Chekhov and the Buried Life of Katherine Mansfield

‘Tchekhov is dead; therefore we may now speak freely of him…’ Lev Shestov1 

The critic John Middleton Murry marked the first anniversary of the death of his wife, Katherine Mansfield, with a notoriously bad poem, which he published in his own magazine Adelphi in January 1924. ‘Was she not a child’, the elegy asked, ‘A child of other worlds, a perfect thing/ Vouchsafed to justify this world’s imagining?’2 In casting Mansfield, a short story writer who died young of tuberculosis, as a ‘perfect thing’, Murry recycles the terms of his own characterization of Anton Chekhov. In a review of Constance Garnett’s translation of Chekhov’s Letters published in the Athenaeum less than four years earlier, in which he called him ‘the hero of our time’, Murry hailed the publication of his Letters as ‘an opportunity for the examination of some of the chief constituents of his perfect art’. For Murry, the chief constituents of the art are the moral and spiritual perfections of the artist:
We do not consider [Chekhov] under the aspect of an artist. We are inevitably fascinated by his character as a man, one who, by his efforts […] worked on the infinitely complex material of the modern mind and soul, and made it in himself a definite, positive, and most lovable thing…Somehow he achieved […] the mystery of pureness of heart, and in that though we dare not analyse it further lies the secret of his greatness as a writer […] measured by the standards of Christian morality, Tchehov was wholly a saint.3
Unlike Murry, the Russian émigré critic D.S. Mirskii did not tremble before the sacred mysteries of Chekhov’s greatness. ‘Chekhov’s English admirers think that everything is perfect in Chekhov’, he complains, ‘to find spots in him will seem blasphemy to them’.4 Mirskii did dare to analyse Chekhov’s art in formal terms. ‘His method of constructing a story is akin to the method used in music’, he writes, ‘the lines along which he builds them are very complicated curves, but they have been calculated with the utmost precision’.5 With laconic respect, Mirskii adds that ‘if Chekhov has had a genuine heir to the secrets of his art, it is in England, where Katherine Mansfield did what no Russian has done—learned from Chekhov without imitating him’.6

When Mirskii wrote this, Murry was about to publish his two-volume edition of Mansfield’s Letters,7 imitating the example of Chekhov’s brother, Mikhail Chekhov, who published around 2000 of his letters in a six-volume edition between 1912 and 1916, creating a new model of literary ‘life and letters’.8 Chekhov arrived in England—through the translations of Constance Garnett and others—as simultaneously a great letter-writer, with a biography ‘perfected’ by early death, and as a dramatist and short story writer. Murry’s publication of Mansfield’s Letters was a crucial part of his attempt to create a composite image of literary perfection out of her life and work. This so disgusted Mansfield’s close friend, the émigré translator, S.S. Kotelianskii, that he broke off relations with Murry, complaining that he had ‘left out all the jokes’ to make Mansfield into an ‘English Tchekov’.9 However, it was not just Mansfield’s jokes that Murry left out when he edited the letters left by her in his trust for publication, turning her into his (bestselling) hagiographical image of an English Chekhov.10 In the last 5 years of her life, in a dialogue with Chekhov that runs through her letters and notebooks, of which Murry left few traces, Mansfield worked at (rather than worked out) her thoughts on the writer’s vocation, literary form, illness, life, death, and time. Murry excised all but a few of the references to Chekhov in her letters, almost entirely erasing from the record the work she did on Kotelianskii’s literal translations of Chekhov’s letters for publication in the Athenaeum, which Murry himself edited. Murry also removed all traces of Mansfield’s discomfort with his part, as an influential critic, in creating the English cult of Chekhov. In a footnote in the preface of his 1927 edition of Mansfield’s Journal, in which assertiveness seems to stand in inverse relation to persuasiveness, Murry protested that Chekhov had had no influence on her imaginative writing:
There is a certain resemblance between Katherine Mansfield’s stories and those of Anton Tchehov. But this resemblance is often exaggerated by critics, who seem to believe that Katherine Mansfield learned her art from Tchehov. That is a singularly superficial view of the relation, which was one of kindred temperaments. In fact, Katherine Mansfield’s technique is very different from Tchehov’s. She admired and understood Tchehov’s works as few English writers have done; she had (as her Journal shows) a deep personal affection for the man, whom, of course, she never knew. But her method was wholly her own, and her development would have been precisely the same had Tchehov never existed.11
Introducing his two-volume edition of Mansfield’s Letters, Murry expressed the hope that, ‘together with her Journal’, they would ‘form an intimate and complete autobiography for the last ten years of her life’. Mansfield’s ‘one concern was to leave behind her some small legacy of truth’, he explained: ‘because I believe that not a little of her ‘truth’ is contained in these letters, I have tried to make the record as complete as I could’.12 In a ‘literary study’ of Mansfield, Murry writes of her as a possession. He made up his mind, he says, that after her death, Mansfield ‘no longer belonged to me but to the world’. ‘It seemed to me a matter of cardinal importance that the world should know what manner of woman—or girl (for she wasn’t much more when she died)—Katherine Mansfield was’.13 Mansfield was 34 when she died: not at all a ‘girl’, as she herself had insisted. Someone like Murry, who claimed that he had read her letters ‘many times’, might have recalled this letter that she wrote to him from Paris in May 1915: ‘Whose fault is it that we are so isolated—that we have no real life—that everything apart from writing and reading is ‘felt’ to be a waste of time’, she asked, before setting out, over the course of a lengthy paragraph, all that she had seen and sensed as she sat on a bench in a flowering garden behind Notre Dame: mothers, nurses (one Chinese, in green trousers), grandfathers, and ‘little staggering babies with spades and buckets’: Why haven’t I got a real ‘home’, a real life – why haven’t I got a chinese nurse with green trousers and two babies who rush at me and clasp my knees – Im not a girl – Im a woman. I want things. Shall I ever have them […] Registering the tension between ‘life’ and ‘writing’ that was to become a preoccupation of her later letters, and in which the figure of Chekhov was to become imbricated, Mansfield ends, ‘Oh, I want life – I want friends and people and a house. I want to give and to spend (the P.O. savings apart, darling.)’ 14 When Murry edits this letter (without indication) for publication, he cuts everything after ‘waste of time’, deleting her vivid paragraph about the Parisian babies, her protest that she is ‘not a girl’, and her dig (laced with the endearment ‘darling’) about his tight-fistedness.15 This was just one of many passages in her letters that contradicted the perfect image of the writer that Murry was trying to create out of the materials left, with ambiguous instructions from Mansfield, in his trust. For Murry, shaping her letters, journals, and short stories into a ‘single whole’ (following the model of Keats, and implicitly of Chekhov) involved de-professionalizing Mansfield. ‘She was never what we understand by a professional writer’, he wrote; ‘her art was not wholly distinct from her life’:
She was distinguished by the peculiar gift of spontaneity’ which ‘means [in this critical sense] an absence of any cleavage or separation between the living self and the writing self… When the human being is confused, at a standstill, bewildered in its own living experience, then the voice of the art is silent.16
However, the lines that he has cut from Mansfield’s letters are, precisely, ‘bewildered’; they register a ‘standstill’, a sense of painful cleavage and separation between the living self and the writing self. The voice is not silent, rather it has been silenced by the now all-powerful editor. Murry is at pains to present her writing as something other than a ‘technical achievement’17: She was not a person who constructed patterns of objective beauty; she was not a person who ‘told stories’; she was essentially a person who responded through the instrument of a ‘more than ordinary organic sensibility’ – to her experience of Life.18

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