadows that the headmistress, Miss Wyatt, wanted to see her. Instructing the girls to talk quietly while she was away, Miss Meadows walked to the headmistress’ office. There Miss Wyatt handed her a telegram.
“Pay no attention to letter must have been made bought hat-stand today, Basil” (125).
Miss Wyatt asked if the telegram contained bad news. Miss Meadows, who had been transformed by the telegram’s message, said it was good news. Miss Wyatt told her in future that good news should wait until after school hours.
Miss Meadows, happy once more, returned to her class. “On the wings of hope, of love, of joy” (125), she led them in a different song, one of congratulations. Miss Meadow’s voice sung the loudest of all the voices.
Of the fifteen stories within Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, "The Singing Lesson" and "Bank Holiday" are the only two that were not previously published outside of the collection. Although somewhat weaker in tone and composition in comparison to their counterparts, both stories still serve as excellent examples of Katherine Mansfield’s unique talent for realistically capturing a moment in time. Her simplistic style conceals complex insights, as is the case in "The Singing Lesson": nothing is the way it seems to be at first glance.
Miss Meadows’s ordeal in "The Singing Lesson" is written in the third person from a female perspective. Mansfield, noted for her preference for a woman’s point of view, moves away from the examination of a woman at home at the turn of the twentieth century and instead concentrates on the woman at work. Miss Meadows is a schoolteacher, one few acceptable professionals granted for women at this time. The location of Miss Meadow’s school is unknown but we can ascertain that it is in the United Kingdom or its providences judging by the terms used to describe grade levels and the hierarchy of its faculty.
An all female environment, especially in an academic setting, is rife for rivalries, even among the faculty as seen in the brief but revealing opening scene between Miss Meadows and the Science Mistress. Note that Miss Meadows doesn’t mention the Science Mistress’ name, suggesting a lack of respect and perhaps even distain for subjects outside of the liberal arts. Mansfield’s amusing use of sarcasm in the line “…she hated her most of all for her sweetness and would not have been surprised if bees sprang from her sun-kissed hair” quickly sums up Miss Meadow’s personality as someone who tends toward pessimism and jealousy with a flare for the dramatic. Later, Miss Meadows dreads having to face the Science Mistress with news of her separation from Basil so much so that she actually considers leaving her job so she does not have to face her rival’s scorn, imagined or otherwise. Basil’s letter intrudes upon Miss Meadow’s professional life and she is unable to contain her emotions and separate her private world from that of her work, a concern among skeptics of this time period who did not believe that women were capable of maintaining professionalism in times of stress and Mansfield’s brief characterization of Miss Meadows on the surface threatens to prove this point.
A careful reader will observe; however, that Mansfield’s portrayal of Miss Meadows skirts the line between that of a stereotypical “schoolmarm” or “old maid” and that of a woman who, until recently, seems to have enjoyed her job and was popular with her students. Note Mary Beazley’s devastation at being ignored by Miss Meadows, and her class’s emulation of their teacher during music lessons. Her identity struggles between who is at school and who she is in marriage. Up until recently, Miss Meadows was a schoolteacher only; then Basil, five years her junior, unexpectedly proposed, and Miss Meadows had to redefine herself in the context of marriage. A reoccurring theme in the text, marriage feels more like an arrangement between Miss Meadows and Basil than a love affair. It is this lack of intimacy between the two that perplexes Miss Meadows most, yet Mansfield is careful to concentrate on Miss Meadow’s internal struggle rather than the perception of others.
Basil’s letter acts as an intrusion upon Miss Meadows’ mindset and through the use of internal monologue, a device often employed by the modernists, her thoughts are revealed though the actions around her continue. The structure of the short story supports the protagonist’s inner struggle as the narrative shifts between what Miss Meadows is thinking versus what she is doing and how quickly the two come into conflict. While instructing her students Miss Meadows analysis the content of Basil’s latest letter and is devastated by his use of the word “disgust” to describe his feelings toward marrying her. She takes it to mean that he cannot love her and is repulsed by her as a person. Note; however, that he crosses out the word “disgust” and replaces it with “regret” although he does not do so carefully and she can still read the original word. “Disgust” is Basil’s true feeling on the matter. He crosses out the word to hide his thoughts or perhaps his true inclination. Some scholars believe that Basil, who appears in his letters to be more fixated on furnishing than on sending love notes to his betrothed, may be a closeted homosexual or bisexual and is literally disgusted by the thought of having sexual relations with a woman. It would have been very uncommon in this time period for a man to openly express his homosexuality or bisexuality without social repercussions. Basil’s letter could of course be traditional cold feet but the use of the word “disgust” again raises questions that Miss Meadows is very willing to analyze as her internal monologue cries out for answers, importunely none present themselves. Only Basil’s apologetic telegram can lift Miss Meadow’s spirits and when she returns to her singing lesson, the song she sings is a reflection of her enhanced mood.
Music, central to many of Mansfield’s stories is especially evident in "The Singing Lesson." Miss Meadows allows her inner turmoil to influence not only her song choices when teaching her class but the way in which the songs are interpreted. She picks a lament for the classes’ first song and instructs her students not to feel any emotion while singing and their voices are as a result, lifeless and a reflection of Miss Meadow’s inner thoughts. A reflection of her mood, the music continues to trod along, the students instinctively picking up on Miss Meadow’s emotions become angry and afraid as a result. Yet they are unaware of why their teacher is upset for clearly she is. The music serves as her inner emotional outlet without having to divulge her private thoughts. After Miss Meadows receives Basils’ apology her music choice reflects her change in the mood and she sings a happier song, allowing her own voice to sing loudest, symbolizing her return to happiness