Even before she died at the age of thirty-four Katherine Mansfield had achieved a reputation as one of the most talented writers of the modern short story in English. From 1910 publications in periodicals like the New Age through the five volumes of stories published before her death, Mansfield was recognized as innovative, accessible, and psychologically acute, one of the pioneers of the avant-garde in the creation of the short story. Her language was clear and precise; her emotion and reaction to experience carefully distilled and resonant. Her use of image and symbol were sharp, suggestive, and new without seeming forced or written to some preconceived formula. Her themes were various: the difficulties and ambivalences of families and sexuality, the fragility and vulnerability of relationships, the complexities and insensitivities of the rising middle classes, the social consequences of war, and overwhelmingly the attempt to extract whatever beauty and vitality one can from mundane and increasingly difficult experience.
The growing avant-garde of the second and third decades of the twentieth century admired her unique insight. Virginia Woolf—who alternately disapproved of and envied Mansfield's wider and more amorphous sexual, economic, and social experience and who was both her principal rival and close friend in a shifting, difficult, intense, and communicative relationship—always respected and learned from Mansfield's writing. When she heard that Mansfield had died, Woolf wrote in her diary: "I was jealous of her writing—the only writing I have ever been jealous of." Mansfield's fiction has been increasingly respected throughout the years, the quality of her thought and writing praised as further stories, journals, scrapbooks, and letters have been posthumously published. Although reminiscences, particularly those of John Middleton Murry, the husband who survived her, have sometimes tended to sanctify her, healthy reactions against sanctity have questioned the reputations of Murry and others; they have questioned not at all Mansfield's fiction or her role as a significant and seminal modernist. The variety and brevity of the fiction, its accessibility as well as its length, have enabled Mansfield to reach an expanding audience throughout the century.
Mansfield was born as Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand, on 14 October 1888, the third daughter in a commercially and socially expansive family. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, had been born in the gold-prospecting fields of Australia, had immigrated to New Zealand, and had become a noteworthy success in insurance, company directorships, and finally the Bank of New Zealand (he was knighted just a few days before his talented daughter died). Her mother, Annie Burnell Dyer Beauchamp, had also been born in Australia and had immigrated when her father was sent to New Zealand to start a branch of an Australian insurance firm. Both parents were only one generation removed from the English immigrants who still referred to Great Britain as home.
When Kathleen was just one year old her parents went to England, her pregnant mother returning in six months. The child, a fourth daughter, developed infantile cholera and died within three months. A fifth daughter was soon born and then, finally, the son and last child, Leslie (often called Boy), whom everyone idolized. Her birth-order position in the family, her childhood pudginess, and the fact that she wore glasses left Kathleen feeling ignored or neglected, although she was close to her maternal grandmother. This grandparent, with two of her own unmarried daughters, lived with the Beauchamps in increasingly large and comfortable houses, first in Karori, a country district outside the city, and then in the luxurious setting of Tinakori Road, Wellington—the house depicted in one of Katherine Mansfield's best-known stories, ``The Garden Party." In the later stories that deal with Mansfield's childhood in New Zealand, the father is always vigorous and successful, yet emotionally dependent on the devotion of the wife and children around him. The mother is quiet, more tense and socially conventional, sometimes ill, always eager to please her husband but often remote from or indifferent to her daughters.
In 1898 the Beauchamp parents visited England and stayed for a time with Harold's even more successful cousin who had returned from Australia to establish his family in a country house in Kent. The cousin's daughter, May, had just married the German count von Arnim and written Elizabeth and Her German Garden, which reached its twenty-second edition in England by May 1899. Whether or not the Beauchamp parents brought a copy of the book back to New Zealand, family legend dates Kathleen's determination to become a writer from that point. Yet her tales in school newspapers, her writing of and performances in plays, and her composition of poems were visible even earlier. Teachers at her private school recalled Kathleen as a "surly sort of girl" and "imaginative to the point of untruth," or "shabby and inky" and inquisitive about her teachers' views on free love. She wrote most of and edited the school's first magazine.
In January 1903 the whole family visited England, this time leaving the three oldest girls at Queen's College in Harley Street, a small school that specialized in the arts and languages, allowed its young women students considerable freedom for the time, and had room for about forty boarders. Kass or Katherine (as she was now usually called—the name Kathleen had been abandoned) continued music lessons, went to concerts and the theater, edited the college magazine, read, and wrote. John Middleton Murry, in his preface to the posthumously published complete edition of her short stories, wrote that, in addition to her dedication to the cello, these Queen's College years brought her "the beginning of intellectual freedom through an admiration of Oscar Wilde and the English 'decadents.'" Recalling her enthusiasm for Wilde in her later journal entry for May 1908, Mansfield wrote that she was now "growing capable of seeing a wider vision—a little Oscar, a little Symons, a little Dolf Wyllarde—Ibsen, Tolstoi, Elizabeth Robins, Shaw, D'Annunzio, Meredith." In 1906 the Beauchamp parents returned to collect the girls, and, after a summer of travel, the family boarded ship to return to New Zealand a few days after Mansfield's eighteenth birthday (she had begun to use the name Mansfield more frequently—it was her middle name as well as her favorite grandmother's maiden name).
The three girls were expected to excel at the parties and receptions of thriving Wellington and to find suitable husbands. Yet even on board the ship Katherine was uneasy and rebellious. What survives of her journal from the voyage in November 1906 has passages in which "a sense of unutterable loneliness pervaded my spirit. I knew this sea was eternal. I was eternal." At the same time she was fascinated by the members of the cricket team who were also passengers, "the whole octave of the sex," particularly one with "a low, full, strangely exciting voice ... [and whose] face is clean cut, like the face of a statue, his mouth absolutely Grecian.... When I am with him a preposterous desire seizes me, I want to be badly hurt by him. I should like to be strangled by his firm hands." She found both her parents interfering and impossible:
They are worse than I had even expected. They are prying and curious, they are watchful and they discuss only the food. They quarrel between themselves in a hopelessly vulgar fashion. My father spoke of my returning as damned rot, said look here, he wouldn't have me fooling around in dark corners with fellows. His hands, covered with long sand hair, are absolutely cruel hands.... She is constantly suspicious, constantly overbearingly tyrannous. I watch him walking all the deck, his full hideous speckled trousers.... [S]he is ... easily upset. Tells him what he must and must not do ... looks constantly uneasy. I shall never be able to live at home. I can plainly see that. For more than a quarter of an hour they are quite unbearable, and so absolutely my mental inferiors. What is going to happen in the future? I am full of restless wonder but I have none of that glorious expectancy that I used to have so much.
The "glorious expectancy"—its loss, its occasional tenuous resurrection, its desperate attempts to reclaim life—is the theme of many of her later stories set in New Zealand.
Back in Wellington Katherine found what artistic community she could. She studied the cello with Thomas Trowell, whose twin sons had followed the Beauchamp daughters to London to study music. She went on a monthlong camping trip to Maori settlements on the North Island, and her journal is full of colorful descriptions of flowers, bush, weather, and people. She became close to a slightly older artist named Edith Kathleen Bendall, and they planned a children's book, with poems by Katherine and drawings by Edith. They also went on excursions to the rocks and bays around Wellington, Katherine recording in her journal sexual attraction and consolation, although Edith in later years was reluctant to describe the relationship in such erotic terms. From the testimony of her letters and journals as well as other people, Katherine had probably had earlier sexual experience with both men and women in England: she had written a clearly lesbian story, "Leves Amores" (reprinted in an appendix to Claire Tomalin's biography of Mansfield), and sent a copy of it to a friend back in England. In later years Mansfield talked of her relationship with Edith Bendall as significant, and she used K. Bendall as one of her pseudonyms for the stories she began to circulate.
She wrote four stories published in successive months in late 1907 in the Melbourne periodical Native Companion. On 23 September 1907 she wrote the editor that she was poor, obscure, "with a rapacious appetite for everything and principles as light as my purse." As she said frequently, she longed to go back to London. She tried on poses as frequently as she gave different signatures to essays, letters, and stories. She used the pseudonyms Julian Mark (for one of the stories published in Native Companion), K. Bendall, Matilda Berry, as well as, most frequently, the Katherine Mansfield that she later used exclusively. For personal friends and family she was Kass, Katherine, Katie, Catherine (this spelling apparently had religious significance for her), Katharina, Katerina, Kissienka, or K. X.--before she became Whig or Tig for Murry. Finally in July 1908, after what apparently had been many strained discussions, she secured her parents' permission and an allowance to return to London to live.
Her next three or four years, mostly in the midst of bohemian life in London, were described by Murry as "tumultuous existence," many parts of which "remain obscure." She later destroyed most of her diaries and journal from 1906 to 1912, leaving Murry "no doubt whatever that the once ardent disciple of the doctrine of living dangerously came eventually to regard much of her eagerly sought experience ... as waste--destruction too." She had earlier thought herself in love with one of the Trowell twins, Arnold, generally regarded as the more talented musician. But in London, still taking lessons from the father and close to the immigrant Trowell family, she became more attached to the other twin, Garnet. The Trowell parents thought them too young to marry, and Katherine was no longer welcome in the house. She went to join Garnet in Liverpool and Glasgow--perhaps in Hull as well--where he had a job in the orchestra of the touring Moody--Manners Opera Company. Biographers differ about where missing parts of her journal might reveal she was at various times, but at some point Katherine became pregnant with Garnet's child. Either afterward, or perhaps just shortly before (as Mansfield's principal biographer, Antony Alpers, believes is more plausible), Mansfield suddenly married a man named George Bowden whom she had met at musical parties and known for three weeks. They married at the Paddington Register office on 2 March 1909, Katherine dressed all in black. Bowden later recalled that "she looked like Oscar Wilde." After the ceremony they went to the theater and a hotel suite they had engaged and had dinner. Katherine suddenly left well before the night was over. She later said that "she couldn't bear the pink satin bedspread at the hotel, or the lampshade with pink tassels." She joined Garnet Trowell in Glasgow about a week later.
Meanwhile, alerted to Katherine's erratic sexual behavior (and apparently aware that some of her relationships were with women), Katherine's mother set off for England. The journey took about seven weeks, and she arrived in London on 27 May 1909. Whether or not she knew that Katherine was pregnant is uncertain, but she reported that she thought it necessary to separate Katherine from her closest female friend, Ida Baker. Annie Beauchamp talked of putting her errant daughter in a convent, but she placed her in an expensive hotel in Bad Wörishofen, a Bavarian spa, and then in a less expensive pension. Annie left in time to board a ship leaving England for New Zealand by 10 June, and, alone, Katherine apparently had a miscarriage in late June. When Annie reached Wellington, she cut Katherine out of her will.
After Katherine returned to London, her life of sudden and random alliances resumed for more than two years. The best source for these years is Baker, her intensely loyal and dedicated friend ever since school days at Queen's College. Baker worshiped Katherine--stayed with her when Katherine so wished and left when Katherine so wished. Her only purpose, she often said, was to "serve" Katherine, to stay "staunchly" by her side whenever she could. Baker saw more of her, and lived with her more often, than did anyone else from late 1908 until late 1911, years in which Baker's memoirs report that Katherine, although dedicated to her writing, was also "wilful, emotionally voracious, and undisciplined in the sense that she had not yet been schooled to the knowledge that self-assertion bears results, results not always readily controlled." After Katherine's return from Germany, Baker stayed with her almost constantly, "guarded [her] through illness and convalescence,... participated in the final break with Mr. Bowden, [and] shared the progress of a second love affair (which again resulted in a doomed pregnancy)." The illness was apparently gonorrhea; the operation, one for "peritonitis" connected with the gonorrhea. It was the second pregnancy terminated either by another miscarriage or by abortion.
In the midst of her physical and emotional turbulence Mansfield wrote constantly. In 1910 A. R. Orage, the editor of New Age, then perhaps the most noteworthy avant-garde journal of literature, politics, and art, accepted some of her work, and she began to contribute stories and sketches regularly. She wrote letters to the editor describing London street life, one letter like a prose poem full of the colors of "pilgrims straining forward to Nowhere." She joined with Beatrice Hastings (Orage's mistress) to write short parodies of more-established authors (whose work New Age often published) such as G. K. Chesterton, Arnold Bennett, Eden Phillpotts, and H. G. Wells. She tried different styles and tones: rhapsodic descriptions of the unusual, caustic satire, careful probings of relationships for the existence or absence of "soul."
One of her earliest pieces, "The Tiredness of Rosabel," first written in 1908, is the fantasy of a young milliner's assistant on her bus ride home after a hard day's work trying to please snobbish and exacting customers. The rain blurs most of what she sees, but at moments "light striking on the panes turned their dullness to opal and silver, and the jewellers' shops seen through this were fairy palaces." At the same time the young woman "would have sacrificed her soul for a good dinner," and she recoils from the "sickening smell of warm humanity" that the crowded bus exudes. As Mansfield presents the confined, sodden details of the woman's experience back at her fourth-floor walk-up flat beyond Earl's Court, the young milliner focuses on the distances of her fantasy; the lights, color, and excitement generated by her clientele; and the elegant hats that she sells. The fantasy develops into the wealthy, attractive young man replacing his snobbish fiancée with her and announcing their engagement in the Court Circular before the wedding at St. George's, Hanover Square. After the wedding "they motored down to Harry's old ancestral home for the honeymoon; the peasants in the village curtseyed as they passed." The fantasy is predictable, but the story works well through the language, the details, and the carefully constructed point of view that presents so immediately and directly the stereotypes of her imagination in contrast to her clear observations.
Much of Mansfield's early work is in the form of the sketch, highly popular in the journals of the time, in which a segment of life, like the shop girl's perspective, is described, but neither plot nor theme is developed sufficiently to warrant designating the work a story. Her first volume, In a German Pension (1911), consisted primarily of sketches, many of which she had written from her life in Bad Wörishofen in 1909. Generally presenting the Germans from the point of view of a quiet, observant young English woman, the sketches satirize Germans mercilessly, depicting them as crude, gross, pompous, self-satisfied. Some, like "The Baron," concentrate on German snobberies: the titled man at the resort will speak to no one except the young English tourist--to whom he confesses that he never speaks to anyone so that he can order double portions of food and elicit no comment. Others, like "The Luft Bad," mock the trivial and excessive Germanic concern with digestion and appearance among the ladies in the spa. Although the English narrator turns some of the mockery on herself, even more is directed toward the man in the "luft bad" next door who "buries himself up to the armpits in mud and refuses to believe in the Trinity." Another satire, "A Birthday," depicts a difficult childbirth from the point of view of a swinish father who in the midst of his wife's pain can think only of himself. A few of the sketches combine the usual German grossness (and related obsessions with food and soul) with pompous German assurance that the English need not fear invasion. In "Germans at Meat" one fat consumer named Herr Rat tells the English tourist that "You have got no army at all--a few little boys with their veins full of nicotine poisoning." An equally gross but more soulful German reassures the tourist: "Don't be afraid.... We don't want England. If we did we would have had her long ago."
Although there is no evidence in her letters or writing that Mansfield shared the invasion scare of 1910 and 1911 that provided the subject of popular plays and Kiplingesque adventure tales, some of the reviews welcomed her treatment of Germans more than her craft. One said that she wrote about Germans extremely well but "dwelt a little too insistently on the grossness or coarseness, which is undeniable." Others praised her "malicious accuracy," and only a few, Beatrice Hastings among them, thought her work marred by occasional sentimentality. Mansfield herself was apparently ambivalent about responses to the political implications of the treatment of Germans in her fiction. She hoped in 1914 that war could be avoided, but when it began she was both crushed and conventionally patriotic. After describing a darkened, sad, excited London in a September 1914 letter to a friend in New Zealand, Mansfield concluded that "Although in many ways these are dark and depressing days, still they are brightened by the display of real and splendid courage on the part of all the people. The fact that England is fighting for something beyond mere worldly gain and power seems to have a real moral effect upon the people, and they are become more brave and more generous than one could have believed in days of peace." Her letters to her parents echo the same thoughts, although one blames the Prussians rather than "those simple warm-hearted bavarians." As the war continued and Mansfield was horrified by deaths of those she knew well and by jingoism of any sort, she seemed to reject her volume of German sketches entirely. She did not want it reprinted during the war, nor even after the war was over--when she thought the stories might still be read as easy propaganda. She questioned the propitiousness of publishing the volume for an American audience in May 1922 by saying that she thought the book a "most inferior ... youthful extravagance of expression and youthful disgust."
Not all of In a German Pension, however, is inferior or an expression of youthful disgust. Parts of some sketches and early stories reveal many of the narrative skills and psychological complexities of Mansfield's mature fiction. One of the most interesting of the stories is "The Modern Soul," which begins with a stereotype of the pompous German music professor explaining to the young English narrator why he incessantly eats cherries: "There is nothing like cherries for producing free saliva after trombone playing, especially after Grieg's 'Ich Liebe Dich.'" His cherry-eating is connected with a consuming desire for women, and he soon introduces the narrator to the object of his current interest, a young German actress who travels the spa-concert circuit with her mother. The two older Germans, the professor and the actress's mother, talk incessantly of food and soul. They agree that the English are "fish-blooded," cold and without soul, or that "England is merely an island of beef flesh swimming in a warm gulf stream of gravy."
As the story develops, the actress, called "the modern soul," confides to the narrator that she is "furiously Sapphic"--more interested in the narrator than in the loathsome professor. But she is also attached to her mother and cannot think of leaving her. The narrator, attempting to be helpful, suggests that the actress have her mother and the professor marry, which would allow all to continue the artistic tour and leave the actress free to follow her own attractions. The actress, a "soul" less modern than manipulating, is appalled and stages her own fainting spell, which leads to a comic conclusion suggesting that the actress will marry the professor after all and keep him as her "pillow," as the security of her respectability, while he may continue to bluster and consume cherries. The "modern soul" is posture and hypocrisy; the varieties of sexual attraction are puzzles and complexities that human beings cannot handle.
Bisexual themes and the complexity of human emotion characterize other early stories. "Bain Turc," a satire apparently not written until 1913, is set in a German Turkish bath. The conflict it depicts between openly lesbian women and those who can talk only of food and men is obvious to the reader, though it is less so to some of the characters not conscious of the implications of their words. This story seems like the most flat and caustic of Mansfield's early satiric sketches. More skillfully done and complex is "New Dresses," written in 1910 although not published until 1912. The first of Mansfield's stories to model her own family circumstances in New Zealand, "New Dresses" adopts the point of view of the dissident, sloppy, tomboyish daughter ignored by both the remote, conventional mother who seems to care more for her children's clothes than for her children and by the boastful, ungenerous, egotistical father whose attention centers on his youngest child, the only boy. "New Dresses" excoriates both parents, and the dissident child is rescued only by the grandmother and a close family friend, the doctor--surrogate parents who are without much power but are given understanding that the parents lack. Yet the dissident girl's insight into the ways in which she deliberately provokes her parents and into her own jealousy of her younger brother removes from the story the easy self-pity its situation might generate.
A different geographical and social New Zealand background distinguishes another early story, "The Woman at the Store" (1911). This story is set in the blistering heat of the desert where the narrator describes how "the sky was of slate colour, and the sound of the larks reminded me of slate pencils scraping over its surface. There was nothing to be seen but wave after wave of tussock grass, patched with purple orchids and manuka bushes covered with thick spider webs." The narrator is traveling with two men, one of whom knows of an isolated store where the woman owner, if her husband is away, might sleep with a passing traveler. They find the store, but they are unprepared for the complex emotions they encounter: sexual attraction, rage at the men who use and then abandon women, violent hostility within and outside the sexuality, and resentments of the isolated outback woman reflected in the middle-class traveling woman. Although the conclusion is melodramatic, when the almost-mute child of the outback woman (who has had four miscarriages) reveals to the travelers that she has finally shot and killed her husband, the psychological explosions of identity and contrast match the primitivism and power of the isolated setting. It is a Lawrencian story written more than a year before Mansfield met D. H. Lawrence.
Perhaps something central about Mansfield's emotions in the difficult, unstable, defiant, lonely, searching years from 1908 to the end of 1911 is visible in "The Little Governess," which was apparently written shortly before its publication in early 1915 (by that time almost all that Mansfield wrote would be published immediately in one periodical or another). The childlike fantasy begins with a young Englishwoman on her first trip alone to the Continent, where she is to meet in Munich the employer who has arranged to hire her as a governess in Augsburg. Warned about Continental impropriety and perfidy, she is frightened on the trip, mistrusts everyone, and refuses to acknowledge porters, eat food on the train, or tip bellboys at the hotel. When a polite old gentleman enters her carriage on the train, she is aware that he might be thinking "how tragic for a little governess to possess hair that made one think of tangerines and marigolds, of apricots and tortoise-shell cats and champagne." This is, of course, what she really hopes he is thinking, and she chooses to treat this fantasy as innocent and protective.
She allows him to buy her strawberries, which she enjoys as the juice runs down her fingers. When they reach Munich early in the morning, she goes to the hotel where her employer is to meet her late in the afternoon; she intends to stay in her room until then. But the old gentleman, whom she still thinks of as a "fairy god-father," arrives and persuades her that he might innocently show her the town for just an hour or two. The tour stretches through "white sausages" with beer at eleven, lunch, and late afternoon ices, each entailing more physical proximity, until he takes her to his flat. What is remarkable about the story is the flexibility of the governess's consciousness throughout the tour. She simultaneously seems to believe in the innocence of the city that her protective godfather is showing her--and to want him to violate her innocence, as she understands the sexuality of all the signs. She is conscious of time in the distance and of her need to return to the hotel, yet she nonetheless tells her godfather that her watch has stopped because she forgot to wind it on the journey--and he suggests just one further excursion or treat.
When his delicacy changes in his flat to direct sexual assault, she breaks free and returns to her hotel through the crowded streets "full of old men with twitching knees." Of course, she is too late: her employer had waited for a time, had been told that the governess had gone out with a man and left no message, and he has gone away. The story ends with the governess alone and desolate, her knowledge of herself no consolation for her emptiness and estrangement.
The sense of estrangement, of a loneliness sometimes desperate, and the intense desires for varying connections seemed to dominate both Mansfield's emotions and her prose at least until she met John Middleton Murry in December 1911. Her loneliness and estrangements were personal, social, cultural, and national: the colonial in England, the posturing Englishwoman on the Continent, the new middle-class colonial trying to be part of Bohemian London, the rebellious observer still dependent on the grudged parental allowance. She always felt herself to be the outsider--sometimes hating it, often welcoming it. In New Zealand, she longed for England; in England, she longed for the Continent, often further east than she had ever been.
The meeting with Murry in late 1911 stabilized Mansfield's life to some extent, but not completely. She still moved from one flat or house to another every few months--sometimes with Murry, sometimes without him. As late as January 1917 Mansfield, well known as a writer, had to write Ottoline Morrell for a financial reference in order to rent a flat. And affairs with both Murry and Baker as well as with other men and women continued, although with less frequency than in earlier years. But a major change was the focus on magazines and an engagement in London literary life in the years just before the First World War. Murry had thought of himself as an editor and critic, an organizer of the arts, and while still an undergraduate, he had joined Michael Sadleir and J. D. Fergusson, a Scottish painter living in Paris, in starting a little magazine called Rhythm. Mansfield, after a dispute with Orage, had sent Rhythm a story that soon led to her meeting Murry. She persuaded him to leave Oxford and move in with her--both of them to write, to engage in literary controversy, to maintain contact with other writers, and to edit the magazine.
Rhythm gathered considerable talent but lost its financial backing, and Murry and Mansfield then reorganized it as the Blue Review, but that lasted only three issues. They did, however, meet other writers and succeeded in becoming part of literary London. D. H. Lawrence, for example, stopped at the office of the Blue Review to submit work, and Murry, Mansfield, Lawrence, and Frieda Weekley soon became close. These proved to be a volatile set of relationships that kept changing, waxing and waning among the four for the rest of their lives.
One of the principal beliefs that Mansfield, Murry, and Lawrence shared was a conviction about the singular importance of Russian literature. On the evening that Mansfield and Murry met, Murry later recorded, he was impressed by the assurance with which she spoke about the superiority of German to English translations of the Russian. Yet for some time, Mansfield was hesitant about including Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the Russian canon, although his fiction was beginning to be translated into English around 1910. From the evidence in her journal, Mansfield began finding herself in Anton Chekhov in early 1914. By August of the same year, she no longer cared for Ivan Turgenev, the staple of an older English interest taken in the Russian, for example, by Henry James. "I simply cannot believe," Mansfield wrote, "that there was a time I cared about Turgenev. Such a poseur! Such a hypocrite!" In February 1915 she still disliked Crime and Punishment, which she thought was "very bad."
Murry, however, had already begun long conversations about Dostoyevsky with Lawrence and other friends like the Gordon Campbells. In trying to define his own critical position, Murry felt himself an "instrument" of Dostoyevsky and felt that his absorption in Dostoyevsky might lead him into forms of heightened self-consciousness. Mansfield was at first skeptical about the implicit mysticism, "a 'passionate' admiration for that which has no reality at all." Murry, however, was known as an advocate of all things Russian, and he was offered a job at the British Embassy Library in Saint Petersburg in June 1914 before being commissioned by publisher Martin Secker to write a critical book on Dostoyevsky. Talk and argument with the Lawrences and the Campbells continued, as well as indulging in what were called "Dostoyevsky nights," apparently long sessions of drink, mutual self-analysis, and strong "displays of emotion." Mansfield was converted to Dostoyevsky, at least so far that by February 1916 she wrote that Murry's book, which was about to be published, was "really brilliant."
During 1912, 1913, and 1914 Murry and Mansfield lived together on and off for months at a time. They wrote often about their mutual desire to marry, find a quiet place in the country, write, and start a family, but increasingly these statements looked like myth through which each sustained illusions of the other. They could not marry legally because Mansfield was still married to George Bowden, and though they often talked of her divorce and remarriage, they did not marry until 3 May 1918. At times Mansfield wrote as if she wanted only Murry and yet was disappointed with his inadequacies; at times, she wrote as if she could not stand him and claimed that she wanted to separate permanently from him in late 1914. All evidence indicates that their relationship was never very passionate, and Murry, writing much later, maintained that he had never known sexual fulfillment until his fourth marriage, when he was in his late fifties. Mansfield was seriously ill throughout their relationship together, and her letters seem to reveal that she experienced more passion with others than she could sustain with Murry. Critics have sometimes explained the childlike quality of Murry's and Mansfield's love for each other as compensation for their unhappy childhoods, but they also acknowledge that both had experienced earlier ravaging, much less childlike sexual relationships and had sought a simpler, more innocent sexuality with each other.
So much of Mansfield's energy went into assuaging illness, becoming a part of literary London, and trying to find a way of living that could fit her fantasies and enable her to write that these years during which she was acquiring recognition are among her least productive. She still wrote satires, sketches, articles, and critiques, but her fiction seemed not to advance far. In all of 1913, for example, she published only "Something Childish But Very Natural," a long fantasy of a young suburban couple who meet frequently on a train and develop their plan for perfect love in a country cottage. The seventeen-year-old Edna, entranced by the idea of love but afraid that any physical contact will shatter her romantic dream, fails to arrive at the cottage where she and Henry, her eighteen-year-old platonic lover, plan to live out their dream. She instead sends him a note, the contents of which are undisclosed but which leave Henry immobolized and defeated. Both are curiously passive figures, as if they have always known that living out their fantasy will be impossible."
In many ways Mansfield, despite the conventionally patriotic statements she occasionally made, seemed almost to ignore the First World War for its first six months--and to try to live as fully as possible in accustomed patterns. But the denial was impossible to maintain, especially as news of the deaths of friends like the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska began to reach them. Murry was rejected for service because doctors incorrectly thought that he might have tuberculosis. The war was inevitably central to everyone's consciousness. In January 1915 Mansfield's journal recorded that she was trying to write in the midst of constant turmoil and interruption. She had for more than a month thought herself in love with Francis Carco, a French writer serving in the army on the Western Front. She also reported nights of reconciliation with Murry (which she then felt guilty about) and constant visits and letters from the Lawrences, filled with their own anguish, indecision, and plans. Worse than all these, however, was the war, of which Mansfield wrote, "I have simply felt it closing in on me and my unhappy love, and all to no purpose."
Encouraged by Lawrence and given money by her brother, Leslie, who had come to England to join the armed forces, Mansfield went to France to find Carco in what was called the "Zone of the Armies." Telling lies to officials and using whatever charms or excuses were required, as she chronicled in her story "An Indiscreet Journey," Mansfield worked her way into this area, where she spent four days with Carco in lodgings at the front. The affair was disillusioning, and she returned alone to Carco's flat in Paris, where she wrote steadily and seriously. During the next few months she spent time alternating between reconciling with Murry in London and writing in Paris. In her journal Mansfield's passages of longing for Carco seemed to be replaced by quotations from Chekhov.
She developed a new confidence in her writing, in the control she could manifest through her clear and distant observations of others and herself. In June 1915 Mansfield and Murry settled in Acacia Road, Saint John's Wood, where she felt more certain than ever that she had found the calm locus she needed for her work. While her brother's unit was training for service in France, she spent much of the summer in long conversations with him about their family and early days in New Zealand. Although she had seen little of him in recent years, she now regarded him as the most discerning and sympathetic member of the family, the one with whom she shared most. Little more than two weeks after he landed in France, however, Leslie was killed, "blown to bits" on 7 October 1915 while demonstrating to his men how to lob a hand grenade. Mansfield was desolate, filling her journal with long passages addressed to Leslie: "I've got things to do for both of us, and then I will come as quickly as I can. Dearest heart, I know you are there, and I live with you, and I will write for you.... [W]hen I leave this house and this place it will be with you, and I will never even for the shortest space of time be away from you again. You know I can never be Jack's lover again. You have me. You're in my flesh as well as my soul. I give Jack my 'surplus' love, but to you I hold and to you I give my deepest love. Jack is no more than ... anybody might be."
Mansfield knew that she could no longer live in the house on Acacia Road, and in November she and Murry traveled to the south of France, then still relatively untouched by the war. When he had settled Mansfield in Bandol in early December, Murry returned to his magazine work in London. In Bandol during the next four months Mansfield began writing the intense, apparently casual but deeply painful fiction that transformed her career. She started work on The Aloe (1930), begun as her first attempt at a full-length novel and set in the framework of her growing up in New Zealand, a work drawing on those long conversations with her brother the previous summer. Murry, in his introduction to the 1937 complete edition of her stories, wrote of her "turn back toward her early childhood as a life which had existed apart from, and uncontaminated by, the mechanical civilization which had produced the war." To some extent this was true, but The Aloe also permitted her to explore the consciousness of her many characters and family members, to connect their pasts with their presents in ways that revealed the antagonisms, alliances, and jealousies that propelled both the family and the society. The consciousness, far from innocent, was represented in the aloe, the large bushlike tree known initially as African trees in the center of the "spread tangled garden," divided between the bewildering tall trees and "strange bushes" that suggest the father--and the "box borders" with a profusion of flowers that suggest the mother.
In the fiction the aloe is the "fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem" that magnificently clings with "claws" to the ground and flowers only once every hundred years. For the young members of the family the aloe is sinister and uncontrollable but also a part of them. The Aloe was not published at the time (Murry published the original version in 1930) but, revised and compressed in the summer of 1917, appeared as Prelude, the second publication of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press in 1918. Prelude, which presents family conflicts and alliances more subtly through varieties of floral description than The Aloe does, represents the Beauchamps' move to Karori, the large house in the countryside, in 1893.
The story is seen through the perspective of Kezia, the younger daughter who feels loved by her grandmother rather than her mother. The father loves the country--the birds, the grasses, the opportunity to explore the wilds and to exercise--even though he must take a long trip to Wellington to work every day. The mother, constantly tired and attempting to escape or avoid the emotional demands placed on her, both loves and hates her husband. The spinster aunt feels isolated and deprived of her chances in the country to which they have moved. The daughters, full of rivalry, are described through the games they play, their dreams, and the flowers and bush depicted in naturalistically accurate detail. Some of what they see is cruel and violent, like the beheading of a duck. Mansfield acknowledged that she had developed some of her extraordinary ability to describe nature, to make accounts simultaneously naturalistic and symbolic, from Lawrence. Their accounts of the forms of nature they had mutually observed, reflected upon, and discussed had comprised much of their conversations.
The story moves simultaneously toward the aloe tree and the wife's longing--despite her fatigue as well as her attractions and repulsions for her husband--to hand him her last "little packet" of feeling that he has always most wanted. At times she feels resigned and wonders, "What am I guarding myself for so preciously? I shall go on having children and Stanley will go on making money and the children and the gardens will grow bigger and bigger, with whole fleets of aloes in them for me to choose from." The story suggests without underlining that the possible flowering of the aloe next year may represent the birth of the son, the purpose of Stanley's family. Mansfield, with her skillful naturalistic inconclusiveness, turns the final scene to the spinster aunt, who is thus further isolated in her superficial conventionality.
Conceived at the same time although not written or published for some years, "At the Bay" continues the story begun in Prelude. Constructed, as is Prelude, through quick movements from one scene to another and from the perspectives of different characters, "At the Bay" focuses on the beach and houses on the other side of Karori from Wellington and begins with the early-morning swim of the father, Stanley, before the daily rituals of obeisance from his family as he sets off for work in Wellington. He and the others lavish their devotion on the Boy, who is now three or four years old. The mother still loves and resents her husband, focuses her attention on her son, and ignores her daughters. In this story Mansfield does more with servants and neighbors, and this gives the whole colony social meaning as part of Wellington's rapidly rising bourgeoisie. The spinster aunt is developed much further: she is attracted to a childless woman whom she sees frequently on the beach, yet she is finally frightened when she recognizes that the childless woman's satires of local families cloak a lesbian overture. The spinster aunt desperately wants a male lover, though not the lesbian woman's philandering husband. Like the spinster aunt, the mother is seen more sympathetically than in the earlier story, and this is doubtless attributable to its date of composition: Annie Beauchamp's weak heart gave out in 1918 (she was only fifty-four), by which time, Ida Baker reports, Katherine had come to feel that her sensitive, too conventional, "fastidious" mother really understood and cared for her more than did her more intelligent, parsimonious, "controlling" father. Mansfield's increased ranges of sympathy and social concern have led some critics to find "At the Bay" the better story--in fact, her very best. Other critics feel that nothing, not even fine passages about the power and mystery of the sea, can match the descriptions of plants, birds, flowers, and natural phenomena in Prelude. Both of these long stories, the closest Mansfield came to writing a novel, are among her most considerable achievements.
Mansfield left Bandol in the spring of 1916 to join Murry and the Lawrences in renting adjoining cottages in Cornwall. Given the volatility and the rapid oscillations between love and hate among the four, such an arrangement clearly could not work for long. Yet letters, biographies, and a reading of the fiction provide evidence of the constant intellectual interchange in the focus on nature and natural description, the interest in psychology, and the incessant reappraisal of the dynamics of relationships. They also, particularly in 1916, shared interests in Russian literature and in what one could learn from Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. Murry was finishing his book on Dostoyevsky, and Mansfield's journal for March 1916 contains pages of elaborate notes on three Dostoyevsky novels she was then appreciatively reading. In the midst of the difficult weeks in Cornwall, Mansfield continued to work, though this became more difficult when the foursome split up and Murry and Mansfield, with little money, wandered from one friend to another--sometimes together, sometimes separately.
They were frequent guests at Garsington, Ottoline Morrell's sanctuary for writers and intellectuals, where they became parts of those entangling alliances and separations: Mansfield, for example, had a short and apparently unsatisfactory affair with Bertrand Russell. Ida Baker also reentered Katherine's life in 1916. In March 1914 she had gone to Rhodesia, where her father was in the colonial service, to rejoin her family. In September 1916 she had returned to England, partly bored by life in Rhodesia and partly missing Katherine, although the two had corresponded warmly and regularly. Wanting to help in the war in England, Baker trained as a machinist and worked at an airplane factory in Putney, always ready to move in with or serve Katherine whenever required. The fiction, prolific and often brilliant throughout 1917 and 1918, concentrates on the vagaries, uncertainties, and pain of human relationships. Often dependent on psychologically revealing monologue even in tales as slight as "The Black Cap," a comedy of mismanaged adultery, the fiction of the period grows increasingly complex and intricate in its study of relationships.
Many of the best stories of this period use, more or less explicitly, Mansfield's bisexual sensibilities. "Bliss," for example, one of her most appreciated stories, begins with an ecstatic young woman preparing to give a dinner party, almost a social rite, as she exults in her baby, her husband, and her guests. Her ecstasy is innocent: she thinks of her relationship with her husband as that of "good pals" and anticipates what might be their first night of passion after the dinner party. She sees her baby daughter as a prize and is jealous of the necessary nursemaid; she loves her other trophy, the enigmatic and attractive Miss Fulton, her social "find" to be set as the "fullest, richest bloom" among the satirized stereotypes of the avant-garde--the artistic couple who both dress, look, and act like chattering monkeys; the frightened and pretentious poet who sees himself driving "through Eternity in a timeless taxi." The innocence is most manifestly represented in the "lovely pear tree" outside the window, "its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life," a symbol that the hostess, Bertha, first focuses on herself and then shows to Miss Fulton, depicted as a goddess of the moon about to touch the blossoms of the tree as a sign of their intimacy.
The pear tree, although it has been read as a lesbian symbol, appears in Mansfield's journal as a tree that signified to both her and her brother the innocence of their New Zealand childhoods. The story subtly develops the sexuality of Bertha's ambivalent attractions and sustains an ambiguity about her consciousness of her implicit feelings. But Bertha's consciousness is painfully exposed and her innocence destroyed when she sees unmistakable signs of a sexual affair between her husband and Miss Fulton. She feels doubly betrayed--the victim, not the apex, of a sexual triangle. In developing her themes so subtly and resonantly, Mansfield achieves a story of considerably compressed effectiveness. Some critics have followed Murry in thinking the story a "sophisticated failure" in which "the discordant combination of caricature with emotional pathos" helps create the failure. But most critics regard the combination of "caricature with emotional pathos" as part of the point: Bertha is in some ways as silly as the fashionable chattering monkeys; the posturing poet is as betrayed by the fashionable ambivalences of feeling as Bertha is. The line between the posturing and the genuine wavers in a world in which characters are so uncertain and changeable about what they feel, and both honest emotion and the bliss of expectation are invariably betrayed.
Other stories of this period are equally fine, whether extended to chronicle the segment of a life or compressed in a short single scene. Je ne parle pas français (1919) is an extended account of the rather pedestrian male narrator's experience on the fringes of the literary life in Paris. Fashionably disillusioned, he begins in a dirty Paris café with the assertion, "I don't believe in the human soul," and quotes his own literary and cultural images self-consciously as echoes of J. Alfred Prufrock's "dying fall." He envies his more ebullient, successful friend, an English writer who travels back and forth between Paris and London. Signs of the narrator's homosexual attraction are clear but are never taken up, as if the Englishman is toying with the feelings of the French writer. On one visit the Englishman brings a woman, a passive beauty called Mouse, with whom he says he is eloping. The three begin a painful series of symbolic connections and rejections, the narrator dwelling on his long-ago seduction by an African laundress, an affair that has impaired his ability to love.
Suddenly the Englishman abandons Mouse, leaving her stranded and still unmarried in Paris, as if she is his legacy to the narrator. But the narrator, as if in revenge toward the Englishman for abandoning him, never takes up the expected gentlemanly rescue, though that is clearly invited. This story, one of Mansfield's most grim, focuses on the woman entirely betrayed by the male homosexual emotion that can center only on the self or other men, the woman as a pawn in complex interplays of male power, attraction, narcissism, and control. The story is replete with similarities to Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864), particularly the section called "the Mousehole," although Dostoyevsky's mouse character is male.
Compressed into a single scene in a restaurant, "A Dill Pickle" relates the encounter of a couple accidentally meeting again six years after their affair ended, and like many of the stories, it uses attraction to food, particularly fruit, to suggest sexual attraction. Here the woman first recognizes the man by his "special" way of peeling an orange, as he often interrupts her talk to peel fruit or inquire about what she may or may not want to order. She is attracted to him again--to his talk, his obvious prosperity, his travels, especially to Russia, which "was all that we had imagined." She is almost ready to succumb to him again when, with world-weariness and false castigation of both of them, he asserts that their affair would have lasted had they both not been "such egoists, so self-engrossed, so wrapped up in ourselves that we hadn't a corner in our hearts for anybody else. Do you know ... I began studying a Mind System when I was in Russia...." By the time his voice reaches Russia, she is gone. Mansfield needs no comment to convey that the self-engrossment is entirely his, the sensual approach to fruit not a suggestion of sexual attraction but the opposite, an avoidance of heterosexual contact. As a concluding line Mansfield adds his plea to the waitress that he not be charged for the cream that she did not touch, a line that makes his self-engrossment vulgar and materialistic as well as empty. Mansfield never wrote more skillfully about various betrayals of human emotion and sexuality than she did in these stories of 1917 and early 1918 when she was at Bandol.
A combination of wartime shortages and the increasing difficulty of civilian travel made Bandol in early 1918 very different from the paradise untouched by war that it had seemed to Mansfield two years earlier. In December 1917 a doctor had discovered her active tuberculosis and prescribed winters in the Mediterranean climate. Shortly after the exhausting journey through war-torn France she suffered her first lung hemorrhage. Baker came to Bandol to care for her, and, although Mansfield resented her dependence on Baker, she also managed to write with fervor and skill during the next few months. This is also the period in which ambivalence and mutual influence between Mansfield and Virginia Woolf were at their strongest, the time when Prelude was being published. Mansfield and Woolf had met in late 1916 when Mansfield was visiting Garsington frequently and coming to know Bloomsbury. She had little respect for what she saw as the delicacy of most Bloomsbury sensibilities, and after reading Howard's End (1910) she wrote in her journal in May 1917, " E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea.... And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella."
Mansfield's judgments of Woolf and Woolf's work were much more complicated. Their relationship developed slowly through many visits and long talks during much of 1917. They were entranced with each other's writing, yet wary. As late as October 1917, when she already thought so highly of Prelude that she offered to print it, Woolf was still sufficiently snobbish and censorious about Mansfield's past to record in her own diary her first impression of Katherine: "she stinks like a--well civet cat that had taken to street walking. In truth, I'm a little shocked by her commonness at first sight; lines so hard & cheap. However, when this diminishes, she is so intelligent & inscrutable that she repays friendship." Mansfield did not let the social gulf between them cloud her perception. In July 1917 she wrote Ottoline Morrell, "I do like her tremendously.... I felt then for the first time the strange, trembling, glinting quality of her mind--and quite for the first time she seemed to me to be one of those Dostoievsky women whose 'innocence' has been hurt." The more they talked of writing and of each other's work through late 1917, the closer they became.
After a visit in August Mansfield wrote Woolf,
[D]on't let THEM ever persuade you that I spend any of my precious time swapping hats or committing adultery--I'm far too arrogant & proud. However, let them think what they like. Theres a most wonderful greengage light on the tree outside and little white clouds bobbing over the sky like rabbits.... Yes, your Flower Bed is very good. There's a still, quivering, changing light over it all and a sense of those couples dissolving in the bright air which fascinates me.
Mansfield was referring to Woolf's experiments with simultaneously descriptive and symbolic prose in Kew Gardens (not published until 1919), a form of prose that Woolf thought she had, in part, learned from Mansfield's Prelude. Influence was mutual: as Vincent O'Sullivan, the critic and editor of Mansfield's collected letters, has shown, Mansfield developed from Woolf a capacity to describe moments of intense perception, "that condition of standing outside of things, yet being more intensely in them." O'Sullivan illustrates this double stance in Mansfield's story "The Flower," in which an ill woman visiting a seedy doctor can listen to his false reassurances delivered to relieve her self-pitying, emotionally solipsistic husband. As she does so, the woman can also discern a moment of revelation created by the details of the room and the flowers, a moment that is both one "of spontaneous elation" and a recognition of the illness she will never overcome. No other writers of the time could match Mansfield's or Woolf's capacity to convey the simultaneity of multiple and searching human perceptions.
After the diagnosis of tuberculosis in late 1917 Mansfield's compounded illnesses became increasingly debilitating. Alpers reports that on her thirtieth birthday in 1918 two eminent London tuberculosis specialists examined her separately and agreed that she should enter a sanatorium. Otherwise, they insisted, her life expectancy was "four years at the outside." She refused to enter the sanatorium, and at the end of 1918 she learned from another doctor whom she consulted about her illnesses that what she had regarded as "rheumatism" was a residual gonococcal infection that had long since rendered conception of a child improbable and had seriously affected her heart.
Although she often could read or write for only a few hours a day, Mansfield worked as much as she could in defiance of the predictions. She helped Murry with his editing and wrote reviews. Along with her (and Lawrence's) old friend S. S. Koteliansky she began in early 1919 a project to translate all of Chekhov's letters into English. As she wrote to Woolf in May 1919, one letter that she published in the Athenæum she regarded as crucial for her writing--a letter in which Chekhov had asserted that "what the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question. There must be the question put. That seems to me a very nice dividing line between the true & the false writer." She never finished the edition (which Koteliansky completed and published with Philip Tomlinson in 1925), nor did she come close to the original aim of publishing her edition before that which Constance Garnett published in 1920.
Mansfield thought Garnett's translations, by far the best-known translations from Russian into English from 1908 or 1909 on, were inadequate--especially those of Chekhov: "She seems to take the nerve out of Tchekhov before she starts working on him," Mansfield wrote, "like the dentist takes the nerve from a tooth." More than ever Mansfield's letters and journals of her last years are crowded with references to Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Those to Dostoyevsky focus on his recognitions of consciousness, his extraordinary capacity to depict the agonies of the human soul. But Mansfield felt that Chekhov knew as well as Dostoyevsky the agonies of consciousness, and he retained a capacity to respond to the outside world; he acknowledged a need to write and live simultaneously with one's recognitions, as her letters insisted: "externally & during the day one smiles and chats & says one has had a pretty rotten time, perhaps--but God! God! Tchekhov would understand: Dostoyevsky wouldn't." She often quoted Chekhov as the oracle about both writing and life, and she prominently placed, in her journal for February 1921, his statement: "They say philosophers and the truly wise are indifferent. It is false: indifference is the paralysis of the soul; it is premature death."
She came to identify personally with Chekhov--both were tubercular; both attuned to the casual coexistence of violently different inner and outer worlds; both dependent on others although painfully and resolutely alone. As she felt increasingly that her ailments were as much of the soul as of the body, she wrote Koteliansky that, although she would try to get well in any way she could, "If I do die perhaps there will be a small private heaven for consumptives only. In that case I shall see Tchekhov."
Most of Mansfield's waning energy went into her stories. Ida Baker, with whom she lived for much of late 1920 and 1921, records two periods of astonishing and feverish activity dedicated to fiction, one at Menton from October through mid December 1920 and the other at Montana-sur-Sierre in the French Alps from July through November 1921. Murry still visited her often, and she wrote him constantly, although in early 1921 she was angry at him because he had not told her about his affair with Princess Bibesco in London. Although Mansfield was no longer interested in sex, she could still be jealous and required the alternating devotions of both Murry and Baker. In her own way Mansfield memorialized both of them. Baker is characterized as one of two sisters in "The Daughters of the Late Colonel," a long tale of two middle-aged women who have devoted their whole lives to a tyrannical father. After his death they still cannot believe that he is gone and refer all their actions and decisions to what he would have wanted. Through this potentially comic framework, Mansfield shows brilliantly the sufferings and deprivations of two women who, emotionally, have not lived at all.
A late portrait of Murry is visible in "The Man Without a Temperament," written just slightly earlier. Set at a holiday resort in the south of France, the story poses familiar and satiric stereotypes of European vacationers against an invalid woman (whom two years at the resort will either cure or kill) and her apparently calm, gentle, protective husband. The story works through the compression and force of its imagery. The invalid woman, as she strolls through the garden, sees that "out of the thick, fleshy leaves of a cactus there rose an aloe stem loaded with pale flowers that looked as though they had been cut out of butter; ... over a bed of scarlet waxen flowers some big black insects 'zoom-zoomed'; a great, gaudy creeper, orange splashed with jet, sprawled against the wall." Such images contrast with those of early snow, moonlight, and small wild flowers that the woman recalls in flashback scenes of earlier days in London. The wild floral imagery all signifies decay and over-ripeness, the woman's sense of the victory of disease and of her impending death. Even the undiscerning vacationers around begin to notice something sterile in the husband's overprotectiveness, his calm measurements of routine, and the antiseptic quality of his politeness. All forms of description, nature, and character convey the woman's knowledge that just as she shows signs of physical decay, her husband represents the decay or absence of emotion, of relationship. The story reaches a frightening climax at night in the bedroom, done in antiseptic cold white. The two are asleep, but the sound of a mosquito trapped in the netting of her bed awakens the husband. He gets out of bed and kills the mosquito. Then as he leans over protectively and kisses her gently, he whispers, "Rot!" The rot is in her health, their marriage, and the emptiness of his emotional life--equivalent deaths.
Other effective late stories, like “The Singing Lesson” and “Her First Ball,” quickly and rhythmically recount emotional resurrection after disillusioning circumstance. Although simple in outline and situation, these stories carry force in their compressed presentation of the determination of the young central characters to hold on to pleasure. Social issues are more visible than ever in some of the later fiction. In “A Cup of Tea” a young London wife forgoes buying an expensive antique box out of social guilt and brings home a pretty young beggar-woman for tea instead. She regards her encounter with the beggar as talismanic, “like something out of a novel by Dostoyevsky, this meeting in the dusk.” But when her husband returns and finds the beggar-woman “astonishingly pretty,” the wife forgoes her social concern and manipulates her husband into promising to give her the money for the expensive antique box, an artifact of class.
The long last version of the New Zealand family, “The Garden Party,” significantly adds social dimensions to an understanding of family rivalries and dynamics. Here, in one of Mansfield’s best-known and most frequently reprinted stories, Laura recognizes from the beginning the sensitivity of the workmen who come to put up the tent for the party. Her shock at hearing of the death of another workman, a carter who lives just a street away, propels Laura into wanting to stop the garden party. Her conventional family, thinking Laura’s concern is as “extravagant” as she feels their insistence on having the party is, prevails—and the party continues. But when she visits the family of the dead man and brings them useless leftovers from the party, she understands the pains and identities across unbridgeable social gulfs, the “extravagant” human connections.
The irresolvable suspension of human emotion between self and otherness adds to the recognition of irremediable class distinctions, a social concern in one of Mansfield’s most deeply Chekhovian stories. In tone and treatment some of the late stories move into more twentieth-century forms of social satire. In “Marriage à la Mode” Mansfield follows an earnest, hard-working young man as he collects fruit for his children and rushes to make the train for the country retreat he has established so selflessly. When he arrives he finds his wife and her pretentious, artsy friends so immersed in their trivial social activities that they scarcely have time to notice him. They are condescending spongers in a satire that, though more understated and less outrageous than the fiction of Evelyn Waugh, is just as astringent about the new social order that both replaces and feeds on the world of the Edwardian bourgeoisie.
Apparently Mansfield’s last completed story, “The Fly” was finished in February 1922 and operates almost entirely through metaphor. Two old men in the city refer to their sons, killed in the war. One, the more feeble, is cared for by his daughters and mourns only when alone. He becomes absorbed in watching a fly that has fallen into the inkpot. After he flicks the fly out and onto a piece of blotting paper, he watches with fascination as the fly attempts to shake its limbs free of the large drop of ink. The old man deliberately repeats the process, admiring and torturing the fly with successive ink blots until the fly is dead. The story has drawn more explication than has any other, and it has been read as a metaphor of the torture of the younger generation by the war, as a figurative tableau of capitalistic exploitation of struggling life, as an emblem of Mansfield’s vigorous and successful father who long outlived both his only son and his artist daughter, or as an echo of a Chekhov story in which a poor office clerk tortures a cockroach in futile rebellion against his boss. None of these readings, of course, contradicts others, yet the image of the determined fly in what is finally always a futile struggle to free itself of viscous circumstance can stand as an image of both Mansfield’s life and the tensions of her achievements in fiction.
For in her last year she became interested in signs of the Russian “soul” being incorporated therapeutically into western European culture. She sought first the treatment of a Dr. Manoukhin, which used “cosmic anatomy” and doctrines of the occult. She failed to develop that faith, and she then joined the emigré Greek, then Russian, George Gurdjieff at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, which he established at Fontainebleau, a community he established to follow his teachings. Less than three months after she entered his Institute, she died of a massive tubercular hemorrhage.
But with the publication of highly praised volumes of her short stories in December 1920 and February 1922, Mansfield’s reputation as a writer of brilliantly compressed short fiction had been well established by the time of her death. Later collections of short stories in 1923 and in 1924 sustained her reputation, as well as publication of her Poems (1923), of The Journal of Katherine Mansfield (1927, with the definitive edition published in 1954), of a selection from her letters (1928), and the fullest possible collection of her stories in 1937. All these, as well as later editions of her “scrapbooks” and further letters, were edited by Murry. The scraps and pieces in which she left both literary and personal material, as well as what was often a virtually illegible handwriting, made publication slow and difficult. New material and further letters have surfaced during the years, enough that Alpers, having published the most comprehensive biography of Mansfield possible in 1953, could justify completely rewriting and publishing a more informed biography in 1980. The full, collected letters edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott have taken longer to complete—the third of a projected four volumes appeared in 1993.
Murry, as editor of Mansfield’s work, was scrupulous in printing what he thought he could and throwing nothing away. He preserved both what he felt he could not print (more often because it might be damaging to Mansfield than because it might damage his own reputation) and what Mansfield had asked him to destroy. His own attempts to manipulate reception of Mansfield and sanctify everything about her, however, was another matter. He was elaborate, pretentious, full of self-pity for the ways in which his service for Mansfield altered and impeded his own career, and he was often dogmatically moralistic about Mansfield’s virtues in ways that she had not been. In his introduction to the 1930 American edition of Stories by Katherine Mansfield, for example, he insisted that the “essential” quality of her work was “a kind of purity,” not only one of style or vision but of her whole life, her absolute fidelity “to some spirit of truth which she served.”
Yet despite such sanctified pomposities, the high critical estimate in which Mansfield’s work is held has never substantially changed but has only broadened and expanded through the years with the discovery of further materials and information. Even the grounds on which she has been considered and praised have not substantially altered: the remarkable capacity to describe flowers, plants, and animals in ways that are simultaneously naturalistic and symbolic; the astringent satire of character that also shows a penetrating understanding; the depiction of the complexity of human relationships, particularly overt and covert sexual relationships; the Chekhovian qualities; the themes that insist on the contemporary, on using the past to establish connections to the immediate and the present. Above all, Mansfield has consistently been praised for the compression and understatement of her prose, for her capacity to pack complex emotion and thought into the deceptively simple and direct outlines of her stories. Her work has for many years been seen as a model of the specifically modern short story in English and of the changes in literary focus it represents.