Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Biographer's Dilemma

A colonial – and therefore unusual - amidst the Edwardian intelligentsia, or should it be artistic circles – such was Katherine Mansfield’s lot.

Here’s a paragraph from Jones’s biography. ‘There seems no way out of it. John is determined to go to Lawrence though he has misgivings about whether Katherine will be able to endure it. She reluctantly agrees to spend the summer in Cornwall, leaving Bandol at the end of April. She tells a friend that her book "won’t be old enough to travel until then." ‘The Aloe’ seems doomed to be stunted by transplantation, just as it began to grow and flourish.’

I admire that last sentence. It carries a novelist’s assurance. It puts a template upon that particular period of Katherine’s life. It reflects the great strength of this account of her life. And yet; it reflects the biographer’s dilemma.

Anyone’s life is a narrative in itself. Only the inhabitant of that particular assortment of cells and atoms can know the ins and outs of that life and even then there are forces over which the ‘I’ has little understanding or knowledge.

Any autobiography is a selection. I’ve recently read reviews of Bush and Blair’s memoirs. Both men present the best picture possible of their actions. Even doubts are winnowed for audience reaction.

Any biography is a selection. Further though, the biographer is one removed. She or he has to make do from letters, diaries, recollections if available, contemporary material in whatever form it is available.

Jones is fortunate. Not only was Mansfield in the chattering class of her era she was also a member of a scribbling class. They wrote all the time, to one another, for posterity, for the record, for themselves, for fame and recognition.

How to present this material is any biographer’s problem. Too much speculation annoys the reader. On the one hand, on the other hand, slows the narrative. But often the biographer can only present the facts and offer a hypothesis. How that thesis is delivered is the issue. Jones’s narrative is clear – this is what happened.

Jones’ strength is she goes squarely for the positive. I get a clear picture. Mansfield, in reasonable shape health-wise for a while is happy writing in Bandol on the French Mediterranean coast. She has discovered a rich gold vein to excavate, childhood memories. It is a chance to exorcise some of the ghosts and doubts that have pursued her for ages. And now Murry wants her to up sticks and take her to the Lawrence’s in Cornwall. I as onlooker want to shout ‘don’t go’. But this is biography and she went.

I give this illustration because it reveals the enthusiasm and delight I’m having in reading the book. It’s really engaging me. Some might say too much detail but I’m reveling in the description. But Jones's very strength as a biographer is also a handicap sometimes. Have I read too many accounts of Mansfield? Possibly! But for example, almost universally Murry is called ‘Jack’

Up till now Jones has not I think ever mentioned the word ‘gonorrhea’. [I'm about two-thirds through the book]. Most accounts discuss this as one of the probable reasons for Katherine’s ill-health. Jones states categorically that the illness is ‘rheumatism’. No argument! No discussion!. Maybe that’s fair enough. But it leaves me with a niggle of doubt about the rest of the account.

Having expressed this reservation I’ll return to the book. Apart from ‘Sons and Lovers’ and his poetry I’ve never been a Lawrence fan. I’ve always regarded him as a bully. So I accept Jones’s account of his relationship with Katherine and Murry. What I’m probably trying to say is that I’ve read too much about Mansfield to approach any book about her without prior prejudices. But it drove me to reread ‘The Prelude’. And to give thanks to the writer who could create such a gem. The novel ‘The Aloe’ never appeared. Instead it was turned into this masterpiece of interlocking pieces that resonate with an emotional intensity rarely equaled

‘Pooh! She [Kezia] didn’t care! A tear rolled down her cheek, but she wasn’t crying. She couldn’t have cried in front of those awful Samuel Josephs. She sat with her head bent, and as the tear dripped slowly down, she caught it with a neat little whisk of her tongue and ate it before any of them had seen.’


And again! Linda this time.

‘Yes, everything had come alive to the minutest, tiniest particle, and she did not feel her bed, she floated, held up in the air. Only she seemed to be listening with her wide open watchful eyes, waiting for someone to come who just did not come, watching for something to happen that just did not happen.’

So thanks Kathleen Jones. Your biography gives me two-fold pleasure. In itself. (The cut and paste approach reminds me of ‘The Prelude’). And in re-reading Katherine.

1 comment:

  1. Such wonderful writing! No one can convey so much meaning as delicately as Katherine M.

    I'm glad your bathroom had to be delayed, Harvey - I so enjoy reading your comments and ruminations. It's very blustery and hot in Tauranga today, so perhaps not the most pleasant day for looking at lovely gardens...