University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 1990, $29.95
Heather Murray wonders why Katherine Mansfield does not allow her fictional characters to lead the kind of ‘modern’, independent and rebellious life that Mansfield herself is supposed to have led. She joins a long line of critics for whom paying attention to Mansfield’s personal life is fundamental to analysis of the stories. Opposing critics might ask which of Mansfield’s ‘many hundreds of selves’ is being taken as ‘true’. They would also point out that all versions of an author’s life are also narratives, subject to multiple interpretations. Such ideas become absurd if taken to their extreme, but reading this book with an open mind will certainly challenge you to wonder once again whether literature should be read in isolation from knowledge of the author’s life and other writings.
Murray divides her work into eleven chapters, nine of which group the women in Mansfield’s stories according to a social description (married women, single women), or according to what are perceived as shared characteristics (‘modern’ women, invalid wives, rebellious women). She makes a good case for her groupings, each chapter is fully annotated, and some relevant supporting text is brought forward from Mansfield’s letters, journal and scrapbook. However, the shortcomings of Murray’s biographical approach are clear. The blurring at times between Mansfield’s life and what she wrote is extreme: ‘The Married Man who narrates the story is as close to Katherine Mansfield as it is possible to be …(p145, ‘A Married Man’s Story’) There is also a tendency to work from an explanation of events in Mansfield’s life and to impose this on a story: ‘Katherine Mansfield may have been giving expression to her own death wish through Linda …’ (p134). Female characters who lack the strengths that Mansfield supposedly possessed are censured: ‘(Connie and Jug) in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”… lack the imagination to envisage an alternative course’. (p78) ‘Knowledge … eludes Beryl because she lacks imagination’. (p58)
‘Linda deviates sharply from her creator … because she cannot, or will not, risk thinking out an alternative’. (p. 130) Using so much detail from Mansfield’s life, Murray is drawn into an attempt to explain why Mansfield consigned her female characters to varying degrees of conventionality: ‘Katherine Mansfield’s final treatment of Linda is complex; her motives are deeply obscure. In consigning Linda to domesticity Mansfield might have been impelled by any, or all, of three motives: cynicism, self-delusion or the need to criticize’. (pp132-133)
Murray merely touches on a question that seems to me more interesting than simple motivation. What are the inner processes that edge Mansfield’s women towards or away from conventionality? Much of Mansfield’s work from about 1915 is engaged in refining methods of presenting a character’s inner life through patterns of speech and thought. As her methods became more impressionistic, she seemed to become more interested in the mental processes that lie behind choices that confine women. In her mature work she explores the way in which they stifle their consciousness even as it flowers. Little lies, fantasies or daydreams are used to compensate for a lack of personal fulfilment, and women are shown hiding the knowledge of this from themselves by avoiding thought, by disguising the cause of their disquietude, or by never voicing their realisations. These insidious mental processes contain their own sad logic, their own reason ‘why’. Studying motives, rather than the textual processes themselves, Murray is forced into inconclusiveness and denies herself the opportunity to understand fully the double lives of Mansfield’s women.
Sarah Sandley is doing a PhD in English at Victoria University of Wellington and at present works for Oxford University Press, Auckland.