Pa-men and boys, Linley Boniface

Katherine Mansfield’s Men
ed Charles Ferrall and Jane Stafford
Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society in association with Steele Roberts, $29.95,
ISBN 187733846X

“The idea of sitting and waiting for a husband is absolutely revolting and it really is the attitude of a great many girls … I just long for power over circumstances,” wrote Katherine Mansfield at the age of 16. Here, you might suppose, is a girl who will never allow herself to be defined by men; she might toy with them or use them as subject-matter for her writing, but she will never let them determine her destiny.

Who would have guessed Katherine Mansfield would turn out to be such a goer? By the time she died of tuberculosis at 34, she had accumulated enough bounders, jackanapes, imposters and losers to make any contemporary woman feel she hadn’t tried hard enough.

Why? What on earth persuaded this independent-minded woman – a woman who prized fearlessness above every other quality – to throw her lot in with so many plainly inferior men? There seems to have been no time in her life when she wasn’t looking for a lover or a mentor or a protector or a saviour; no time when she felt able to stand unsupported by anything other than her own talent.

Katherine Mansfield’s Men is an attempt to take a second look at these characters, few of whom have been judged kindly by history, and in the process to see whether their relationships with Mansfield serve to further illuminate the writer’s complex and rather slippery personality. The book is based on a series of talks delivered last year at Wellington’s Katherine Mansfield Birthplace by eight academics, writers and poets.

The photos alone are almost worth the cover price. There’s the shifty Francis Carco leaning on a lamp-post in an anonymous central European location, looking for all the world like one of the minor spies from The Third Man; George Gurdjieff, the Russian mystic, with his mad boggle eyes and an enormous comedy moustache; D H Lawrence, dressed up in his Sunday best yet still giving the impression, quite wrongly, that there is egg on his tie.

And then there’s Mansfield herself. In one photo, she’s wearing a very plain skirt that shows off a waist as severely corseted as Kylie Minogue’s, a leg-of-mutton blouse with a constricting lace collar, fastened even more firmly with a brooch at the neck. One hand is on her hip, and she’s looking peevishly off to the side as if she’s about to give the postie a rocket for being five minutes late with the mail. It’s hard to imagine her being involved with any of the men she shares these pages with, but that was the thing about Katherine Mansfield: she seemed to be always playing a part; “a shape-shifter rather than a fixed and stable personality”, as Charles Ferrall and Jane Stafford describe her in their excellent introduction.

The book opens with Mark Williams’ piece on Mansfield’s father, Sir Harold Beauchamp, “the Pa-man”, as Mansfield rather irritatingly called him. Although in many ways a traditional stuffed shirt, Beauchamp appears to have been a far more sympathetic figure than many of Mansfield’s biographers have suggested, and his financial support – which continued after her marriage – gave her the freedom to concentrate on writing.

Jane Stafford’s essay on Mansfield’s boyfriends opens with Oscar Wilde, a curious choice considering that Wilde, for obvious reasons, was hardly boyfriend material. He did, however, have a huge impact on Mansfield’s developing artistic sensibility and gave her a lifelong love of the voluptuous and the artificial.

“I cannot keep the men I know friends,” wrote Katherine to her sister at the age of 18. “They persist in drifting into some other ridiculous attitude – I let them drift, and then suddenly see what a big big log we have both bumped against.” You don’t have to be a Freudian to guess what the big big log might represent, yet it was about this time that Mansfield developed a series of passionate crushes on various schoolgirl chums.

Nonetheless, she managed to pull herself together sufficiently to fall for musician Arnold Trowell, only to transfer her attentions to his brother, Garnet, when she discovered Arnold was in love with someone else. She joined Garnet in a travelling opera company, but the relationship ended shortly after Mansfield became pregnant. She was three months pregnant when she married singer George Bowden; she left him the day after the wedding, and her baby was stillborn. Mansfield then fell for a succession of men of varying degrees of dodginess: an Australian journalist called Geza Silberer; Floryan Sobieniowski, a Pole who probably gave Mansfield gonorrhea and blackmailed her, possibly for “borrowing” the plot of a Chekhov story; Francis Heinemann, whom she may have thought herself pregnant to; the writer William Orton; the Polish violinist Leopold Premyslav; and Francis Carco, a Bohemian lounge lizard who later sold her furniture to a brothel-keeper.

Mansfield’s success with men comes as something of a surprise given her dismal chat-up lines. “Do you believe in Pan?” was her opening remark to Orton, despite the fact that they were at a tennis party at the time. “This is your egg. You must boil it” was her first missive to future husband John Middleton Murry.

C K Stead feels Mansfield reacted sexually to every man in her life. He takes umbrage at those who refer to Mansfield as bisexual, viewing this as a “clear and quite extreme” distortion of the facts, while at the same time suggesting there was a “whiff of incest” about her relationship with her adored brother Leslie. On the evidence presented here, it seems far more likely that Mansfield regarded Leslie as the son she never had.

Charles Ferrall’s chapter on Mansfield’s friendship with D H Lawrence is by far the most enjoyable of the contributions, thanks largely to its liberal use of Mansfield’s correspondence. Indeed, up until this point in the book it’s easy to forget how bloody funny she was. A particularly hilarious passage of Mansfield’s describes an argument between Lawrence and Frieda that begins with them hurling frying pans at each other and ends with them sitting companionably at the table together, remembering “a certain very rich, very good, but very extravagant macaroni cheese they had once eaten”.

Ironically, the last two in Mansfield’s long line of disappointing men may not have been the cads they’ve been made out to be. Paul Morris argues that George Gurdjieff, the leader of the religious commune where Mansfield spent her final months, did not exploit her but gave her “a good death”, while Harry Ricketts, in a particularly moving and beautifully written piece, suggests that Murry deserves more credit for establishing the literary reputation of his dead wife.

Katherine Mansfield’s Men cries out for its obvious sequel: Katherine Mansfield’s Women. These could perhaps include Mansfield’s mother, who, when Katherine returned to New Zealand after nine months in England, remarked, “Well, I see you are as fat as ever”; Ida Baker, aka “The Cornish Pasty”, the devoted school chum who ended up as Mansfield’s factotum and dog’s body; and Virginia Woolf, who, after Mansfield’s death, was haunted by dreams of her greatest rival. Yet while such a book might be every bit as entertaining as its predecessor, I suspect the real Katherine Mansfield – if there even was such a thing – will remain elusive.

 

Linley Boniface is a Wellington reviewer.

 

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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