Cult Classic: Defining Katherine Mansfield


Arts & Culture

katherineIn “Je Ne Parle Pas Français,” a short story by Katherine Mansfield, the narrator muses: “I believe that people are like portmanteaux—packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle …”

Mansfield’s own Train has proved to be less Ultimate than she may have hoped. Despite sharp instructions to her husband to publish as little as possible after her death, the enterprising John Middleton Murry quickly set about curating her legacy. He perceptively noted (with, one imagines, a gleeful rubbing of hands), “Since Katherine Mansfield’s death, the interest in her personality has steadily increased.” It was, he explained, his duty to make known her private correspondence, the stories she was unsatisfied with, the journals in which she had recorded her thoughts.

It has been a lively afterlife. In the ninety years since Mansfield’s death, her work has never been out of print; the same stories repeatedly reedited and reissued in newer, more “authentic” editions. Biographies have multiplied, clamoring for validation like conspiracy theorists. Scholars have greedily rummaged through this particular portmanteau, each emerging with quite irreconcilable portraits of the author.

One of the most dedicated treasure-hunters has been Dr. Gerri Kimber, a British scholar, who dug up “a little gem” just last month at the Alexander Turnbull Library, in Wellington, New Zealand. The unearthed manuscripts contained one “complete piece” inspired by an erotic pantomime and signed Katharina Mansfield. Kimber rhapsodized about the significance of the find: the writer and the woman “go hand in hand,” she said; the discovered draft could tell us much about the life; the writing was a cathartic exercise for the woman. Kimber is working on a four-volume Mansfield extravaganza (letters, diaries, stories, poems); when it is published, a new “complete” version of Mansfield will join all the others.

This is only fitting for a woman with a dozen different names and the personalities to match. A skinny girl from New Zealand with a dark cap of hair, a thin nose, and a desire for more, Mansfield gobbled up experiences and writing styles. She was a ventriloquist, a shape-shifter, her short stories exquisitely crafted and stylistically varied, mingling to form an oeuvre that was polyphonic and mercurial; hers was a shifting, un-pin-down-able literary sensibility that has only added to her mystique and kept her train a-rattling.

Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born in Wellington in 1888, to a prosperous, socially ambitious family. At fifteen, she was sent to school in London, where she promptly discovered the irresistibly scandalous legacy of Oscar Wilde (who had been tried for sodomy a decade earlier). Wilde’s defiance of social norms—his sexual “perversity,” his aestheticism, his fascination with adopted personae—appealed to the young provincial. Perhaps inspired by Oscar’s interest in artificiality, Mansfield’s professors recalled her, with distaste, as being “imaginative to the point of untruth.” Returning to the stifling conservatism of colonial life in New Zealand, she explored what she called “the whole octave” of her sexuality and published work under a variety of names: Katie, Kathleen Beauchamp, Katherine Mansfield, Katharina, K. Bendall, Matilda Berry, even Julian Mark. In 1908 her father, disturbed by her exploits (which supposedly involved lesbian affairs—perhaps even, unthinkably, with a Maori companion—as well as heterosexual trysts), sent her back to London with an allowance. He never saw her again.

Katherine promptly leapt into an affair with a musician by the improbable name of Garnet Trowell, became pregnant, was rejected (never trust a man whose name sounds akin to a bejeweled gardening utensil), married someone else, left him on the wedding night, had a miscarriage, contracted gonorrhea, fled to Germany (where, by all accounts, she had a rather miserable time), fled back, consorted with Bloomsbury-ites, met the editor John Middleton Murry, married him (oops!), and lived through the war. Her worsening health (darn gonorrhea) drove her to the warmer climes of Southern France and Italy, where she spent the lonely final years of her life writing. In 1923, at the tender age of thirty-four, Mansfield succumbed to tuberculosis—supposedly suffering a fatal pulmonary hemorrhage after running up a flight of stairs to demonstrate to Murry how fit she was. Katherine always did love irony.

The life lends itself to melodrama, prompting readers to approach Mansfield’s writing as the autobiographical outpourings of a tormented mind. Murry stoked these flames, claiming (like Kimber) that the life and work were inextricable—that Mansfield was driven by “inward necessity,” her writing a product of childlike sensitivity and unconscious craft, “the utterance of Life through a completely submissive being.” Mansfield herself contributed to this notion of instinct and naivety, her notebooks and correspondence punctuated with complaints of “fits of madness,” admissions of an insatiable desire for experience and a susceptibility to “sexual impulse,” references to the creative process as conducted in a “possessed” state. Certainly, her writing meditates on themes and emotional states that were central to her own life—loneliness, disconnection, travel, sexual empowerment, bliss and depression, attraction and revulsion, power and impotence, love and hate.

But there is a performative element to her letters, diaries, and characters—her women frequently pretend to be something other than what they are for the sheer pleasure of it, or actively adopt a persona because it is expected of them. In “The Little Governess,” the young protagonist shivers and draws her coat closer, imagining it is colder purely for the romantic drama that the discomfort allows. In “Prelude,” a young woman named Beryl writes a letter to a friend, then berates herself for presenting an “other self”—a “flippant and silly” self—in this correspondence. “In a way, of course, it was all perfectly true,” the omniscient narrator reasons, “but in another way it was all the greatest rubbish and she didn’t believe a word of it.” Writing can be deceptive, reductive; identity is a malleable construct.

Mansfield’s work displays a quick, sardonic wit that sharply interrogates romantic concepts of genius and ironizes naïve expectation of the sort that Murry attributes to her. “It is,” she noted, “of immense importance to learn to laugh at ourselves”—and, indeed, at others. The narrator of “Je Ne Parle” is heartily satirized for his pompous assertion post-epiphany that “after all I must be first-rate. No second-rate mind could have experienced such an intensity of feeling so … purely.” Many of the stories are told from the perspective of young female protagonists; their “abominably hopeful” outlooks jarring with the reader’s omniscient awareness of their naivety to produce the dramatic tension that propels the narrative.

Murry’s notion of Mansfield as a literary lightning rod, passively converting traumatic experience and emotion into defused, “tiny” tales, is belied by the steady, deliberate evolution of her art. Shunning romantic notions of authenticity, she consciously shaped self and style, often aggressively in opposition to the status quo. In backwaters New Zealand she was a renegade Wildean aesthete, scribbling Symbolist vignettes in florid, baroque prose and dreaming of “everything hidden and forbidden”; in sophisticated London she was “a little savage from New Zealand” writing miniaturist fragments of sleepy colonial life. Predating Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, Mansfield’s late stories like “Prelude,” “The Doll’s House,” and “At the Bay” transformed the short story genre by casting a fleeting, impressionist glance at the ordinary details of domestic existence.

Murry was only the first among many who sought to claim Katherine Mansfield. Her stylistic shifting, the destabilized narrative consciousness of her later work, the swift emotional U-turns of her characters, have been variously seized on by modernists, feminists, and postcolonialists, all eager to induct her into their particular tribes by virtue of her transgressions, her ambiguities. But part of Katherine’s appeal was that she belonged to no tribe, traveled under no discernible banner, championed no particular cause; she authored herself as she authored her stories, with an intense eye to detail and an element of discontinuity. Various versions of Mansfield proliferate; new works are unearthed; new theses are formed; the portmanteau is perhaps bottomless. And one can’t help but think that somewhere, metaphysically speaking, Katherine Mansfield is laughing. She who said, “Would you not like to try all sorts of lives—one is so very small—but that is the satisfaction of writing—one can impersonate so many people.”

Kirsten O’Regan is a freelance writer and NYU graduate student. Born in England and raised in South Africa and New Zealand, she now lives in East Harlem.