‘My little stories like birds bred in cages’: The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield

KM writing sample

Katherine Mansfield’s notoriously indecipherable handwriting

I’ve recently written an essay on Katherine Mansfield’s short story The Man Without A Temperament, and because the details of the story bear so close a resemblance to Mansfield’s own illness and exile to warmer climes in order to escape the damp chill of an English winter, I felt I ought to look at some biographical material to see if I could work out what Mansfield really intended when she created the character of Robert Salesby. I couldn’t, of course, and it was foolish to try, but if nothing else came of this, I’m glad I looked into Mansfield’s journals and letters because they are a delight.

I’ve since invested in a nicer edition of the journal along with a copy of the notebooks edited by Margaret Scott. The latter is a big heavy book of about 700 pages, because Mansfield was a prolific writer in spite of her frequent comments about not being able to work. Her letters alone run to five volumes. But when I was composing my essay, the only biographical material I had to hand was a copy of the Penguin Letters and Journals edited by C K Stead. It’s okay. Stead has picked out plenty of good bits and explained the procedure for doing so in the book’s Introduction. The material is organised by location and date, so the Contents page provides at a glance a record of Mansfield’s movements between frosty England and various warm riviera-type places before she underwent treatment for her tuberculosis in Switzerland and finally died of a pulmonary haemorrhage at the age of 34 in Fontainebleau. Given the extent of Mansfield’s written output, Stead’s volume is a slim one, and although the various sections are held together with biographical notes (printed in italics, which is unnecessary and annoying), it’s sometimes quite hard to follow who’s who and what’s going on. A few more footnotes definitely wouldn’t have gone amiss, or even a list of ‘characters’ at the front and their relation to Mansfield. In general, readers don’t like having to stop every three minutes in order to flick back through the pages to find out who such-and-such is, or to verify that a particular passage comes from a journal entry and not a letter to John Middleton Murry. Nevertheless, it’s a book worth having, especially when one considers that I only paid £1.99 for it in a charity shop.

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km10Obviously one of the chief pleasures in reading a book like this is finding a tart description of another writer. It’s like coming across a character you think you already know and then finding out that you don’t after all. Virginia Woolf, for example, was jealous of Mansfield’s writing – apparently the only writing Woolf was ever jealous of – but although the two women were on very friendly terms, Mansfield didn’t always return Woolf’s admiration. She reviewed Night and Day in 1919, and wrote to Murry:

…I am reviewing Virginia to send tomorrow. It’s devilish hard. Talk about intellectual snobbery – her book reeks of it. (But I can’t say so.) You would dislike it. You’d never read it. It’s so long and so tāhsōme…

Letter to J M Murry, 13 November 1919

Mansfield had travelled through wartime France early in 1918 and saw at first hand the devastation caused by years of conflict. She felt that Woolf’s book was ‘a lie in the soul…the novel can’t just leave the war out’. In a letter to Murry dated 10 November 1919, she wrote that ‘I feel in the profoundest sense that nothing can ever be the same – that, as artists, we are traitors if we feel otherwise: we have to take [the war] into account and find new expressions, new moulds for our new thoughts and feelings’.

KM1914

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Mansfield and Murry were also friends with D H Lawrence and his wife Frieda, although the relationship was not always harmonious. Mansfield did not like Frieda at all: ‘F. is such a liar… To my face she is all sweetness. She used to bring me in flowers, tell me how “exquisite” I was’. Lawrence himself was extremely difficult owing to his volatile temper, and in a letter to S S Koteliansky written in May 1916, from which the quotation above is taken, Mansfield describes a physical fight between Lawrence and Frieda that left Mansfield feeling ‘furiously angry’.

[Lawrence] is so completely in her power and yet I am sure that in his heart he loathes his slavery. She is not even a good natured person really; she is evil hearted and her mind is simply riddled with what she calls ‘sexual symbols’.

The friendship between the two couples broke down completely when Lawrence wrote to Mansfield in February 1920 as follows: ‘I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption’. Mansfield’s response was to write directly to Murry, beseeching him never again to defend Lawrence or to publish good reviews of Lawrence’s work in Murry’s paper, The Athenaeum.

Mansfield read everything she could get her hands on, and she offers a comment on Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, which I make no excuse for quoting at length here: I found it amusing, chiefly because I’m no fan of Hardy’s work myself.

It really is appallingly bad, simply rotten – withered, bony and pretentious… The style is so PREPOSTEROUS, too. I’ve noticed that before in Hardy occasionally – a pretentious, snobbish, schoolmaster vein…, an ‘all about Berkeley Squareishness,’ too… I hope to God he’s ashamed of it now at any rate.

Letter to J M Murry, 5 June 1918

But my favourite has to be Mansfield’s judgement on poor old E M Forster, who, in her opinion,

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.

Journal, May 1917

I’ll leave it there for this post, which is a tad unfair to Mansfield because I realise I’ve made it look as if her journal and personal correspondence amounts to nothing more than a catalogue of catty comments about other authors, but there is so much more to her writing than that. She was living in ‘interesting times’ and fighting a losing battle with consumption. She faced death alone, separated from her husband and in exile from both her native land (New Zealand) and her adopted homeland (England). She battled every day with intense bodily suffering and died while still in her early thirties, but she left behind eighty-eight marvellous short stories as well as her journal and a voluminous output of letters and literary reviews. She had an enormous thirst for life and chastised herself for being afraid when her illness intervened to prevent her from embracing life as she felt she ought. Using a metaphor for life usually reserved for the journey into death, she wrote to Murry in October 1920:

We resist, we are terribly frightened. The little boat enters the dark fearful gulf and our only cry is to escape – ‘put me on land again’. But it’s useless. Nobody listens. The shadowy figure rows on. One ought to sit still and uncover one’s eyes.

Mansfield died a little over two years later, in January 1923, depriving the literary world of one of its most talented voices, and one which doubtless had much more to say…but her short time had run out.

KM portrait

Portrait of Katherine Mansfield by Estelle Rice in the National Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand

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