The squirrel instinct, Heather Murray

The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks
Edited by Margaret Scott
Lincoln University Press & Daphne Brasell Assoc. Ltd, 2 vols, $79.95 per volume (soft cover),
ISBN: 0 908896 48 4 / 0 908896 49 2

Katherine Mansfield: New Zealand Stories 
Selected by Vincent O’Sullivan
Oxford University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 019 558 3647

One of the most keenly awaited events in literary publishing here has come to pass with the appearance of two strikingly handsome fresh volumes of the notebooks, diaries and assorted experimental writings of Katherine Mansfield, transcribed and edited by Margaret Scott.

When she died in 1923 at 34 Mansfield had published only three collections of fiction but her death signalled a flurry of new publications, all edited and selected by her husband, critic and editor, John Middleton Murry. As well as volumes of Mansfield’s verse and literary criticism, there were two new collections of fiction, the reissue of an old one (which KM herself had resisted), two volumes of letters, a Journal, a Scrapbook and in the 1950s a volume of letters to Murry and a new, extended, “definitive” edition of the Journal.

It has been a sad irony that, while Mansfield herself scratched out a living which barely covered the costs of her battle with tuberculosis, her husband was enriched by posthumous sales of her work. Critics have always been divided over whether Murry should have published all that he did and by publishing so much so soon, he antagonised many people previously well-disposed towards her writing. But we may now feel glad that he had the stamina for the task, especially since Mansfield herself left ambiguous instructions: a will which asked him to “publish as little as possible” and a final letter stating: “Destroy all you do not use.” And Murry knew that KM did have a notion herself to bring out a volume of “journal” writings (“a kind of minute note book to be published some day”). Weighing things up, Murry must have felt that he had a duty to bring more of KM’s creative genius into the public domain, for genius it clearly was.

Scott writes of her admiration for what Murry did, particularly in his editing of the work which she here re-edits: Murry was a grieving man, facing a huge volume of unsorted materials, the deciphering and dating of which was difficult and much of it containing stinging rebukes of himself as writer, man and husband. Scott notes: “Only another transcriber, coming after him, can perceive the quiet dogged hard labour he put into these volumes. He commands a respect and admiration that no amount of disapproval of his editorial methods can diminish.”

After Murry’s death in 1957 much of Mansfield’s archive came to the Alexander Turnbull Library (another large deposit went to Chicago). Professor Ian Gordon, assisted by Scott, a Turnbull librarian, began to look over the materials from which Murry had edited the Journal (1927) and, after it ran to several editions, a second volume which he named the Scrapbook (1939). By 1959 Gordon was warning readers (in Landfall 49) that all was not as it seemed, that KM had not owned any single entity which could be called either a journal or a scrapbook but that there existed simply a vast mass of ill-assorted materials (ranging from profound last thoughts to recipes — mostly suet puddings — and laundry lists). From all this, by a “brilliant piece of literary synthesis and editorial patchwork” Murry had quarried a couple of books. Moreover, the 1954 “definitive” edition of the Journal, which purported to combine the former two with later additions, was “utterly unreliable” because Gordon felt Murry’s transcribings of his wife’s notorious handwriting were inaccurate but particularly because Murry, as editor, discarder, resorter, suppressor and manipulator, had played too strong a hand. Distortions caused by changing order and the blunting of Mansfield’s razor-sharp pen had crept in but there the matter has rested for nearly 40 years until funding and someone with the skill to undertake transcriptions and re-editing could be found.

Mansfield’s contemporaries were suspicious at the time of the idealised picture of her conveyed in the personal writings of the Journal and Scrapbook. Gordon sees Murry’s editing impulse to be a mistaken attempt to provide a “beautiful and pious memorial of a dead wife”. Thus many people gagged at Murry’s introduction which claimed his wife’s work “to be of a finer and purer kind than that of her contemporaries”; the “purity” of her vision, the flower-like way Murry saw her adjusting to the sun and earth were too much. Lytton Strachey who believed that KM herself was responsible for the book, wondered “ … why that foul-mouthed, virulent, brazen-faced broomstick of a creature should have got herself up as a pad of rose-scented cotton wool is beyond me.” Virginia Woolf’s analysis of Mansfield’s manners and clothes, Lady Ottoline Morrell’s and Bertrand Russell’s pen-portraits of KM all point to a darker nature, a sharp unscrupulousness at variance with Murry’s idealisation.

The 1954 “definitive” edition incorporated much new material which illustrated better the many conflicting aspects of Mansfield’s complex character. It remains a brilliant, tragic, funny and profoundly moving book, seeming to provide a chronologically coherent journey from youth in New Zealand to a much regretted death in France. Rather than blunt the sharpness of Mansfield’s edge, the new version left KM as if naked and the reticent reader might have challenged Murry’s unkindness had he not left himself also without a stitch.


Scott has already transcribed Mansfield’s letters (now appearing in five volumes). She is also a tenacious solver of cryptic crossword puzzles. Reproductions of some original pages are used as frontispieces in these volumes and indicate the scale of her task Scott. Fortunately, she has had financial assistance from the Turnbull, from Creative New Zealand and from the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, without which it is unlikely the job would have been started. New Zealand’s archives are full of valuable materials which languish for the want of transcribers and publicists to bring them into the public domain. Scott’s method has been to supply transcriptions of the texts in as chronological order as possible (KM herself ducked and dived on paper), with a minimum of explication and description. She provides a biographical note, thorough tables of contents (essential) and a useful index of personal and fictional names.

Readers will find masses more Mansfieldiana than they might have imagined, not all of good quality (much she rejected for publishing) but interesting as ever. An idea of the bulk may be illustrated by the fact that for the years up to 1908 Murry’s 1954 version offers selections covering 38 pages of text, while Scott’s version covers 200 pages. Mansfield wrote and wrote, in a way which Patrick White, who viewed some of her archive in Wellington, observed seemed “almost automatic outpourings”. “I never feel so comfortable or at ease as when I am holding a pencil,” she said and this “garrulousness” was a way of “breaking through” to her real material. Nothing seems to have been thrown out; she wrote to a friend: “We can’t afford to waste such an expenditure of feeling.” The squirrel instinct was strong: “I gathered & gathered & hid away for that long ‘winter’ when I should rediscover all this treasure” (II:p30). One sees her reusing old material: the symbolic yellow canary which appears in a play, “The Laurels”, which she wrote on the spot to be performed by the Christmas guests at Garsington in 1916, appears again so potently in the last story she wrote, “The Canary” of 1922.

As well as being surprised by the bulk of previously “unseen” material, I was struck by the bleak view of life portrayed in the juvenilia. Gordon’s always suspect thesis (argued in his introduction to The Urewera Notebook) that, contrary to what Mansfield’s biographers wrote, her youth in New Zealand was happy, now does not stand up. Gordon asked: “Why did she not go on later to write … works that display the painful stresses of Victorian life?”. One has simply to point to the Burnells and the Sheridans. But these new volumes reveal a deeply morbid life view, morbid beyond that of any sensitive and self-preoccupied child or adolescent. An awareness of loss, of a spoiled world, of lack of love and understanding and a longing for release through death, all pervade the early sections, as well as the later sections where one might reasonably expect to find them, after the death of her brother, the onset of illness, the failure of friendships and the worry about work not completed. Mansfield’s vision encouraged her to see the fading of the rose, rather than its blooming. She clung on to childhood long after most have let it go, perchance to find innocence and safety: if only Pat in “Prelude” could put the head back on the duck, Kezia might find Paradise. Childhood, she wrote, must ever be seen through a “haunting light”. At the end of her plan for the 35 chapters of a novel to be called “Maata”, Mansfield summed it up: “Life is never gay.”

Her death wish is strong and omnipresent, so strong that one feels she would not “allow” a cure and that if TB hadn’t carried her off young something else would have. What is now required, these volumes suggest, is a full-scale psycho-logical study of Mansfield. Yes, there is a grimness, especially in the diary jottings of these volumes, since here we meet Mansfield writing for herself and that tendency of hers to find the wit in a situation, to decorate with her light hand a story for another to read which is so evident in the letters, is not as prevalent. But it is exposure to her mind, her view of how life is lived and how it might better be lived, the clearness of her gaze, that are a source of joy. She is an original and it is here her genius lies, natural, unschooled, unconfined by any pedagogy. While she sometimes despaired at her lack of a sense of history and of the order of literature — evidence that she believed she had botched her chances of a formal education — she found also the cultivated mind to be depressing, for…

…the adventure is all over. There is now nothing to do but to trim & to lop and to keep back… No, no the mind I love must still have wild places — a tangled orchard where dark damsons drop in the heavy grass, an overgrown little wood, the chance of a snake or two (real snakes), a pool that nobody’s fathomed the depth of… It must have real hiding places, not artificial ones — not gazebos and mazes. And I have never yet met the cultivated mind that has not had its shrubbery. I loathe and detest shrubberies. (II:p163)

Murry’s transcriptions stand up pretty well against Scott’s. He misread on occasion; he mistook New Zealand words (making The Urewera Notebook unintelligible in parts). He toned down a barbed comment or two about her parents, his parents, friends and the early relationship with Edie Bendall. He tidied up punctuation and expression in ways that now seem pedantic, especially since Mansfield held definite views  and felt the boundaries of punctuation needed to be enlarged. Time has vindicated her version rather than his. Murry did get the order wrong sometimes, but not seriously so.

However, a close reading reveals that Murry, professional editor as he was, did leave himself a protective stitch or two. In 1920 Mansfield felt herself under seige by Murry’s taking up with other women. She wrote on 19 July (Scott’s version II:p220): “Murry let fall this morning the fact that he had considered taking rooms with Brett at Thurlow road this winter.” Murry’s version (p208): “J. let fall this morning the fact that he had considered taking rooms in D’s house this winter.” Thus with Murry’s version the “J” becomes more intimate and the closeness of the relationship within the house becomes less intimate. But perhaps the most significant omission occurs in the same year after Mansfield became aware he was receiving letters from Elizabeth Bibesco. Murry’s version (p229): “Life is a mystery. The fearful pain of these letters will fade.” Scott’s version (II:p202): “Life is a mystery. The fearful pain of these letters — of the knowledge that Jack wishes me dead — and of his killing me — will fade.” Murry did need some protection from the pen of his wife.

Scott earns our thanks for bringing to us with distinction what must now stand as Mansfield’s last words (unless another cache of materials is found). She has put things in right and proper order and given scholars a new, more accurate launching pad. But, strange to say, Murry, the man who did the first imperfect job, stands vindicated, in spirit, if not in the letter. It was “a brilliant piece of literary synthesis and editorial patchwork”. The shared intellectual life and artistic integrity of this tortured couple — and, Scott writes, they shared more of it than either of them shared with anyone else — stood Murry in good stead as he compiled a “journal”. It is not too much to claim that his original editorial impulse in the 1927 introduction to bring out the good and noble qualities of his wife, was, if wrong in removing the vitality, irreverence and anger from a woman who turned these spurs into an art form, at least was wrong for the best reasons, for it indicated Murry saw through to the real motivation of Mansfield (and I am taking a line from Graham Greene’s whisky-sodden priest here), for these volumes reveal that she was blessed with a vision of a higher life to be attained than the one she knew she was living — perhaps saintliness:

If this is all then Life is not worth living.

But I know it is not all. How does one know that? Let me take the case of KM. She has led, ever since she can remember, a very typically false life. Yet through it all, there have been moments, instants, gleams, when she has felt the possibility of something quite other. (1922, II:p288)


Vincent O’Sullivan offers a personal selection of 29 Mansfield stories from the work which she set in New Zealand; in 1974 Ian Gordon offered in Undiscovered Country a group of 59 New Zealand stories. In a sprightly introduction O’Sullivan explains he left out pieces too fragmentary to be described as stories and work he classifies as inferior. While some might quibble over whether a piece need be a “story” or over what is or is not inferior, this is one man’s choice and he may do as he pleases. Covering the full span of Mansfield’s brief career, the stories are arranged chronologically to give a sense of developing theme and method. O’Sullivan stresses the satirical intent of Mansfield in the New Zealand work, which is often misread by critics as rosey-hued, even sentimental. Thus “The Garden Party” offers no comfortable resolution in comfortable family feeling, since Mansfield’s purpose is to show up the insecurities of middle class colonial society trying to find an identity.

Precisely what determines a New Zealand story is not always clear: tui, gorse and place names are usually strong pointers but it may be misleading to include “Leves Amores” because it mentions the Thistle Hotel, still standing in Wellington. Gordon believed “The Fly” to be local; O’Sullivan thinks it isn’t. I would question the inclusion of “A Married Man’s Story”. Is an image of “oozing clay banks” or of “rusty water in the school tank” enough to tie the story to New Zealand or does it not belong to the same “cry against corruption” which inspired “Je Ne Parle Pas Francais”? Who knows? Perhaps it does not matter since New Zealand lay beneath everything Mansfield wrote. All the great New Zealand stories are here and it will make a fine gift or souvenir.

Heather Murray is the author of Double Lives: Women in the Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1990).

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