Mansfield parked, Lloyd Jones

Mansfield: A Novel
C K Stead
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 1843431769

The short life of Katherine Mansfield has been well picked over. We have the biographies, the critical studies, her own journals and letters. Hardly a year goes by without the pile being added to. Is there anything more that we need to know about this young woman, whom for so many, apparently, represents a trail blazer, a bright star which shot briefly across the bow of the old world. C K Stead’s novel provides a satisfying answer. In Mansfield we now have a clever and convincing portrait. Clever because Stead’s portrait is written in Mansfield’s ink. Stead’s portrait “sees” and reveals Mansfield on her own literary terms. I think this is fair enough. And from the other side of the grave Mansfield would surely manage a wry smile.

The way is signalled by Stead as he covers a visit by Mansfield to her friend Beatrice Hastings in Paris in 1915. Hastings, like Mansfield, is a colonial, ambitious, out to make a mark as a columnist for The New Age, but making it so far more distinctively with notches in her bedpost (Modigliani and Picasso among recent conquests). After a bit of girly talk the two women settle down to more serious business. Mansfield tells her friend she is in Paris to write:

Bea met her eyes, nodded, and looked down at her hands on the table. “You know what I think you should write.”

“More in my German Pension style. No, I won’t do it, Bea. I’m more ambitious than that.”

 

What she has in mind are those “dream-like characters she was creating in her new work, based on real people, family and friends in New Zealand, but who, as she imagined them, became separate from their originals in real life, became independent … .”

“Independent” is the key word here. Stead’s portrait achieves the same. We have a Mansfield whom we recognise from the photos, her writings, reputation, and a little besides. We also have a Mansfield “independent” from the established template. The idea of a fictionalised Mansfield alongside the biographical record makes for interesting comparisons. How well can we know a life? Biographies concern themselves with mapping the coordinates of a life. Rarely though do they venture, as Stead’s portrait does, into the flesh of being. Where biographers hold back the novelist hurries on. Where the biographer provides an accurate enough outline the novelist or portraitist applies colour.

The novel confines itself to three years of Mansfield’s life during WW1. We move from the hopelessly optimistic, early war “home by Christmas” prediction, through Mansfield’s dalliance with Francis Carco, her on-again, off-again relationship with John Middleton Murry, to her appearances as jester at the courts of the Woolfs and the grotesque, horsy Ottoline Morrel. We move from the disintegration of hope as the war drags on, through the terrible loss of her younger brother Leslie and of suitor-in-waiting Freddie Goodyear, to her own slow haemorrhaging and convalescence in Bandol, by which time she is ready to write those stories about “real people” back in Wellington. She is ready to take on board what she has learned from reading Chekhov, who was streaks ahead of any contemporary writing in English at the time: “She thinks of Chekhov. She was always too close to him in her imagination – borrowed his style in her earliest work, even pinched a story from him. Is she now going to die his death?” Not yet. She has lost Freddie and Leslie. Her own life is seeping from her. Writing will be her final resistance to all that is disintegrating around her. War, personal loss – none of that will be allowed to intervene. Knowing as we do how the real life ends, Stead’s portrait picks a more triumphant note on which to conclude. It is in fact the start of the fiction she will write, which she has known was possible, but hasn’t until this moment been able to summon from herself.

Stead’s account progresses through a series of vignettes. The novel opens with Mansfield pursuing T S Eliot in a London Street. Mansfield is all panting eagerness. Eliot, reserved, patrician, accommodating. They talk about the war. The high casualty list. (Middleton Murry has managed to find an obliging doctor to fill in “TB” on his report when suffering just a chest cold.) Mansfield and Eliot manage their conversation in the special coded language of ex-pats. Eliot confesses: “Sometimes I’ve been known to write clever things. It’s just that they don’t come to me in conversation.” Mansfield, at her flirtatious best, pounces with a rush of reckless confidence: “’If you were with me they would,’ she said.”

At which both the reader and Eliot both draw a long breath: “Eliot looked at her with interest, and didn’t reply.” He is too cautious by half, without the impetuosity of Mansfield who in the next chapter is rushing off to war-time France for a few nights of passion with novelist-soldier Francis Carco. It’s a funny moment when Mansfield packs him off in the morning: “She saw him pass the window on the path to the gate. Off to the war – and he would be back at noon!” This is war where nobody gets killed. Carco’s failing is his failure to fall in love with Mansfield, so she’s off back to London and Murry. Soon she is packing her beloved younger brother off to war. Murry has more important things to attend to, thanks to his “TB” – a work on Dostoyevski. Moving on, we are witness to the paralysing impact of little brother Leslie’s death on Mansfield. Murry is perturbed by her reserve. Why hasn’t she broken down, cried? He’s right to wonder as well the reader might. Usually it is the English middle-class with their weird variety of autism that prevents the usual range of human responses. Mansfield retreats to Bandol.

Corporal Frederick Goodyear, an aspiring writer, might have provided the kind of intimacy Mansfield needed. But Goodyear, in love with Katherine, is soon off to the war himself. One of the most riveting chapters observes Goodyear’s departure from Waterloo (his parents and sister are there to see him off), his Channel crossing in a black packet-boat and pleasant train trip through the French countryside. The war is nowhere in sight until on a march, suddenly, Goodyear looks up to note the trees “snapped off like pencils”, hastily dug graves, shell holes, dead mules and horses “inflated like balloons or decomposing in a cloud of stench or flies”.

In the trenches, Fred receives a letter from Katherine, a lengthy one, which he reads over and over. Is it a letter penned by Mansfield or Stead? The question drove me to the acknowledgements at the back of the book. There is no mention of the letter’s provenance, so it must be in Stead’s hand, and that is fine. But the fact that the question crossed my mind points to a problem to do with provenance, slight though it is. At times the reader isn’t sure whose voice we are hearing – Stead’s or Mansfield’s. The question is an unwanted intrusion. In the end, such confusion is inevitable. Especially when, as I suspect, Stead’s chosen modus operandi is Mansfield’s own literary method. The precision is there: “From her window, she looked into, or down on, the trees of the Ile de la Cité …” The exact character of both the glance and the trees is noted and described without the usual clumsy naming and tagging exercise that a lesser writer might resort to. This is one of the moments where Stead and Mansfield join each other on stage to share a bow.

At other times, the portraitist is present as documentary-maker, a scene-setting voice coming at us over our shoulder as we read: “It was what had produced her first book, In a German Pension, and now, desperate four years later that there should be a second and somehow ‘blocked’ from producing it, she accepted the discomforts …”

The war progresses. The heat is turned up on those lives on the fringes. There are finely drawn cameos – a progressively deranged D H Lawrence, a fumbling but boring seducer in Bertrand Russell; Murry, a pathetic, sad wraith, tilting his eight and half stone weight towards the war effort inside a government ministry. Leslie has been killed. Freddie Goodyear has been killed. The weight that Murry must live with is the unpardonable fact of his being alive. Lawrence has been silenced and along with Russell moved from defence-sensitive areas such as the coastline. Then there is Mansfield’s own decline which ultimately will find its own incandescent moment. We leave her in a room in Bandol sitting on a bed spitting up blood: “When you know you are going to die perhaps you are beyond fear. Perhaps you only fear when your death is less than certain, or when you can’t believe in it. I must work, is what she tells herself … If I have to go … I’ll go quietly – but not quickly, and I will leave my fingerprints on things.”

Well, her own fingerprints are all over this portrait. In a curious way it is a collaborative project – inevitably, one must quickly add. In the end, it is the kind of “free story” Mansfield would recognise and subscribe to. It is Mansfield separate from the original, an independent Mansfield, convincing, and superbly observed.

 

Lloyd Jones’s most recent novel is Paint Your Wife.

 

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