Defining Katherine Mansfield
|Katherine Mansfield at Menton, France, 1920|
In “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.
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