The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield: Volume 3, 1919‑1920
Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (eds),
Clarendon Press, $110.95
It is only in fiction that illness makes people saintly. In real life, invalids are cantankerous, depressive and manipulative. To be close to someone who is ill is an experience which is dreadful in direct proportion to the severity of the illness and the invalid’s powers of expression. And Katherine Mansfield was very expressive.
In September 1919 she was in Ospedaletti, Northern Italy, in flight from the English winter. Her health was appalling. In addition to the tuberculosis that was inexorably eating away at her lungs, she was in continual pain from arthritis, a lasting result of a youthful and mistreated case of gonorrhoea. Under the direction of her London doctor, Sorapure, her health had improved slightly, but there was no alternative to going south for the winter, into what was virtual exile – from London, from the literary world of books, from talk and gossip and, most importantly, from her husband, John Middleton Murry. His newly gained eminence as the editor of The Athenaeum meant that his presence in London was, in his own mind at any rate, essential.
Given these constraints, Mansfield had only two resources – her correspondence (and the overwhelming majority of the letters in this volume are to Murry) and the ambiguous pleasures of her companion, Ida Baker or LM. The frustration she felt about the latter is evident. Although a solicitous friend, Baker’s clumsiness was hardly likely to recommend itself to anyone in a delicate state of mind – ‘I always feel she thinks it “so nice and homey” to occasionally smash a thing or two’ – and she provided none of the intellectual companionship that Mansfield needed:
I miss talk – LM brightly and lightly: Wouldn’t it be awful if one hadn’t got any hands and one lived in a place where there were a great many flies. Wouldn’t it be simply dreadful – That is NO substitute.
At times this irritation worked itself up into something more – when Mansfield’s loneliness combined with a depression that was partly a natural reaction to her situation and partly produced, in almost clinical terms, by her illness. The result was an obsessive hatred of poor Ida that expresses itself with a fury and irrationality that is quite frightening:
Her great fat arms, her tiny blind breasts, her baby mouth, the underlip always wet and a crumb of chocolate stain at the corners – her eyes fixed on me – fixed – waiting for what I may do that she may copy it.
This letter is from the worst times, at the Casetta Deerholm, when winter, illness and despair produced a fear of death that expresses itself clearly in the letters to Murry: ‘Remember always how long I’ve been ill and don’t think hardly of me. I have been ill for 200 years’. There is no attempt to rationalise or intellectualise her thoughts about death. The only way she can deal with it is to deny its present reality. ‘A year ago I thought I was going to die and I think I was. And now I know we are going to live.’ This is on a good day. On a bad day the depression takes over:
I do wish it were not so cold. Cold frightens me. It is ominous. I breathe it and deep down its though a knife softly softly presses in my bosom – and says ‘don’t be too sure’. That is the fearful part of having been near death. One knows how easy it is to die. The barriers that are up for everyone else are down for you & you’ve only to slip through.
She admits no comfort. LM is useless, if not positively malevolent. The doctors that she consults about her depression pretend not to hear her, and tell her what they feel will cheer her up. And Murry, whom she imagines can give her the love, comfort and reassurance that she needs, remains in London. In fact, one doubts that he could have done anything much, other than providing, along with LM, another punching bag. Mansfield’s needs were too great, her personality too manipulative for a man as emotionally challenged as he seems to have been. Earlier in their marriage Mansfield had written, ‘I do lament that he is not warm, ardent, eager, full of quick response, careless, spendthrift of himself, vividly alive, high-spirited. But it makes no difference to my love.’ Somehow, after that catalogue of faults, one doubts it. From Ospedaletti, and later from Menton, Murry was showered daily with a stream of letters that are by giddying turns accusing, flattering, cold, coy and winsome, despairing and ecstatic. These are not the mannered, literary letters that she addresses to other correspondents, such as Ottoline Morrell, Brett or Koteliansky. There are few of these in this volume.
The letters to Murry are direct, personal and unmediated. The experience of reading them is like being locked up with the author in a small room. Their intimacy is often excruciating. Pet names can be, for those involved, an expression of tenderness and affection. Other people’s pet names – he was Bogey, she was Wig (their cat, confusingly, was Wing) – simply make one cringe. Their fantasies about children and a house in the country where they can be together and happy are as awful in hindsight as they were, at the time, monumentally self-delusive. Where the writing is really powerful (one imagines for Murry as much as for the present-day reader) is when she unleashes her anger on what she sees as his failure to give her the emotional support that she needs:
I know when I write happy letters it makes you happy. You ask me write more and you say if you want to keep me happy thats the way to do it. Listen. When I was in Hampstead with you were you always able to put all else aside and make me happy? … I did not only write to make you and keep you happy. That was important but not of the first importance. Of the first importance was my desire to be truthful before you. Love, I thought, could stand even that.
Mansfield wrote few stories during this time. To support herself financially, she wrote reviews for Murry’s paper. She expresses frustration at the quality of what she was given, although one, Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day, gave her an opportunity to explain to Murry – she wasn’t so forthright in her review – what she thought of the Bloomsbury ethos. They write, she says, as if the war had never happened. There is no need – it is not possible – to introduce the war as an event into one’s writing, but one should be aware that nothing can ever be the same. Night and Day is ‘over-ripe. Its hung in a warm library too long; its gone soft.’ She characterises the work of ‘Virginia et cie‘ as ‘aristocratic ignoring of all that is outside its own little circle’:
There is a trifling scene in Virginia’s book where a charming young creature in a bright fantastic attitude plays the flute: it positively frightens me – to realise this utter coldness & indifference.
Yet when she tries to express a counter-position, whether in terms of reflection on her own writing or in a wider, more spiritual, sense, her letters lack bite. Her style is vague, too given to empty capitalisations – Life, Art, Truth and so on. In contrast to the acute, vicious way she writes about the everyday, her writing is disappointing, surprisingly New Age, already looking forward to her final home with Gurdjieff in Fontainebleau, where an admirable simplicity of life would be matched by a culpable simplicity of thought. On the evidence of these letters, had sitting in the barn above Gurdjieff’s cows cured her, it may not have been good for her writing.
Jane Stafford teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington.