KATHERINE MANSFIELD - pseudonym for Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, 1888-1923

‘… 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 be a very nice dividing line between the true and the false writer.’ Katherine Mansfield in a letter to Virginia Woolf, 1919
Katherine Mansfield should be regarded as one of the founders of the modernist movement. A contributor to many modernist publications, including her husband’s, John Middleton Murry’s ‘Rhythm’, she and fellow writers were given impetus by movements such as fauvism and expressionism, inflections of post-impressionism, initiated by painters such as Gauguin and developed by Matisse. Therefore, Mansfield was more concerned with expressing a mood, atmosphere or sentiment than with deep character analysis or a detailed plot. However, to state that her work includes neither would be a mistake. She was a profoundly poetic writer, economical with words and could convey someone’s sense of self in just a sentence. She was also experimental, publishing a work including an interior monologue in 1920, before James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1922 and 1925, respectively. Like a modernist paradigm, her stories feature constant shifts of time, perspective and narrative voice – her narratives are often referred to as ‘polyphonic’ – and thus the reader is required to interpret the constant allusions. The form of her work is fluid, denying a firm interpretation. Lorna Sage writes:
‘… that temptation to read between the lines is again a modern and a modernist effect. It is a way, perhaps, of implying a shared world of meanings without exactly mapping it out, or giving it solidity.’
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, Mansfield was acutely aware of her country’s desire to replicate the Empire’s capital, and thus deny its own self. This sense, therefore, of one life or ‘face’ being imposed upon another was a major theme throughout her work, which was highly autobiographical. Ian Gordon says of her:
‘Katherine Mansfield to a degree almost unparalleled in English fiction put her own experiences into her stories. She wrote of nothing that did not directly happen to her, even when she appeared to be at her most imaginative and fanciful.’
She was especially concerned with what she called the ‘secret self we all have’, which is often at odds with our public persona. Mansfield, herself, changed her appearance so often, whilst in London, that sometimes the Woolf’s found it hard to recognise her – it was as if she were the consummate actress. This relates to much modernist writing on the problem of identity, of self and others. Woolf explored the theme in Jacob’s Room; Conrad gave us Marlow’s partial recognition of the repressed self in Heart of Darkness, while T. S. Eliot wrote it as a dramatic monologue in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’
‘Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.’ 31-4
This modernist question of identity, one of the questions put but not solved, was a rejection of Victorian realism, the idea of an organic, whole self – espoused by the likes of George Eliot. Angela Smith believed that Mansfield ‘was already familiar with the concept of a multiple and fissured self’. She was bisexual, and as a young woman found it difficult marrying this with what she felt was expected and seemed normal, ‘Do other people of my own age feel as I do I wonder so absolutely powerful licentious …’ Indeed she wrote to Murry ‘I haven’t ONE single soul,’ and many of her short stories explore these inherent contradictions that lie within us all. In ‘At the Bay’ we see the, up until now, reserved Beryl romanticizing a possible meeting with Mr. Harry Kember, only to withdraw, inexplicably, at the last minute when the reality begins to bite:
‘What was she doing? How had she got here? The stern garden asked her as the gate pushed open, and quick as a cat Harry Kember came through and snatched her to him. “Cold little devil! Cold little devil!” said the hateful voice. But Beryl was strong. She slipped, ducked, wrenched free. “You are vile, vile,” said she. “Then why in God’s name did you come?” stammered Harry Kember. Nobody answered him.’ p244-5
All of this is narrated through Beryl’s own voice, so that the reader is left unsure whether the “Cold little devil!” is Harry Kember speaking, or Beryl castigating herself. Such confusion is intrinsic to Mansfield’s work, we’re always left guessing – allowed to draw our own lines around the whole that she paints. In ‘Mr. and Mrs. Dove’ we see the contradiction that while Reg appears rather dry, with his references to ‘mater’ and the ‘top-hole afternoon’ he also holds a deep-seated passion. While Laura, in ‘The Garden-Party’ denies her true self, and the belief that it would be wrong to go ahead with the party when one of their neighbours has died, all for the sake of a moment of fleeting vanity – a victory for the public persona:
‘… “I don’t understand,” said Laura, and she walked quickly out of the room into her own bedroom. There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies … Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right. Am I being extravagant? Perhaps it was extravagant. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those children and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper. I’ll remember it again after the party’s over, she decided. And somehow that seemed quite the best plan.’ p256
With this idea of the conflict between the secret self and the public persona also comes the recurring theme of the familiar becoming strange – a kind of corruption. This is illustrated in ‘At the Bay’ by the children’s transformation from happy play in the washhouse to horror at the thought of being alone in the dark and abandoned by their parents. Sometimes the corruption is real, such as Kezia’s panic at the thought of her grandmother being mortal:
‘… “You’re not to die.” Kezia was very decided.’ p227
This leads us, rather neatly, to Mansfield’s other great objective in her writing – the acknowledgment of reality, ‘a world disturbed by darker vision,’ as Angela Smith puts it. Mansfield spoke of the ‘shadow in everything’, and in a letter to Murry spoke of the deep knowledge that life and death exist side by side:
‘I can’t imagine how after the war these men can pick up old threads as tho’ it had never been. Speaking to you I’d say we have died and live again … It doesn’t mean that Life is the less precious of sic that the ‘common things of light and day’ are gone. They are not gone, they are intensified, they are illumined. Now we know ourselves for what we are. In a way it’s a tragic knowledge. It's as though, even while we live again we face death. But through Life: that’s the point. We see death in life as we see death in a flower that is fresh unfolded.’
Yet again she was drawing on personal experience, having lived with tuberculosis from 1917 until the time of her death, and therefore leading a nomadic existence in a constant search for good health. Many of the stories in the collection ‘The Garden-Party’ are linked by the theme of death, as Mansfield attempts to explain how death breaks into our lives, but also informs it, if only we will let it. The two middle-aged women, Josephine and Constantia, in ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’, are both excited and frightened of the newfound freedom presented to them upon their father’s death. Constantia is brought to the point of epiphany by it, but does not allow herself:
‘There had been this other life, running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with Jug, and taking them back to get more things on approval, and arranging father’s trays and trying not to annoy father. But it all seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn’t real. It was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean? What was she always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?’ p284
Mansfield also does this with immense humour – she exposes her character’s foibles and misinterpretations, but sympathetically. In ‘The Stranger’ Mr. Hammond feels cheated by his wife’s holding of a dying man, as if the act informs him of what is lacking in their relationship. Meanwhile, the death in ‘The Garden-Party’ shows Laura how alike people really are, in their manners, customs and pride and also the vapidity of so many earthly things. A few days before she died, Katherine Mansfield asked ‘Who am I?’ The two focuses of her work had come together – to know ourselves we must stare life in the face, with all its ‘shadows’ and harsh realities. Her writing explores all of life’s little nuances and the secret self so often exiled from the persona we care to show the rest of the world. Claire Tomalin said of her:
‘The particular stamp of her fiction is the isolation in which each character dwells … there is no history in these stories, and no exploration of motive. The most brilliant of them are post-impressionist … grotesquely peopled and alight with colour and movement.’
As a writer she is both allusive and elusive. Many symbols in her stories defy definition, such as the aloe tree in ‘Prelude’ or the stole in ‘Miss Brill’. It is the reader’s task to learn from her work as they infer meanings from the impressions she has given us. The artist, Paul Klee said, 'art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible.’ Surely this is what Mansfield achieved in her writing, as she asked the questions but allowed her readers to solve them – a large shift from the known certainties of the Victorian realist writers. Bibliography The Oxford Companion to English Literature ed. Margaret Drabble (Oxford University Press 2000) Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, (Faber and Faber, 1954) Katherine Mansfield by Ian A. Gordon, (Longman, Green & Co. Ltd, 1954) The Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield (Penguin Classics, 2003) ‘Introduction’ by Lorna Sage, taken from ‘The Garden Party’ and other stories by Katherine Mansfield, (Penguin Classics, 2002) ‘Introduction’ by Angela Smith, taken from Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield, (Oxford University Press, 2002)