Careful sympathy, Roger Robinson

Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller
Kathleen Jones
Viking, $65.00,
ISBN 9780670074358


Let’s hear Katherine Mansfield speak first:

The cleanliness of Switzerland! Darling, it is frightening. The chastity of my lily-white bed! The waxy-fine floors! The huge bouquet of white lilac, fresh crisp from the laundry, in my little salon. Every daisy in the grass below has a starched frill – the very bird droppings are dazzling.


That funny, inventive, wickedly observant letter to John Middleton Murry was written shortly after she had a swollen tubercular gland in her neck pierced, while another swelling pressed on her lung. She was in Switzerland to escape entering a sanatorium. The roguish joke about the chaste bed linen was shared with a husband whom she was too ill to sleep with, despite strong desire, and who was supposedly preoccupied with prestigious lectures and the demands of another woman. She had recently burned some of his letters, some of her manuscripts, and her letters to an earlier lover who was blackmailing her. She was short of money for food and medical bills. She recorded despair, “strangling by the throat a helpless exhausted little black silk bag”, and she recorded ebulliently witty impressions like those about Switzerland. She was working on short stories that never satisfied her and would include some of the best and most original in all literature, several of them set affectionately in New Zealand, which she had contemptuously abandoned.

The biography of Katherine Mansfield, to put it mildly, poses a challenge. Her life and work were characterised by elusiveness and inconsistency. For that one short period in Switzerland in 1921, the evidence is as perplexing as a late Cubist collage. There is now a great deal of it, available in the letters, journals and confessional works of that compulsively literate generation, and much of it is sensational, to do with sex, violence, rage, war, trauma, disease and death. It is tempting to exploit it for effect, as I have already risked doing, and as some earlier Mansfield biographers have devotedly done.

Kathleen Jones meets the challenge head on. She resolves this complicated biography into a masterpiece of narrative reconstruction. She weaves all the fugitive, contradictory, and potentially lurid evidence into a story of her own that is coherent, lucid, responsible, dramatic, and utterly convincing. Those who will be jerking their knees about the self-perpetuating “Mansfield industry” will find Jones a sturdy opponent. Her book is in every sentence knowledgeable and intelligent, and irrefutably original in at least three ways.

First and simplest, it assembles and elucidates a great deal of new material, much of which is available thanks to skilled New Zealand beaver-workers in the “industry”. Jones is quick to give them credit, especially Margaret Scott for the complete notebooks, Vincent O’Sullivan and Scott for the letters, Scott again for a life’s work of transcription, and Antony Alpers for the pioneering biography. To this she adds vivid material from other observers, especially Murry and his family, which has either been restricted or never previously cited. So, as biography, much is new.

Second, she extends her narrative well beyond Mansfield, intercalating into Mansfield’s life-story several chapters on the later life of Murry, with close-up footage about his work, wives and children, and whole chapters on Ida Baker and Violet Le Maistre (Murry’s second wife). The effect surprisingly is to add both variety and coherence. We see Baker and Murry (for the first time, surely) in an utterly fair-minded way, often from their own points of view, with their merits and difficulties acknowledged, before and after they knew Mansfield, yet we also witness how compelling and long-lasting she was as a force in their lives, as if her role as “story-teller” (the book’s subtitle) continued in her effect on others’ stories after her death. The fragmented chronology demands attentiveness (scarcely unusual, with Mansfield), since Mansfield appears as a ghost while still in good health, and Violet her self-created clone dies before she does. But a conventional sequence would risk anticlimax, and legions of Murry-slaggers would stop reading the moment Katherine dies.

Don’t skip those Murry chapters, even if, like Waterlow and Kotieliansky, and despite the account here of his appalling childhood, you prefer to “never have anything to do with him again”. They include some of the best things Jones says about Mansfield, and anyway you will get to watch Wife Three break a tea-table on Murry’s head.

The third and best new thing about this book is Jones herself. Her narrative voice is calm, knowing and non-judgmental, a relief after the shrill
partisanship of many writers on Mansfield and Co. She stays unflappable while the wild young Mansfield gets herself into more trouble than Tess of the d’Urbervilles. She is wise and all-seeing as she assesses the talents and follies of the mature Mansfield’s friends. With the horrific medical details her bedside manner is expert, informative and compassionate. At last she brings modern medical knowledge to bear and cuts the century-old clutter of moralising and sensationalism. With her characters, even the most messily complicated (like Murry), even those who insist on behaving like caricatures (like Lawrence or Beatrice Hastings) she is utterly fair-minded, seeing all round them and summing them up with clarity and vigour.

She reminds us, for instance, that Baker was a top scholar, had “a talent for words”, was capable of prose that “sings” when she wrote of Rhodesia, suppressed tragedy when her father killed himself, and sustained a devotion to Mansfield that was “never subservient; it was a willed act requiring considerable strength … underneath a surface of calm and sweetness she was a powerful woman with the tenacity of a bulldog.”

Similarly George Bowden becomes much more than a labrador-retriever stooge Mansfield married in a panic. Before the wedding he is good company, intelligently interested in books and music, and with an engaging sense of the absurd. After she flees, he is considerate and discreet, even while “suffering, psychologically and emotionally, from the trauma of their relationship”, even on a “surreal” evening they spend together to discuss divorce that ends with him singing at her piano.

To say that this biography is fair-minded and sensible is high praise, given the Desperate Housewives nature of much of the storyline. It is sensible in summarising the likelihood that Mansfield’s mother Annie Beauchamp knew about her pregnancy when she dumped her in Germany. It sensibly accepts gaps in our knowledge – “Whether [an abortion story] is written from personal experience is something only Katherine can know.” It sensibly considers and dismisses things like the gonorrhea theory: “If you suspect that you have venereal disease … you go to a doctor, not to a husband you left ten months earlier because you couldn’t bear to sleep with him … It simply isn’t credible.”

The voice you hear there is typical. Jones is sensible but never bland. On the fatally premature birth in Bad Wörishofen, after adroitly compiling a complex of materials from letters, notebooks, stories, even a poem published later by Murry, she sums it up with an older woman’s wise compassion:

To lose a baby, after all the trauma of childbirth, is one of the worst things that can happen to any woman. For a young girl to endure this alone in a foreign country surrounded by strangers is unimaginable.


The straight-talking vigour of Jones’s summaries sometimes reminds me of Nelly Dean commenting on the passionate shenanigans at Wuthering Heights. Jones comes from Cumbria, next to North Yorkshire, and though I have never heard her speak, that is the voice I hear in her prose – honest, strong and full-vowelled. Mansfield’s sexual precocity is “a dangerous mixture of ignorance and desire”. The teenager at home in Wellington “has made herself thoroughly obnoxious with her rebellious moods and obvious contempt”. When a Feilding journalist claims to have a scoop about blackmail, “Such a story is hard to believe. Harold Beauchamp was quite capable of sorting out any importuning individuals himself without involving a journalist.” On Murry’s abused childhood: “It is the underlying damage, the sense that he is a hurt child, that is so appealing to women.” The toilet facilities at posh Garsington are “ramshackle”.

She never overtly finds fault, but her understatements and negatives can hint at judgment. Mansfield’s addiction to veronal is “not calculated to benefit her unborn child”. On Lawrence and Frieda in Cornwall: “Their explosive quarrels do not make for a peaceful existence.” When Murry and Carco carry off furniture borrowed from Baker and sell it to a Paris brothel, “No thought was given to Ida’s feelings.” Murry, she says twice, was “emotionally illiterate”, and Mansfield “cast him in a role for which he was totally unfitted.”

Diametrically different as a writer from the oblique and enigmatic Mansfield, Jones nevertheless can “risk everything”. She denies herself the ready-made ending of Mansfield’s final haemorrhage and famous last cry, “I think I am going to die!” (used so dramatically by Brian McNeill in his 1970s play The Two Tigers, and by others). In another fragmentation of chronology, Jones takes that for her opening scene, so that Mansfield has in a way already died throughout the telling of her life. Jones finds – and makes us wait for – an ending of her own that is new, scholarly, moving, beautifully cadenced, and that I will not reveal. It suggests that death came to Mansfield more as an unexpected interruption than a curtain-closer.

Mansfield the writer is always central. Her artistic commitment was astonishing. Few writers have ever worked so persistently under such ill-health, not even Stevenson. But Jones falls short in (to risk a sadly outmoded term) literary criticism. It is revealing that the best book of Mansfield criticism, Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form by W H New, is missing from her bibliography. She offers a few literary judgments that are plain wrong, like saying that “An Indiscreet Journey” is “a verbatim account of [Mansfield’s] visit to Gray”. On the contrary, the changes from journal to fiction in that episode reveal how creatively Mansfield re-imagined her own experiences for her stories.

We learn from Jones better than ever how the stories came to be written, and she intersperses astute general comments like “Katherine always writes well on trains and in strange locations … These places of transition provide a creative space for observation and memory to collide.” We also learn how the stories draw on the life. But there is no attempt to show how knowing about the life can enhance the stories, which ultimately is why literary biography matters. (“Enhance” not “explain”.)

So I returned to the stories. One thing I found I had gained from reading Jones, to choose just one, was that from all those fluctuations of mood, the passionate friendships and selfish betrayals, the swings between anger and affection with Murry, and between irritation and gratitude with Baker, between those comic dazzling bird droppings and the tragic strangling throat, Mansfield was forging a new kind of fiction that above all makes and asks the effort of sympathy. She tilts the angle to take us within outcasts and exiles, not only spinsters, servants and the untouchable little Kelveys, but men like Stanley Burnell, the husband in “The Stranger” and the Boss in “The Fly”, for they, too, may be forlorn. “A Man without a Temperament” imagines disconcertingly what it is like to care for the sick, who can be demanding and unintentionally critical (“ ‘You’re late,’ she cried gaily, ‘you’re three minutes late.’ ”). The flash-backs show us a man who very much used to have a temperament, and the ending seems not a “lie”, as Jones calls it, but a loving suppression in a situation (like Murry’s) when the truth simply cannot be stated.

The effort to see people, even the despised and the faulty, with careful sympathy – in that essential thing, the young New Zealander, in her short, oblique, impressionistic stories, and the mature north-country Englishwoman, in her compendious, expert, forthright biography, are perfectly in accord.


Roger Robinson edited and introduced Katherine Mansfield: In from the Margin.

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