Life of Katherine Mansfield

The Life of Katherine Mansfield

Alpers’ bio from 1980 should be taken with a grain of salt since not all of the notebooks/journals/letters had been released, and (dare I say?)  standards for scholarly biography were a bit lower then. He’s not reluctant about jumping in with bold statements, claiming to have broken KM’s code for who “China” was that the more cautious Margaret Scott claimed not to know in her 2002 epic treatment of the journals. (Alpers claims it’s Orage, Scott notes on p316 “China remains unidentified”) Overall kind of a weird look at Mansfield’s life, I couldn’t tell if he was sneering at her literary ambitions occasionally.

An entire chapter is devoted to the relationship between KM and VW, so I had plenty of pages to raise my eyebrow over. Most egregious, Alpers flat out claims that KM helped VW “break out of the mould in which she had been working hitherto;” his evidence? that VW had only pub’d one long novel when they met, but then pub’d two short pieces. Close on the heels of that stupidity, the pages and pages of ink spilled over VW’s comment that KM stank like a street walking civet cat. He digresses into what others said about KM’s appearance, Lady Ottoline describing her dress as “rather a cheap taste.” And here comes some of that Alpers tone that I grew to hate, that patronizing snoot, “But the further one tries to pursue this matter by authorities, the further certainty recedes. How a woman’s dress strikes other women is one of the greater mysteries.” No, Alpers. The greater mystery is how you have survived as a writer all these years. Why are you so concerned about this question?

There’s also some bullshit about “a little love affair” that Quentin Bell cooked up in V’s feelings for K; nothing comparable to Vita, but “a fascination, all the same, with K’s elusive personality and all her wide experience.”

All this aside, if you have that wad of salt you’re taking this tale with, it does a good service in weaving in some extra detail from LM/Ida Baker’s memoirs/letters to Alpers and fills in the blank on some of the hazier parts of KM’s timeline.

Beginning in the May 1912 New Age, Orage launched a personal attack against KM in a moral fable that ran 6 weeks, in a series “Tales for Men Only” where Orage “intended to expose the disastrous effects of female influence on the masculine mind. It exhibits his own male attitudes at their most illiberal, but it contains the first and for a long time the best attempt in print to describe what it was that made her work unique; and it is the only full-length portrayal of KM in her New Age phase – her masks and her vanishing tricks, her flat with its bohemian décor, her literary small talk, and her tricky little ways with men, whom she keeps in separate compartments. It is full of hostile glimpses of the K we know, or think we know. It is also, with its grating and dangerous tone, a reminder of what risks awaited any vulnerable young woman who chose to reveal her nature and her ambitions to the mainly masculine literary world of 1912.”