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9 January 2023

The secret lives of Katherine Mansfield

A century after the writer’s death, a new biography shows how she withstood colonial prejudice and terminal illness to produce revolutionary short fiction.

By Lyndall Gordon

At the edge of my memory is what it felt like to be “scribbling”, like my mother, in the Global South, far from anywhere that mattered. Before the mid-century a voyage from Cape Town to England took two weeks; six weeks from New Zealand, home to Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, who became Katherine Mansfield. The literary life she found in London led my mother to cherish this writer, all the more keenly because she herself could not flout, not outwardly, the limits of womanhood. Her bond to Mansfield was further tightened by the constraints of illness.

Next to her bed lay John Middleton Murry’s posthumous editions of Mansfield’s stories, Journal, Letters and Notebooks. My mother warmed to their sense of apartness and read aloud what Mansfield called her “thoughtful child” stories: “The Doll’s House”, “Prelude”, “At the Bay”. These mirrored a small-minded colonial world that upheld social and racial divides, cutting down what it could not take in. In South Africa our ways were much the same or worse. We too copied an imaginary motherland; took in its stories; spoke its language in our divergent accents; and prepared to widen our eyes when the actual England came into view.

A century after Mansfield’s death – at 34 – in January 1923, Claire Harman celebrates her appetite for life, for overseas, for first-hand experience and love of all kinds, attentive to what was silenced in women and children. This biography, graced by Harman’s deep understanding as a reader, allows the work and the life to unfold side by side, a pairing designed for maximum impact. Harman pays due respect to biographical predecessors, Antony Alpers (1980), who put in decades of research, and Claire Tomalin (1987), who opened up the “secret life” of an enigmatic woman who could be frighteningly incisive and wilful. Harman’s approach is different. Instead of a sequential line from family to funeral, All Sorts of Lives puts the art – the beating heart of a writer’s life – centre stage: there the dance is. Each chapter first puts the spotlight on one of ten stellar pieces of writing – titled “The Story” – followed by “The Life” as scenery of sorts, strategically positioned. 

The backdrop of “The Life” is particularly effective following Harman’s discussion of Mansfield’s “An Indiscreet Journey”. The story tells of a woman’s advance towards the front line to find her lover, who is fighting in the First World War. This draws on the writer’s own intrepid venture in 1915 to reach a Frenchman, Francis Carco. Love-making fell short of expectation, but Mansfield did not regret the risks. For here was material. In the end fulfilment lay in solitude, writing in Carco’s deserted Paris room – not minding too much about a Zeppelin raid that left a crater in the street outside. 

[See also: Nietzsche, narwhals and the burden of consciousness]

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The sharpness of that scene fits the selective detail of the short story, pinpointed by Mansfield’s claim that the art lies in what is left out (war, no less, displaced by female desire and then by an act of writing).

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The dominant narrative of colonial appropriation is left out of a story brewing early in Mansfield’s notes, “How Pearl Button was Kidnapped”. It’s an adventure through the eyes of a three-year-old, who enjoys a kiss on her “little white neck” and the tactile, relaxed, laughing company of Maoris wearing blankets and feathers. Pearl screams only when “little blue men” rush on the scene, waving batons and working up vengeance. “The Life” section that follows connects the racial drama with the attraction Kathleen (“Kass”) felt for a Maori schoolmate, Maata Mahupuku, and their caresses. The girls continued to be in love during their first stays in Europe, Maata at finishing school in Paris, blooming and exquisitely dressed; Kass at Queen’s, a progressive school in Harley Street, where the principal shut her up as a “little savage from New Zealand” – an outsider who didn’t count. 

The chapter on “Pearl Button” includes a photo of Kass camping at Urewera, Maori territory in 1907, wearing, incongruously, a white, high-necked dress and dainty hat. Her father Harold Beauchamp was a wealthy banker, a leading man in Wellington, whose womenfolk were brought up to dependence. He funded Mansfield’s expatriate life in London but provided too little to free his daughter from worry. She grovelled over a minute addition at Christmas. His meanness, reserved for Kass alone, punished
her deviance.

Paternal tyranny, comically distanced, is the subject of her greatest story, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”. Timorous sisters Jug (Josephine) and Con (Constantia) have long been suppressed by their military father; trained to helplessness, they are bewildered at his death. We witness the feeble flickers, so feeble as to be funny, of middle-aged women who scarcely dare live in the wake of the Colonel’s withering presence. Their continued existence feels like an affront to his rule.

Mansfield’s tuberculosis had almost finished her off by the time she wrote this in 1920. She feared dying before she had it down. Her companion and nurse, Ida Baker, reports how, one night in Menton in southern France, at Villa Isola Bella, Mansfield toiled at the story, stopping on the stairs and sitting on a step in order to add a touch. It was three in the morning when she completed this story, and she woke Ida to share her triumph over a cup of tea. “Shall I read it to you?” Mansfield asked. “It’s about you.”

Ida, large, awkward, too useful to dismiss, was the most lasting of Mansfield’s ties, going back to their shared predicament as colonial girls at Queen’s. Mansfield called Ida “the Rhodesian Mountain” and prompted Virginia Woolf to call her the “Monster”. Cruel, yes, but Ida’s devotion came over as irritatingly dogged. In the same way, the daughters of the Colonel are ludicrous as well as pitiful. No finality will quite do, and this is the point of Mansfield’s art; the reader has to feel more painfully than the damaged sisters can that freedom has come too late for them to flower.

“Dear old Hardy”(as Mansfield called the Victorian novelist) urged her to write more about those sisters. She did not agree. “As if there was any more to say!” 

That exclamation marks a divide between Victorian and modern, or between a plot of cause and effect on the one hand and, on the other, the insight of short fiction – momentary, at the still point of a turning world. A distillation of experience has more in common with poetry, so it’s not surprising to learn that Mansfield thought TS Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, depicting the inward life of a searcher stilled in uncertainty, tantamount to “a short story”.

Harman, ever perceptive, points to Mansfield’s “glimpse” of beauty and truth behind the sordidness of human doings. Evanescent, hovering beyond the reach of words, here is a counterpoise to the aggression and brutality the notebooks and stories observe.

In “The Fly”, a bereaved father repeatedly drowns a fly in drops of ink from his pen, observing the fly’s renewed efforts to clean and restore its legs, before he finishes it off. This was one of Mansfield’s last stories, written in 1922, when she herself had to face mortality. It seems to me close to the darkness of King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods/They kill us for their sport.”

One such boy is Kezia’s older cousin, Pip, in “Prelude”. He torments a dog, who follows the children, “shivering with misery”. “Pa-men” (figures of power) abound in her work, such as the abuser who lures the bookish “Mouse” to Paris and then dumps her in a place where she can’t speak the language. “Je ne parle pas français” is all she can utter. That’s the title, at one with the story’s close. No more to be said. No need to spell out a predictable fate.

[See also: How the world turned global]

Mansfield’s father flung this aside, saying it wasn’t even clever. Her mother disinherited her in 1909 after she fell pregnant, married, and left her husband (who wasn’t the father). Her family offered no comforts to a misfit when she was dying between 1918 and 1923. Yet some of her greatest works – “At the Bay”, “The Garden Party” – were written in these years, and the marvel is that she found illness “a privilege” because it heightened her sightings and keenness to pin them on paper.

All Sorts of Lives is not strictly sequential in terms of dates; nor does its selection of stories offer a “top ten”.  The idea instead is to bring out an inward and creative development, a coherence often lost in an inclusive biography. Original as this model appears, it does have predecessors: Lucasta Miller’s recent Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph (2021) and Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001), which starts in Yalta, the setting for “The Lady with a Dog”, a story that questions the standard treatment of lives. Chekhov was Mansfield’s prime mentor, and she, in turn, served Alice Munro, the star of our time. Mansfield was one of the writers to whom Munro “just clung”. More clearly now, we see that chain of making, and hurrah the genre these writers shaped.

Lyndall Gordon’s most recent book is “The Hyacinth Girl: TS Eliot’s Hidden Muse” (Virago)

All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything
Claire Harman
Chatto & Windus, 304pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor