Saturday, November 20, 2010

Katherine Mansfield

I’ve finished reading Kathleen Jones’ life of Katherine Mansfield. It’s a big book. The subject deserves that size. It’s a very readable book. Jones’ sub-title is ‘the story-teller. She herself is a story teller. Her ample selection of quotations, illustrations and anecdotes fill in the picture of an age, a set as well as a life..

Katherine casts a long shadow. Her husband Middleton Murry tried to shape that shadow. From childhood’s windy Wellington to the lonely last few days in a French chateau Jones led me to think more widely about their relationship. Murry was with her when she died. She’d been talking about a life together. She loved him despite his selfishness and stupidity. So did other women. Maybe that was his appeal – the need to be loved. His hopelessness, helplessness and clumsiness called for protection. He obviously had charm. She adored him even as she was frustrated by him. I find his meanness unforgivable.

This is an example of what the book has done for me. I find myself emotionally involved. I want to say to Katherine ‘for goodness sake stop moving around all the time. Look after yourself. Settle somewhere and write.’ She was not the cautious Kiwi that I am. And her ill-health was different. She was young and talented with a whole world still ahead. The comparison with Keats is apt.

She expressed the world so vividly. Ida Baker complained that Alpers, one of her first serious biographers missed the laughter and the joy. But the word I use to describe her is ‘sadness’. The cover photo has a sad downcast look in the eyes. In almost all her stories there is a sense of unfulfilment, of glimpses of a better world. Of unobtainable hopes and longings! There might have been mirth. But beneath it there is an abyss.

‘The Fly’ was a story that had a huge emotional impact upon me. When I first read it I was willing that little insect to struggle on. When it gave up the struggle I felt cheated.

I finish the biography with the same huge sense of regret – what could have been. In a world full of bluff and bluster Mansfield portrays an immediate and intimate reality that is moving and perceptive. This is the stuff of everyday existence – elusive, mysterious, gorgeous; and it doesn’t last.

I can see in her conversation the same capacity meant she could be cruel in a impish and/or malicious sort of way. Katherine was no saint. Murry’s mistake was to attempt to deify her. It wrecked his life. It wrecked his four children’s lives. And it distorted our picture of her. Virginia Woolf described her as a ‘civet cat’. Jones presents her warts and all and I find myself loving her more than I did before I read this account. Indeed, I’m bowled over – an unusual admission from a 77 year-old. If she’d lived what would she have produced? As it is, there is heaps to relish.

When I compiled my anthology of 19th century New Zealand poetry I put in a couple of Mansfield’s prose poems. But I was struck with a strange Gothic one called ‘Study: The Death Of A Rose’ which I left out. It begins ‘It is a sensation that can never be forgotten, to sit in solitude, in semi-darkness, and to watch the slow, sweet, shadowful death of a Rose.’ I’ll put the whole poem up on a later blog. I remember thinking at the time, this person is more complicated than I realised. .

Jones quotes William Orton who in 1910 said all her writing ‘was a kind of poetry, not so much in respect to form or context as in its extreme intensity and accuracy of realisation.’ Rightly so! I realise I’ve not been reading any poetry while reading the life. There was not need for that nutrient.

I wonder if that sadness and sense of loss, reflects in some sense a colonial upbringing. Home is always somewhere else. Curnow’s poetry and much of our film-making carries the same ethos. I suspect that colonial origin also gave her an edge in Edwardian England. Her peers didn’t quite know how to place her.

In Europe she felt the tug of her childhood birthplace. When she was here she felt the lure of Home.

Auden’s poem about the fall of Icarus begins
‘About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’
These lines came to mind as I reflected on the luxury of writing about a book while West Coasters anxiously await news of their loved ones. But such is life.

And I face a further quandry. What to read next. I’m tempted to read LM’s account of life with Mansfield. There’s Mansfield's own stories. There’s a life of Emily Dickinson. There’s Franzen’s large new novel Freedom and I should re-read Coal Flat. The one good thing. I’m a winner which ever way I go. And verifying the Auden quote has meant a happy half hour reading that master’s poems. ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ is a gem.


  1. Lovely review, thank you Harvey. I haven't had time to do a proper review of this wonderful book so appreciate the way you have - and have amplified what Kathleen Jones offers us. And Auden - I bought a copy of a collection of his poems at the Bougainville Book fair - it's slim and small and can be slipped in a pocket. So many poems inside it, though, that are - as you say - gems.

  2. Thanks for this beautiful review-I first read a Katherine Mansfield story quite by accident a few months ago-I have now read and done about 70 posts on her work on my blog-I hope to read Kathleen Jones work very soon-I would also suggest those interested in Mansfield to read the prefaces to the books of her short stories done by John Middleton Murry-they and nearly all the stories are on line at the wonderful New Zealand Electronic Text center-I am now a follower of your blog-

  3. Thanks for this blog. KM is always worth re-reading, both her stories and poems.