Katherine Mansfield: fragments of an introduction

A certain melancholy has been brooding over me this fortnight. I date it from Katherine’s death. The feeling comes to me so often now – Yes. Go on writing of course: but into emptiness. There’s no competitor.      — Virginia Woolf (1923)

Some weeks ago, before we had decided to read Mansfield, I wrote an introduction for the Forum about who Katherine was and why her stories are so well-regarded.  I re-post it below.     — Tom


From the “Katherine Mansfield Home” web site

Katherine Mansfield, 1888-1923

Katherine Mansfield is New Zealand’s most internationally famous author. She was a writer of short stories, poetry, letters, journals and reviews, and changed the way the short story was written in the English language. She was a rebel and a modernist who lived her short life of 34 years to the full. Her life spanned a time when gender roles for women underwent a radical change. . . .


From the Encyclopedia Britannica

Katherine Mansfield (born October 14, 1888, Wellington, New Zealand—died January 9, 1923, Gurdjieff Institute, near Fontainebleau, France), New Zealand-born English master of the short story, who evolved a distinctive prose style with many overtones of poetry. Her delicate stories, focused upon psychological conflicts, have an obliqueness of narration and a subtlety of observation that reveal the influence of Anton Chekhov. She, in turn, had much influence on the development of the short story as a form of literature.


Excerpts from two essays in The New York Review of Books

(links to the full articles below)


Gabrielle Annan reviews a biography by Claire Tomalin (1988)
Katherine Mansfield’s contemporaries, including, though reluctantly, Virginia Woolf, agreed that she was brilliant. Woolf admired her besides for going “every sort of hog,” while she herself remained regretfully respectable. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mansfield is that she managed to construct for herself, a century or at least half a century too late, a classically Romantic career. Born in 1888 into a prosperous New Zealand family and educated for three years at Queen’s College, Harley Street, an enlightened London girls’ school, she rejected her background, comforts and all, to starve in a succession of European attics and unheatable cottages, to combine a hectic love life with dedication to her work, to make it into the literary and artistic avant-garde of her day, and to die, at thirty-four, of a mixture of tuberculosis and gonorrhea. Even Baudelaire could do no more. …… Tomalin [the writer of the reviewed book] analyzes a number of Mansfield’s works as she goes along. In the end her assessment boils down to admiring Mansfield’s gift for conveying mood and atmosphere in a manner she calls Post-Impressionist, presumably because of the fragmentation, but which could also be labeled Impressionist for its characteristically vivid way with light, texture, and movement. “The lack of stamina,” says Tomalin, “which prevented her from producing a novel encouraged other virtues: speed, economy, clarity. They became her hallmark, admired and imitated by later writers.”

Claire Tomalin reviews a biography by Antony Alpers (1980)

Nearly sixty years after her death, the name Katherine Mansfield still projects a sharp, strong presence. Not that Mansfield was her true name; it was one of several she made up. Her image too can be turned about; it changes, now vulnerable and wounded, now imperious and exacting, now the wild, ambitious colonial girl, now the simple seeker after purity and truth in art and life.

It was said, by Leonard Woolf and others, that her face was like a mask. She was described as both pale and dark: first too fat and then too thin; elegant and not quite elegant. If she had genius, she lacked stamina, the sticking and staying power genius needs if it is to do more than flash erratically. Yet this was not for want of struggle—to make something new and perfect, to overcome disease, to keep her balance as a person and a writer in an awkward age and within a group of other gifted and difficult people.

She was disliked, both as a person and as a writer; she was also revered as both. Not many took a position between these two attitudes, although some alternated, bewildered and fascinated. …

It would be absurd to try to disconnect the life and the work. She herself was heartily dissatisfied with her own achievement at the end, and even her warmest admirers have to make what they can of the small quantity of first-rate Mansfield. She died at thirty-four and illness was destroying her steadily throughout most of her adult life, first undiagnosed and untreated gonorrhea and then tuberculosis. Poverty, or the fear of poverty, and an inability to settle in one place or let anyone settle her played their parts. Mr. Alpers points to her sense of insecurity—the cultural insecurity, he suggests, of the uprooted colonial—which he makes responsible for much of the “peculiar intimacy” of her tone. …

… In her fiction too it is the rigidity, the consistency of each character’s isolation that gives the particular quality and stamp of Mansfield. In the early stories, such as “A Birthday,” “Germans at Meat,” “The Swing of the Pendulum,” “A Truthful Adventure,” and “An Indiscreet Journey,” the cold, sharp eye of the separate and defensive young woman observes her fellow men and women and finds them wanting. Beneath family complacency she divines cruelty and terror. Later Mansfield gave her characters a more inward sense of isolation; they see and enjoy and suffer the world but are pierced with the knowledge that, although they watch one another and exchange words, they do not share real joy or real desolation, which are experienced alone. This is the burden of her finest work: “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” “The Man Without a Temperament,” “Her First Ball,” “The Garden Party,” and of course “The Aloe,” rewritten as “Prelude,” and its sequel “At the Bay.”


PDFs of the complete essays from The New York Review of Books:
NYRB 1980, Tomalin on Alpers’ Biography of Mansfield

NYRB 1988, Annan on Tomalin’s Biography of Mansfield

I suggest that you read first Claire Tomalin’s 1980 review of a Mansfield biography written by Anthony Alpers. Tomalin is a bit more sympathetic to Mansfield’s life and work than is Gabrielle Annan, who, in 1988, wrote a review of Tomalin’s new biography of the writer. Annan treats Mansfield’s art (and her life) with more asperity than Tomalin. The reviews make a good pairing as, taken together, they illustrate the range of responses that Katherine Mansfield continues to inspire.


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