‘The Singing Lesson’ is one of the short-stories from the collection “The Garden Party and Other Stories” (1922) by Katherine Mansfield.
The story opens with the protagonist, Miss Meadows making her way to the music hall of the school. The very first line of the short-story tells us about the emotional state of Miss Meadows, who was filled ‘with despair-cold, sharp despair’.
Dressed in her usual academic attire, she headed to take up the first singing lesson of the day. Girls, of all ages passed her in the hall in their happy, jovial self, but Miss Meadows was immune to their happiness for her fiancé, Basil, had called off the wedding. For the singing teacher in an all girls school that Miss Meadows was, life had suddenly turned cruel to her, for reasons unknown.
Walking down the hallway, she exchanged strange pleasantries with the Science Mistress who she hated, more so for her sweetness that day. On reaching the class, she marched onto the stage looking down at the row of students before her, who were from the fourth, fifth and sixth forms. Unusual for her behavior, she gave two sharp taps with her baton for silence which irritated her students. She knew what they would be thinking of her but nonetheless it didn’t matter to her that day. In her mind she thought of the letter which her fiancé had written to her. In the letter Basil had mentioned how strongly he felt about their marriage being a mistake. He wrote that the fault was in him for he was not a ‘marrying man’, hence Miss Meadows need not feel guilty about the matter. She noticed in the letter how he had written ‘disgust’ initially and had later crossed it out and written ‘regret’ instead.
Drowned in her thoughts, Miss Meadows walked to the piano where Mary Beazley, her favourite pupil, was waiting to play the accompaniments. Mary tried to engage Miss Meadows in conversation and greeted her with a beautiful yellow chrysanthemum, which had become more of a ritual between the two. But Miss Meadows completely ignored Mary’s gesture, leaving her in tears, and announced for ‘Page fourteen, A Lament’.
Fighting back her tears, Mary began to play. Addressing the class, Miss Meadows instructed them to sing without any expression and the result was indeed tragic. Miss Meadows led her students through the dreadful dirge all the while thinking of Basil. Each note played was a sigh, a sob and a crown of awful mournfulness. All throughout the session, Miss Meadows kept wondering the reason for Basil to write such a letter and trying to figure out as to what prompted him to do so. Recalling their last conversation through letter, Miss Meadows remembered how Basil had mentioned about buying a hat stand. Wondering, how could he have changed his mind so quickly, left her perplexed.
Once the song ended, Miss Meadows instructed the girls to use their imagination to find the meaning behind the words of the song and this time, to sing with expression. She sounded stoned and it happened to frighten the youngest student in the class. Once again her thoughts began to flow with the flow of the song, as if setting its tone. Her inner turmoil began and she started contemplating the consequences of the wedding being called off. She concluded that in such circumstances, she would have to leave her job to avoid any disgrace and embarrassment. Initially too, people had expressed their surprise at her engagement with Basil for he was five years younger than her.
Her emotions reflected upon the speed of the music’s flow. Beckoning with baton, the music sped up. The older girls were red in face while the younger ones began to cry. Miss meadows was only physically present in the class, for in her mind, she was miles away begging Basil to love her or allow her to love him, for she felt that perhaps her love would he enough for both of them. All these pleas were useless. She had to disappear to save herself from any embarrassment. On this thought, the song ended and the voices of her students faded. Just at the moment a student entered the class, informing Miss Meadows about the headmistress’s wish to see her.
Miss Meadows instructed the girls to be soft in their conversations while she was away and she walked to the headmistress, Miss Wyatt’s office. There, she was handed a telegram which read like;
“Pay no attention to letter, must have been made, bought hat-stand to-day-Basil.”
Miss Meadows was surprised and couldn’t take her eyes off the telegram. Concerned Miss Wyatt enquired if all was good, to which Miss Meadows blushed and responded in affirmation. Miss Wyatt reminded Miss Meadows that only serious news of utmost emergency were allowed in school and that for a good news, it should wait until school hours.
Happy once again and flying on the wings of hope, love and joy, Miss Meadows hurried back to the class and asked the girls to refer to the song on page number thirty-two, “We come here today … to congratulate.’ She picked up the beautiful yellow chrysanthemum to hide her smile and with overladen joy, she sang along with the girls, at the top of her voice which was high above all the other voices and reflected depth and was full of expression.a