Murry’s Mansfield, Mark Williams

Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories
Vintage, $35.00,
ISBN 9781869419837

The death of an author might seem to close the book, establishing a final and complete version of the work. In the case of Katherine Mansfield this has been spectacularly not the case. Mansfield and her work have been subject to claims not only by nationalists, feminists, postcolonialists, biographers and critics, all with quite different stories to tell about the meaning of Mansfield, but also by editors. Much of the effort to redefine Mansfield has been driven by a desire to free her work from the hold of John Middleton Murry, her husband and literary executor. Murry has been criticised for ignoring her request that he destroy most of her papers, instead publishing them progressively and busily, enriching himself in the process. He stands accused of constructing the sanitised image of Mansfield, the saintly child, all the while feasting on her corpse. And the accuracy and completeness of his editing has been attacked, notably by Antony Alpers, the first truly scholarly editor of her stories.

Murry generated a great deal of antagonism among biographers and critics for his role in preserving Mansfield’s literary record. Indeed, the vituperation has been at times so intense that one wonders if – as with Ted Hughes – redemption is not overdue. I have no wish here to praise the man for a self-serving job of literary preservation, but neither do I seek to damn him for publishing what we are all glad to have. I do, however, wonder that his hold over her work should continue so long after his death as well as hers, as evidenced by this new edition of her stories. It seems remiss that after so much contention his version could be accepted without explanation as the reliable one.

A brief note at the front of Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories informs us that “This collection, released 120 years after Mansfield’s birth, contains all the completed stories published in [Murry’s] collections, plus two of the unfinished ones, in the order they were written.” In relying on Murry’s succession of profitable volumes of Mansfield’s stories, Random House New Zealand has done a lazy job of making Mansfield’s stories available to a new generation of general readers in a handsome enough volume. I like the artfully “colonial” cover image from a work by Emily Wolfe. And the book gives the impression of being traditionally bound and durable – something for the glass-fronted bookcase in the living room – although the cover is disconcertingly pliable. But it is a pity that no money has been spent by the publisher on securing an editor who might have gone beyond Murry or at least justified relying on him.

There is no introduction to this collection; no dates of publication or indications of which journals and volumes the stories were first published in are supplied. Nor is there any sign, apart from the aforementioned note, that the new collection has an editor with a particular and contested view of Mansfield. The only fact cited in the note – that her determination to become a writer was “against the wishes of her father” – is dubious; Harold Beauchamp sent her very early stories off to a local editor for evaluation, which helped her to get published. There are no explanatory notes about Murry’s contentious interventions in, for example, “The Woman at the Store” nor about his prissy editing instructions regarding “Je ne parle pas français”. There is no reference to the critical disputes about these stories, Murry’s editorial standards, nor about his saccharine construction of an image of her as a suffering romantic artist, redeemed by love.

The meaning of these stories is inseparable from what happened after her death, when she became an industry and a myth, a national icon and a feminist hero, a colonial traveller and a modernist innovator, a cult, an impersonator, even a prefigurer of biculturalism. All of these are incomplete and in some ways unsatisfactory versions of Mansfield, but to offer a collection of the stories that makes no reference to this contested history is to give Murry and his Mansfield a weight they do not merit.

The absence of an introduction engaging with the changing understanding of what constitutes “Katherine Mansfield’s Stories” endorses Murry’s claim to ownership as editor, husband, interpreter and executor. Consider one of the recent modes of attention to Mansfield that looks at her in her colonial context, not as an iconic New Zealand writer but as both a tourist through the Ureweras and part of the busy, suprisingly modern world of “Maoriland”. The New Zealand stories in this collection begin with “The Woman at the Store” and “Millie”. These are strong stories, sure enough, but their valuation supports Murry’s belief that her early and negative New Zealand experiences needed to be purged before she could achieve maturity as an artist and as a woman. He effectively erased her life before she met him, except as a kind of waystation in her passage to artistic and spiritual maturity.

In Katherine Mansfield and Other Literary Studies (1959), Murry reflects on his wife’s work by way of continual reference of the fiction back to its sources in the emotional life of the author, a life to which he assumes privileged access. Hence he turns New Zealand into a mental state. As a geographical and social world which Mansfield knew, it exists outside the domain of his relationship her. Murry doesn’t allow her any existence as a writer prior to her coming to London in 1908. The New Zealand of the late stories is a spiritualised country associated with her adult childlikeness, not the actual country she inhabited and in which she began writing stories long before she knew him.

Murry allows no shaping context for the stories other than her emotional or spiritual life. He reads “The Woman at the Store” as the expression of “embittered disillusion with life”. Yet the story shows more than her reluctance to remain in New Zealand before her departure for England; it is a complex and self-conscious rendition of the colonial story written for an English audience, and some reference to this is surely worth making. An introduction could have brought general readers up with the play without becoming overburdened with scholarly detail. Even better, one of the New Zealand earlier pieces like “In the Botanical Gardens” could have been included to balance Murry’s partial view of the Mansfield oeuvre.

Murry is especially unctuous on the topic of “Love” in his writing on Mansfield. Mansfield’s early life in New Zealand is important because “it was something which awakened Love in her”. I would have liked some indication of the tarter Mansfield by way of an introduction that drew attention to stories like “Poison” or “A Married Man’s Story”. The latter in particular can be read with an eye to Murry and his role in her life that has implications for his role after her death.

The central problem with Murry’s hold on and representation of Mansfield is that he cannot resist mystification; Murry presents Mansfield as a mystical child. Her life and the development of her art are presented in terms of the Christian story of progress through suffering towards reconciliation, acceptance and the discovery of Truth and Love as informing principles. When he says she is childlike, he means that she became at the end a kind of Christ figure. Thus he not only sentimentalises her life and work, he distorts both as well. He downgrades the intractable side of the writing: the disgust and anger that is part of the late work as well as the German stories. The Mansfield he unfolds to us through his editing of her works and through his own critical commentary is very much his Mansfield.

Another critical argument about Mansfield has concerned her lesbianism. Feminist critic Alison Laurie seeks to recapture Mansfield from the self-serving constructions of her promoted mainly by male critics like Murry. Mansfield herself observed that she occupied the “whole octave” of sexuality, and certainly she has been assigned since her death to all the notes on that octave. It would be useful then to have at least some reference to “Leves Amores” in this book, and some indication of the discussion about “Bliss”. It is good to have Mansfield’s stories available and read by a general reading public, but it is impossibly limiting at this stage to read those stories without some acknowledgement of the heated ways in which they have been read by various critical interests or to seek to present a comprehensive collection of the stories without some reference to the tainted source of the collection or the arguments about definitiveness in respect of her published work.

Criticism is the vehicle through which a culture argues about its meanings and priorities and who has the right to speak for whom. In this a writer like Mansfield gets caught up by agendas in which she displayed little interest. She was a writer, she left a body of texts, some incomplete. Their subsequent history is not the triumphant story of painful piecing together of true pictures of her life and editions of her work, but of competing versions of the truth striving with each and partially replacing each other, only to be in turn replaced.

On the other hand, there is an accumulation of knowledge carried out by scholars like Alpers and Vincent O’Sullivan. No doubt this is in its own way partial rather than definitive or complete. However, we now have comprehensive and meticulously prepared editions of the stories, the letters and the notebooks. This is a major advance over the days when Murry controlled the material. A fresh collection of the stories aimed at a wide readership would be welcome. It would not need the full scholarly apparatus that O’Sullivan provides in his recent Norton edition of the stories, complete with a selection of critical essays. But it would need to address the question of editing authority, and the changing understandings of Mansfield’s work represented in the various texts available. An edition such as this, which pretends no such problems exist, is not what we need.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel, Point Counterpoint, a woman is seduced without noticing what is happening by a creepy spiritual charlatan based on Murry. In John Reid’s 1985 film Leave All Fair John Gielgud plays Murry as an elderly narcissistic editor guarding his own place in his dead wife’s legacy by misrepresenting her wishes. Loathed, condemned, vilified, in Vintage’s new edition of Katherine Mansfield’s stories Murry still gets to tell his story.


Mark Williams’ most recent book is Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914, co-written with Jane Stafford.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
Search the archive
Search by category