Katherine Mansfield, the Victorian short-story writer, suffered a number of afflictions in her short life: tuberculosis; weariness of her homeland, New Zealand; and quite possibly men, though she harbored quite a few of them over the years, and even married two. But it was women she seemed most interested in: they are often her strongest characters, as well as her closest friends, mentors and most cherished lovers. Women seemed to have provided Mansfield the most calm in 34 years of disease, depression, wanderlust and romantic tumult.
As these things tend to go, Mansfield amassed a large amount of very good writing while “living fast,” as the British novelist Ali Smith put it in the Telegraph a few years ago, in marking the release of Penguin Classics Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. Even her childhood was interesting enough to inspire the work of her contemporary D.H. Lawrence, who is said to have modeled parts of The Rainbow, as well as Women in Love’s Gudrun, after her. As an adult, Mansfield plunged her own life into fiction as much as she invented characters to make her fiction run, which proved difficult for her, Lawrence and nearly everyone else who came in contact with her. (As for the work itself, Carson McCullers allegedly returned to Mansfield’s books so frequently that they fell apart.) She was, according to Smith and the confused but adoring scholars that try to label her, “merrily dexterous when it came to identity” –– a grab bag of characters. Trying to pigeonhole Mansfield becomes a jumble of words like the one Smith arrives at: “colonial bisexual angel-devil plagiarist original.” Kathleen Jones’ forthcoming biography of Mansfield, The Storyteller, may reveal the most about this colorful writer, simply by drawing out the nature of many of her relationships.
Those unfamiliar with fiction about New Zealand will enjoy the new territory, and Mansfield is arguably the country’s most celebrated author. “Where the hell am I?” is the sensation many readers will have, but the gloriously alien quality of Mansfield’s stories has as much to do with setting as with her ability to blend clipped, straightforward narration with flashes of surprising description. The character at the center of “The Woman at the Store” could be a woman from rural Tennessee as easily as rural New Zealand. The story, like so many of Mansfield’s, trots along, intermittently kicking you in the face with little images and interactions. To suggest drunkenness, the narrator says, “The woman’s hair was tumbled –– two red spots burned in her cheeks –– her eyes shone.” This is a quality Faulkner shares: his narrators also have singular, touching ways of looking at the world (and he’s Mansfield’s contemporary, just seven years her junior), and both authors are brilliant at capturing the way people speak. Without revealing too much about “The Woman at the Store,” the final sentence is a haunting double-whammy, two ends in one. The characters leave the setting and Mansfield leaves us, with signature concision: “A bend in the road, and the whole place disappeared.” This happens frequently over the course of her hundred or so stories: we’re forced to move on.
Virginia Woolf, a friend, wrote that Mansfield “stank like a civet cat that has taken to street walking,” but she felt quite differently about her work, as biographer Jones writes, admitting that Mansfield was the only writer she was jealous of. She tried to temper that feeling, too: “My jealousy,” Woolf told her sister, “…is only a film on the surface beneath which is nothing but pure generosity.” Indeed, Woolf and her husband published Mansfield’s breakthrough story, “Prelude.” But the generosity also took the form of a mutually beneficial creative friendship. Though both had romantic relationships with women, their kinship seems to have been professional in nature, and it proved longer lasting than many of the other friendships Mansfield would have. (Jones recounts that D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda bitterly parted ways with Mansfield after sharing a house with her and her husband. Lawrence later wrote to Mansfield to tell her, “You are a loathsome reptile; I hope you will die.”)
Mansfield’s life and work were inextricable, she said, but perhaps only to her, since sometimes the writing was respected long after the person who wrote it had been cast off. (Frieda Lawrence allowed that Mansfield, while horrid, “knew more of the truth than anyone else.”) But Mansfield, plagued by health problems and sexual urges that she sometimes flaunted and sometimes suppressed, had her reasons for being difficult. She was largely unwilling to accept the bounds of monogamy and marriage, often impulsively entering into relationships only to break them off days or weeks later. But in the case of her second husband, John Middleton Murray, who wouldn’t be unwilling? For he felt his career as a writer was more important than hers, and often expected her to fund it (she came from money, while he did not).
As far as setting and situation goes, the life and work are closely tied. Like the writer, the stories move between New Zealand and Europe. Mansfield, disillusioned with New Zealand, first moved to Europe as a teenager, finishing her secondary education in London. She actually began work on her short-story career back in New Zealand, where she returned for a brief period as an older teenager. But Mansfield fled to London again two years later, and would spend the rest of her life in Europe. As Joyce has suggested, a place is best written about once you’ve left it, and New Zealand and its environs remained a focus of her work, a way to come to grips with a heritage –– analyze it, critique it, memorialize it –– without having to perpetuate it. One clear embrace of her upbringing is the series of stories that begins with “Prelude” and continues with “At the Bay,” “The Garden Party” and “The Doll’s House.” There is the bubbly social antics and class issues of the slightly elder Forster in these stories, which concern a family called the Burnells, as well as a writer’s energetic reexamination and remaking of her past.
Though Mansfield was never able to completely unravel the issues that preoccupied her in life –– her body wouldn’t let her –– writing brought sense to her chaotic days. She also found solace in Ida Baker, a woman whom she called her “wife,” and who nursed Mansfield until the very end. Mansfield wanted it all, though –– wife and husband ––which bewildered Baker. Mansfield died in the midst of a romantic visit from Murray, who’d been living elsewhere. True to her spirit, she and Murray kept up a “fictional” relationship in letters, Jones writes, that often proved too awkward –– too real –– in the flesh.
Having left the world so soon, Mansfield haunted her loved ones –– and their loved ones –– long after she was gone. Murray felt that she would live on forever –– perhaps in the form of another person, since within months of her death he married an aspiring writer named Violet le Maistre who looked strikingly similar to Mansfield. Le Maistre, too, contracted tuberculosis, but after she and Murray had the children he and Mansfield had dreamed of having but were unable to (instead, they had two imaginary children). “I’m so glad!” Le Maistre told Murray after learning she had TB. “I wanted you to love me as much as you loved Katherine –– and how could you, without this?”