Katherine Mansfield revolutionised
the 20th Century English short story. Her best work shakes
itself free of plots and endings and gives the story, for the first time,
the expansiveness of the interior life, the poetry of feeling, the blurred
edges of personality. She is taught worldwide because of her historical
importance but also because her prose offers lessons in entering ordinary
lives that are still vivid and strong. And her fiction retains its
relevance through its open-endednessits ability to raise discomforting
questions about identity, belonging and desire.
Katherine Mansfield's brief life was also a lesson in casting off convention. Famously, Mansfield remarked risk, risk everything. In the words of one of her biographers, It was largely through her adventurous spirit, her eagerness to grasp at experience and to succeed in her work, that she became ensnared in disaster . . . If she was never a saint, she was certainly a martyr, and a heroine in her recklessness, her dedication and her courage.
The Great Ghost
As New Zealanders we tend to think we have invented the ambivalence that surrounds our most famous writer. Our often grudging admiration perhaps has the cast of a distinctively local attitude to high artistic achievement. Yet Katherine Mansfield was always divisive, wherever she was received. The impression she left on those who knew her was strong and ambiguous. She affects her readers in a similar way.
After Mansfield died, Virginia Woolf often dreamed at night of her great rival. The dreams gave her a Mansfield who was vividly, shockingly alive, so that the emotion of the dream encounter remained with Woolf for the next day. Hermione Lee, Woolfs biographer, writes that Katherine haunted her as we are haunted by people we have loved, but with whom we have not completed our conversation, with whom we have unfinished business. It is a formulation that captures wonderfully the current position of Mansfield. She is a key figure in the development of the short story and yet she remains somehow on the margins of literary history. She is also the great ghost of New Zealand cultural life, felt but not quite grasped.
A New Zealand
of the Mind
Mansfield left for London in 1908 aged 20, never to return to New Zealand. In the context of a long and arduous sea journey six or seven weeksthis might not appear significant. And yet by the time Mansfields father, whod been born in Australia, came to write his memoirs, he could boast that hed made the trip back to Mother England twenty-four times. Later in her life, of course, Mansfield was frequently incapacitated by illness. Even allowing for this, it is obvious that she saw no point in a return voyage to her birthplaceand that has had an effect on how we, as New Zealanders, see her. Though D.H. Lawrence believed the most important fact about her was that she was a colonial, Mansfield can seem to us, at first glance, too English; her associations with the Bloomsbury set, her marriage to an English man-of-letters, keep her rather at a distance from our concerns. Irrationally, we feel abandoned.
And yet her masterpiecesthe long stories At the Bay and Preludeare lovingly detailed recreations of a New Zealand childhood, reports from the fringethe edge of the world as she felt it to be. She wrote as if shed stayed. Of course these luminous re-imaginings are lit with the affection and nostalgia of the expatriate. They would not exist without their authors estrangement from the scenes and places and people she describes. They are set in a New Zealand of the mind, composed at the edge of Mansfields memory.
'At the Bay' and 'Prelude' are Mansfields most innovative and widely-read works and as such they are often the only point of contact an international readership has with this obscure country at the bottom of the world. And so our sense of abandonment is corrected slightly by a feeling of pride.
Mansfields relationship with her country of birth was, like most of her relationships, marked by extremes. In the beginning, as a precocious, literary schoolgirl, she despaired of her uncouth colonial home where people dont even know their alphabet. As a mature writer she found in that hopeless material a way of pushing the boundaries of the formin the words of her biographer, Antony Alpers, a means of revolutionising the English short story.
Mansfields mother, Annie Dyer, has been described as delicate and aloof, with a gift for unthinking pronouncements. Her first words to her artistic daughter, on returning from nine months in England, were, Well, Kathleen, I see that you are as fat as ever. Mansfield was to draw on her mother for the character of the reclining, perpetually disappointed Burnell mother in Prelude, pregnant again and victimised by disturbing dreams of a bird swelling into a baby with a big naked head and a gaping bird-mouth, opening and shutting.
Mansfield was sent off to London in 1903 to attend Queens College, a school for the liberal education of women. Three years later, she was reluctantly back in Wellington, rebellious and full of ideas. Writing to a school friend at the age of sixteen, Mansfield sets out the programme:
The longing was expressed in such acts as wearing brown to match the colour of her beloved cello; and punching her best friend if that friend talked to another girl. One of her headmistresses called Kathleen imaginative to the point of untruth.
The headmistress was on to something. Of course what Mansfield was looking for were imaginative truths. She had begun to write stories and poems. Mansfields juvenilia are no more or less mawkish than the youthful work of any writer; what is occasionally noteworthy is the degree to which the future figure of the artist can be heard sounding her characteristic notes. Here is an extract from an abandoned novel:
This is vintage Mansfield in many waysthe frenzied exhortation to live, which is central to all Mansfields writing; the opposition of convention and nature; the terror of falseness; the elevation of the great artist as the model for living and, by extension; art as a means of being real; the notion that destiny is a function of desiringto want something strongly enough is to legitimise the means of getting it. Here it is all baldly stated. In her most persuasive work, Mansfield would find a way of pressing the threads of such a credo into the weave of her fiction.
The Bogey of Love
In 1908, Mansfield finally persuaded her father to let her go back to London, ostensibly to continue with her music studies. In yet another self-addressed journal manifesto, she wrote of the need to get rid of the doctrine that love is the only thing in the world: We must get rid of that bogeyand then, then comes the opportunity of happiness and freedom. Exercising her gift for contrary behaviour, Mansfield promptly fell in love with Garnet Trowell, a young violinist. When the affair collapsed, she impulsively married G.C. Bowden, a singing teacher, leaving him the day after the wedding. She resumed her relationship with Garnet, became pregnant, and eventually had a stillborn child.
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand,
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By this time, through her mothers influence, Mansfield was staying in Germany at a Bavarian health spa. Her mother had arrived in London to sort out the business of Mansfields close friendship with an old Queens College friend, Ida Baker. Mother was wrongthere was nothing unwholesome in the relationship, at least not along the lines she imagined. Ida Baker, variously nicknamed Jones, the Albatross, the Cornish Pasty, the Faithful One, became Mansfields lifelong helpmate, nursemaid and whipping post. Her devotion was unwavering in the face of some extraordinary insults and unkindnesses. Mansfield found Idas self-sacrifice galling and irritating; she also understood the large debt she owed her and was constantly admonishing herself for these sentiments. In a letter of 1922, Mansfield writes to Ida: I am simply unworthy of friendship . . . I take advantage of youdemand perfection of youcrush you . . . Eight years earlier in a journal entry, thinking about Ida, she wonders whether she has ruined her happy life?
The waters did not cure her of Ida Baker but Mansfield discovered in Germany a subject that could match her satiric talent. She began to publish sharply comic stories in a small weekly arts paper, the New Age, and in 1919 her first book came out.
In a German Pension showed Mansfield on the offensive. Stories such as Germans at Meat, The Baron and The Modern Soul gleefully skewer the pomposities and self-deceptions of the spa-going German middle class. The Germans are fanatically humourless, routinely condescending, and always eating. The narrator observes of one Frau who is affecting to be shocked : If it had not been for her fork I think she would have crossed herself. Seeking purity and good health, they always give themselves away through unconsciously polluting acts: Prompted by the thought, he wiped his neck and face with his dinner napkin and carefully cleaned his ears.
The narrator, the stand-in for Mansfield, is an attractively dry, English-speaking outsider who has simply to turn up at mealtime to be presented with another amusingly offensive outburst. At one point she is offered cherries by an absurd music professor, who tells her: There is nothing like cherries for producing free saliva after trombone playing, especially after Griegs Ich Liebe Dich
The book was well received and the talent it announcedbracingly witty, clear-eyed, fiercebrought Mansfield promisingly into London literary circle for the first time.
Learning to be
His new wife, whom he called Tig (they were now the two tigers and he was Wig), obliged with a suite of New Zealand stories: The Woman at the Store. Ole Underwood and Mollie. For Vincent OSullivan, the noted Mansfield scholar and writer, these often neglected pieces are essential to the oeuvre, being the first New Zealand stories to thread human behaviour with the brooding grimness of landscape.
The Woman at the Store, a kind of colonial murder ballad in which the social isolation of rural life breeds despair and violence, contributed this much-quoted sentence to the dictionary of definitions a country keeps of itself :
Even a passing acquaintance with contemporary New Zealand film and visual art reveals the reach of Mansfields observation. The paintings of Colin McCahon, and the films of Jane Campion, Peter Jackson and Vincent Ward, for instance, are often soaked in this atmosphere of foreboding, depicting landscapes animated with an indefinable malice.
Rhythm folded in 1913, to be replaced by a new venture, the short-lived Blue Review, jointly edited by Murry and Mansfield. The collapse of this second journal caused Murry financial stress, forcing the couple to return to London from Paris, where theyd hoped to establish themselves as writers. The material insecurity of their lives, mixed with the volatility of their own natures, initiated a lifelong pattern of partings and reconciliations.
In one of the more notorious of these flights, Mansfield made a daring trip to visit her lover, Francis Carco, a writer and committed bohemian, in the French war zone. A fictional version of this trip can be read in Mansfields story An Indiscreet Journey, and Carco pops up again as the cynical narrator of Je ne parle pas Francais. Carco, for his part, made Mansfield the model of a character in his own novel, Les Innocents: She was a small, slim woman, pleasant but distant, her large dark eyes looked everywhere at once.
Make It New
For Mansfield, whose beloved younger brother, Leslie, was killed in the war, everything changed: I feel in the profoundest sense that nothing can ever be the samethat as artists, we are traitors if we feel otherwise: we have to take it into account and find new expressions, new moulds for our new thoughts and feelings.
The emphasis on newness was everywherein Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, in James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. The artistic responses were different in each writer but the mood of overthrow linked them all. Joyce in Ulysses traced an elaborate and ironic Homeric myth over a single Dublin day and presented the novel with a fresh task: to map the mind and its wanderings. Eliot, with the spiritual poverty of contemporary life in his sights, constructed in The Waste Land a scalding poetry out of literary allusion and religious symbol. These two took the high ground, writing works that required professorial assistance to unpick their densely patterned structures. (Mansfield herself was revolted by the difficulties of Ulysses.)
D.H. Lawrence, on the other hand, though equally miserable over the state of industrialised city life, often railed in his work against the civilising aspects of culture and sought the real in more primitive modes of sexual feeling. Mansfield was drawn to Lawrencehe was, after all, another outsider in the English literary worldbut her journal also records her impatience with what she saw as Lawrences reductive view of human nature: I shall never see sex in trees, sex, in the running brooks, sex in stones & sex in everything. The number of things that are really phallic from fountain pen fillers onwards!
It was Virginia Woolf, in her psychological interest and her minute detailing of sensation, who was always closest to Mansfield.
Yet Mansfield had something beyond literary technique or cultured despair to drawn on. She had New Zealand. If estrangement was the oxygen of modernism, Mansfield, the colonial, had lungs that were filled as a birthright. She breathed alienation; she was also drawing in newnessthe newness of New Zealand. Increasingly Mansfield would come to see this as a bounty to the artist rather than a burden, and to coax from its freedomsthe freedom from a literary tradition but also social and cultural freedoms as well as the freedoms of a sparsely populated landscapeher own freedom as a writer. The New Zealand she made up in Prelude and At the Bay is by no means escapist or classless or wishful, and yet the small, often petty domestic world of the Burrells is wonderfully enlarged by a sense of discovery and possibility. It is hard to resist the feeling that this is Mansfields own renewed sense of her countrys untapped potential.
Of course writers were not the only ones thinking about newness. The radical spirit in the visual arts was also crucial here. In 1910 Mansfield had seen the famous Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London and later recalled the effect Van Goghs Sunflowers had on her own practice. The painting, she wrote, taught me something about writing that was queer, a kind of freedomor rather a shaking free.
The appeal of the Post-Impressionist lesson was clear. Cezannes Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings, for instance, did not depict the mountain as it appeared on postcards. The scenes corresponded rather with interior images of the landscape that were constantly shifting with the light, with the movement of trees and sky; the paintings owed allegiance finally to the emotional response of the artist rather than to the ideal of a realistically rendered object. It was the thing as it was experienced rather than as it might photographically appear. The world was shown to be not fixed or static but elusive, fleeting, indefinite. It was up for grabs.
Again, in the
context of the war-time experience, when society had failed to supply its
citizens with security and authority, the idea of the supremacy of
individual consciousness had obvious merit. If the exterior world was full
of lies and false promises and death, the interior could be the place of
authenticity. The recording, reflecting, dreaming I came to the
forefront of modernist writing. And this was the direction Mansfields
writing naturally turned, not because it was fashionable but because it
was felt. Even without the War, Impressionisms philosophy and its
methods suited Mansfields temperament and skills and beliefs.
experimentation was a game; it was also in earnest, the classic moves of
the outsider seeking to define a self in the new setting at the same time
as she wished to escape definition. (She had also copied out Wildes
dictum: To realise ones nature perfectlythat is what each of us
is here for.) More often than not the result for the colonial in London
was a sort of mutual incomprehension. The English novelist Elizabeth Bowen
registered this misfit: Amid the etherealities of Bloomsbury she
was more than half hostile, a dark-eyed tramp. In a journal entry,
Mansfield gives full vent to this hostility: No, I dont want
England. England is of no use to me . . . I would not care if I never saw
the English country again. Even in its flowering I feel deeply
antagonistic towards it, & I will never change.
A Primer for
Very little happens but the story is full of vivid personal crises that crucially affect each characters internal weather while leaving the atmosphere of amiable, conventional family life intact: the girl Kezia witnesses the killing of a chicken; Kezias unmarried and desperately timid Aunt Beryl recalls with horror coquettishly leaning against her sisters husband when he was reading the paper; Linda, Kezias mother, fearful of being swallowed by family life, imagines the wallpaper is coming alive.
The story is told in twelve sections. We enter an individual consciousness for a few pages at a time before moving on to someone else. We glide from adults to children and back again, and from the family to its servants. The story is a miracle of fluidity.
In an ecstatic letter written around the time she was working on the story, Mansfield identified the form as her own invention and used the language of impressionism to suggest what she was aiming for:
The tenderness of this statement represents a dramatic shift in Mansfield. Though there was social commentary, Prelude, like its companion piece At the Bay, lacked the full protective armour of satire. Its insights were not arrived at through the observations of an outsider but mediated magically, it seems, through a floating narrator with access to the interior dramas of each personality. The intimacy was startling.
Mansfield felt vulnerable over Prelude and this made her defiant: And wont the Intellectuals just hate it. Theyll think its a New Primer for Infant Readers. Let em.
The High Mind
In September 1920, Mansfield moved to the Riviera town of Menton, renting the Villa Isola Bella, and entering one of her most productive periods. Here she wrote a group of stories that rank with her best work: Miss Brill, The Stranger and The Daughters of the Late Colonel. In December of that year, Mansfields second book of stories, Bliss and Other Stories, was published to enthusiastic reviews.
A few months later there was another movethis time to a mountainside chalet in Switzerland. Here she wrote some of her best-known stories: Her First Ball, The Garden Party and The Dolls House. There was also a majestic return to the characters and the style of Prelude in At the Bay, a mini-epic, set over the course of a single summers day. Again, the New Zealand material proved most fertile for exploring issues of identity, belonging, and desire. I long, she wrote, above everything else, to write about family love.
The Garden Party and Other Stories was published to great praise in February 1922, that watershed year of modernism which Mansfields book shared with Joyces Ulysses, T.S. Eliots The Waste Land and Rilkes Duino Elegies. Each of these books planted a bomb under their respective genres, exploding reader expectations and enlarging literatures scope for dealing with issues of individual consciousness. Mansfields detonationsince she worked in the field of the short storywas perhaps the least reported. It is also the case that unlike Joyces novel, Mansfields book still contained conventional narratives. These magazine stories ran alongside more experimental pieces, making it difficult to assess her avant-garde ambitions. Reviewers tended to see it as a strong collection rather than a radical work. They found a dignity in its tragicomedy and noted that The Garden Party was a happier book than Bliss; one reviewer was moved to say that reading it convinced him it is a good thing to be alive on this shining planet. It is only in more recent decades, as the short story has come to be seen as more deserving of close study, that Mansfields achievements and modernist affinities have been recognised.
In 1922 Mansfield should have been secure, buoyant. In fact, her health was getting
worse and she was now looking for a miracle cure.
The final months of Mansfields life produced little fiction, though she did complete The Fly, a portrait of her father and her classic statement on the futility of war. Disillusioned with conventional medical practice, Mansfield entered the Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau in France.
Gurdjieffs basic thesis was that the harmony of life had been disrupted by the pressures of modern living. His commune was an attempt to restore balance through a regime that included physical exercise and labour. Residents were encouraged to walk about with arms outstretched for long periods, take part in dances, and rise early in the morning to do communal work. None of this, of course, would have been an ideal regime for a TB sufferer. However, Mansfields TB was by this stage so advanced that Gurdjieffs methods are thought to have had no effect on her decline. Mansfield, for her part, believed shed found my people at last.
There was another aspect to Gurdjieffs teachings which fits more promisingly with our sense of Mansfield than the gymnastics. Gurdjieff proposed that we had many Is, not just one controlling I, a set of selves that could come into play at any time. Immediately, we see the appeal of this for Mansfield, whose work is filled with ambivalence about a permanent, fixed identity, and gestures always towards something more fluid and flexible and organic. It takes us right back to a letter she wrote in 1906, five years before she published her first book,: Would you not like to try all sorts of livesone is so very smallbut that is the satisfaction of writingone can impersonate so many people.
These impersonationsin her journals, letters and storiescontinue to exert their power and fascination. The contemporary English novelist and editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, Margaret Drabble, summed up Katherine Mansfields lasting radical spirit: A symbol of liberation, innovation and unconventionality. Her life was new, her manners and dress were new, her art was new.
Katherine Mansfield died on 9 January 1923 and she was buried at Avon, Fontainebleau. Her literary afterlife began quite soon. John Middleton Murry brought out The Doves Nest and Other Stories in June, followed by an edition of his wifes poems, then by another story collection, Something Childish. In 1927, he edited the Journal of Katherine Mansfield and a selection of letters appeared the following year. These publicationsas Antony Alpers wrote in his biographytidied up Mansfields roughness, tempered her harshness by omitting certain passages and sealed her in porcelain for twenty years.
The sickly sweet Katherine created by Murry was difficult to swallow. In 1937, the American writer Katherine Anne Porter issued this warning: She is in danger of the worst fate an artist can sufferto be overwhelmed by her own legend. Fortunately, the legend was made more life-like by subsequent and fuller editions of her Journal and by more complete selections of her Letters.
The contemporary Mansfield is a figure of vivid contradictionfiercely independent and pathetically needy, brilliantly bold and wretchedly repentant, terrifically ambitious and plagued by self-doubt. And these contradictions are most vitally present in all her thinking and writing about home, New Zealand. The despised place could also be the dream place. The empty place could be imaginatively rich. The unschooled land could teach the world. The undiscovered country could rise into view as Crescent Bay does in the famous opening of At the Bay - the borderlessness of land and sea standing in for freedom and possibility:
Boddy, Gillian (1988). Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer, Penguin.
Lea, Frank (1959). The Life of John Middleton Murry, Methuen.
Lee, Hermione (1977). Virginia Woolf, Vintage.
Mansfield, Katherine (1981). The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, Penguin.
Moore, James (1980). Gurdjieff and Mansfield, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd
OConnor, Frank (1985). The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, 1963, Harper & Row.
OSullivan, Vincent, ed., (1997). Katherine Mansfields New Zealand Short Stories, Penguin.
Vincent OSullivan, ed., (1988). The Poems of Katherine Mansfield, OUP.
Scott, Margaret, ed., (1997). The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, 2 vols, Lincoln University Press and Daphne Brasell Associates Ltd.
Stead, C.K., ed., (1977). Katherine Mansfield: Letters and Journals, Penguin.
(1988). Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Penguin.
Mansfield/New Zealand Literature
STORY BY DAMIEN WILKINS
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