Miss Brill in Penny Lane

When I was a child I was a big fan of The Beatles. I knew all their song lyrics by heart — I still do.

I also loved the writing of Katherine Mansfield. When I read her 1920 short story Miss Brill, I was struck by how similar it was to ideas within the song Penny Lane.

In particular, when Paul McCartney writes “and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway,” he is essentially summing up the entire story arc of Miss Brill in a single line. This isn’t completely surprising, when you consider that when McCartney was a boy in Liverpool, he would very likely have been introduced to the work of Mansfield.

In any case, this would certainly not have been the only time he snuck literary references into his lyrics. To take just one example, McCartney’s lyrics for Maxwell’s Silver Hammer open with a clear shout-out to one of his literary heroes, the absurdist late nineteenth century writer Alfred Jarry.

What is curious to me is that nobody seems to ever have noticed the reference to Miss Brill within Penny Lane. I’ve scoured the Web — supposedly the container of all random human knowledge — and there appears to be no mention of it.

Like the song says — very strange.

2 thoughts on “Miss Brill in Penny Lane”

  1. I was once reading one of Stillman Drake’s books on Galileo when the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” came on the radio.

    “But the fool on the hill / Sees the sun going down / And the eyes in his head / See the world spinning ’round.”

    Seems like a perfect description of heliocentrism and the trouble it got Galileo into with the church.

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