Friday, November 12, 2010

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield is elusive. In her best stories there lingers this sense of yearning for something unattainable even in moments of great happiness and bliss. 'The story-teller' – to use Kathleen Jones’s subtitle – is secretive. Reading Jones’s account I’m up to the period of her life where she and Middleton Murry are with the Lawrences. DH and Frieda are extremely frank about their life, especially sexual. Murry can’t see what there is discuss. Katherine according to Jones is not very revealing.

A master craftsman as coy – no, that’s not a contradiction in terms. Mansfield was both. One trouble was that on her death Murry tried to develop a picture of her by a controlled publication of selected writings. Almost the sanctified victim, dying like Keats, young with unrecognised genius.

I’m confident that’s the woman Alpers began to write his biography about; but as he learnt more and more about her life the puritan that he was became repelled at her passionate randiness and in his terms loose living. Meyers wrote a pedestrian biography. Tomalin weighed in with a feminist perspective – timely and useful. Gil Body’s shorter, photographic essay is a good overview, particularly so of the Wellington years.

We have quite a large Mansfield section on our book shelves. I’ve enjoyed reading the Scott/O’Sullivan editions of her letters. Jones has dwelt amongst this memorabilia much more than I have. The result is a richer account of Mansfield’s life than the previous attempts. But I still feel the actual woman remains fugitive. That may appear a critical remark, it is rather a comment about Mansfield’s nature.

Ida Baker gets a better press. That’s good. And deserved it seems to me. Murry doesn’t emerge well. That’s also deserved. If it hadn’t been for Mansfield we’d hardly remember him. It’s an egg and chicken argument. If he hadn’t pushed her into the foreground we may not have noticed her.

I was intrigued to read of his treatment of his second wife, Violet. Jones’s account rings true. He was attempting to recreate Katherine. The fact Violet also died of TB is chilling. The descriptions of their desolate life on Chesil Beach are equally chilling, history repeating itself.

Yet Murry must have had some attractive features. Obviously Katherine adored him but I get the sense she found him exasperating and selfish. I, as Kiwi, of course, male chivalry as well, am on Katherine’s side. He didn’t know how to look after her. But then he didn’t know how to look after himself. To have aspirations and to be poor in Edwardian England and Europe couldn’t have been much fun.

I even feel sympathy for Katherine’s parents. By their standards they’d done well. This exasperating daughter seemed nothing but trouble. Interior life should remain just that, not exposed to the scorn and pity of the outside world.

You’ve not writing about Jones’s account I can hear you saying. I will. But I wanted to share with you at this stage - I'm half-way through - some of the myriad of thoughts her biography have aroused. They alone illustrate how much I’m enjoying the read.

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