The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks

Katherine Mansfield Notebooks: Complete Edition

This two volume set was carefully collected by Margaret Scott, who began her work by transcribing a few sentences a day when she worked as a librarian in the New Zealand library where Mansfield’s manuscripts (and most of the notebooks) were stored. Scott surprisingly does not come after Murry (KM’s husband) hard, excusing him for the thankless task of deciphering her handwriting and dealing with the poison pills of hate for him she left behind. She even manages to avoid casting aspersions of him selling off KM’s notebooks to pay for a tractor on his farm.

In the intro, Scott specifically mentions the relationship KM had with her father’s cousin, “Elizabeth” (Mary Annette Beauchamp, who wrote a best seller called Elizabeth and her German Garden in 1898.) What struck me was the similarity to what I’ve been pulling out of VW’s writing about KM. Scott: “The two women, a generation apart in age, admired each other but were to some extent rivals. KM envied Elizabeth’s literary popularity and money and luxurious mode of life, but knew that she herself was the better artist. It was a comfort to have Elizabeth living only half an hour away from the Chalet des Sapins where KM lived with Murry for that period, yet the two women never fully accepted each other. They were both constantly wary – KM’s side of which is reflected here.

A note on the numbering– I can’t find confirmation of this, but I believe the notebooks are numbered based on their order of being acquired by either the Turnbull Library (NZ) or Newberry Library (Chicago).  Scott has then ordered them based on chronology of the contents.

Volume I (1898-1914?)

There are juicy gems lying in wait throughout the early notebooks, completely disregarded by Murry in his roundup of her Journals. Notebook 1 contains “I feel passionate & mad. Why not write something good. Here’s a thought. Of course it may be nothing.” Notebook 39 contains a boatload of quotations, mostly Oscar Wilde but also several from KM herself. Two of hers: “Happy people are never brilliant. It implies friction” and “Ambition is a curse if you are not armour-proof against everything else, unless you are willing to sacrifice yourself to your ambition.” Later in this notebook, “I must wander. I cannot- will not – build a house upon any damned rock. But money – money – money is what I need and do not possess.” Also “I want to practically celebrate this day by beginning to write a book. In my brain, as I walk each day, as I dress, as I speak, or even before playing my ‘cello, a thousand delicate images float and are gone. I want to write a book – that is unreal yet wholly possible because out of the question – that raises in the hearts of the readers emotions, sensations too vivid not to take effect, which causes a thousand delicate tears, a thousand sweet chimes of laughter. I shall never attempt anything approaching the histrionic, and it must be ultra-modern.”

More gold from Notebook 39, written in 1907: “I am so eternally thankful that I did not allow J – to kiss me – I am constantly hearing of him, and I feel to meet him would be horrible. But why? It is ridiculous – I used him merely for copy. I am always so supremely afraid of appearing ridiculous. The feeling is fostered by Oscar who has so absolutely the essence of savoir faire. . I like to appear in any society entirely at my ease, conscious of my own importance – which in my estimation is unlimited – affable, and very receptive. I like to appear slightly condescending, very much of la grand monde, & to be the centre of interest. Yes, but quelque foi to my unutterable chagrin, unmistakable shyness seizes me… I thank Heaven that at present, though I am damnable, I am in love with nobody – except myself.”

Same notebook, 1908: “To weave the intricate tapestry of one’s own life it is well to take a thread from many harmonious skeins, and to realise that there must be harmony.”

Notebook 18 is dated 1914 I believe. On the 26 of March, she noted being uncomfortable in society: “I was wretched. I have nothing to say to ‘charming’ women. I feel like a cat among tigers. The ladies left to themselves talked ghosts & childbeds. I am wretchedly unhappy among everybody – and the silence…”

Notebook 10 contains Shakespeare quotations that Murry noted were copied out sometimes by KM and sometimes by him when they used to read part of a play of S each night. Whomever wasn’t reading would jot down lines that struck them. I love this thoroughly pleasurable way of spending an evening!

Volume II (1914? – 1922?)

I was glad to recognize some old friends here from passages Murry selected for his version of her Journals, like her musings on Henry James (“I can wade through pages and pages of dull, turgid James for the sake of that sudden sweet shock, that violent throb of delight that he gives me at times”). This volume also includes tons of new stuff, reinforcing things that I highlighted before, such as her obsession with making money. Notebook 4: “For this year [1915] I have two wishes  to write  to make money… It is only poverty that holds us so tightly. Well, J doesn’t want money & wont earn money. I must. How? First, get this book finished – that is a start. When. At the end of January. If you do that you are saved. If I wrote night & day I could do it. Yes I could. Right O.”

KM had money issues with Murry as well, and he wrote her a series of letters that are “a constant cry about money. He has none: he saw no chance of getting any, ‘heavy debts’, ‘as you know I am bankrupt’, ‘I know it sounds callous’, ‘I can’t face it’… Before that I’d been the man and he had been the woman & he had been called upon to make no real efforts. He’d never really ‘supported’ me. When we first met, in fact, it was I who kept him and afterwards we’d always acted (more or less) like men friends.”

You can see why Murry heavily edited himself out of his version of her Journals. “But my life with Jack I’m not inclined to [relive at will]. It doesn’t enter my head. Where that life was there’s just a blank. The future – the present life with him is not. It has got to be lived. There’s nothing in it. Something has stopped – a wall has been raised and its too recent for me to wish to go there even… I’m not in the least curious either – & not in the least inclined to lament… If one wasn’t so afraid – why should I be – these aren’t going to be read by Bloomsbury et Cie – I’d say we had a child – a love child & its dead.”

9 Feb 1920: “I feel I must live alone alone alone – with artists only to come to the door. Every artist cuts off his ear & nails it on the outside of the door for the others to shout into.”

Unbound papers dated 1919-1920, KM is much more revealing than I’ve ever seen: “True to oneself! Which self? Which of my many – well, really, thats what it looks like coming to – hundreds of selves. For what with complexes and suppressions, and reactions and vibrations and reflections – there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests. Nevertheless, there are signs that we are intent as never before on trying to puzzle out, to live by, our own particular self. Der mensch muss frei sein – free, disentangled, single. Is it not possible that the rage for confession, autobiography, especially for memories of earliest childhood is explained by our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent, which, untouched by all we acquire and all we shed, pushes a green spear through the leaves and through the mould, thrusts a sealed bud through years of darkness until, one day, the light discovers it and shakes the flower free and – we are alive – we are flowering for our moment upon the earth. This is the moment which, after all, we live for, the moment of direct feeling when we are most ourselves and least personal.”

In Notebook 38: “Oh to be a writer a real writer given up to it and to it alone! Oh I failed today I turned back, looked over my shoulder and immediately it happened I felt as tho’ I too were struck down.”

Her love of nature in Notebook 25: “September is different to all other months. It is more magical. I feel the strange chemical change in the earth which produces mushrooms is the cause, too, of this extra ‘life’ in the air – a resilience, a sparkle.”

Unbound papers, October 1920: KM struggles with the idea of a story: “What I ought to do, though is to write it, somehow, immediately, even if it’s not good enough to print. My chief fault, my overwhelming fault is in not writing it out. Well, now that I know it (and the disease is of very long standing) why don’t I begin at least to follow a definite treatment? It is my experience that once an ‘evil’ is recognised any delay in attempted to eradicate it is fatally weakening. And I who love order, with my mania for the ‘clean sweep’, for every single thing being ‘ship-shape’… I to know there’s such an ugly spot in my mind! Weeds flourish in neglect. I must keep my garden open to the light and in order. I must at all costs plant these bulbs and not leave them (oh shameful!) to rot on the garden paths! Today (October 18th.20) is Monday. I have raised my right hand & sworn. Am I ever happy except when overcoming difficulties? Never. Am I ever free from the sense of guilt, even? Never. After I had finished that slight sketch of The Young Girl wasn’t there a moment which surpasses all other moments? Oh, yes. Then – why do you hesitate? How can you! I take my oath – not one day shall pass without I write something – original.”

Notebook 35, she wrestles with the idea of peace of mind. “What is peace of mind? Did I ever have it?” Murry is hiding letters which are evidence of his affair with Princess Elizabeth Bibesco. “So whenever I look at him and whenever I am with him there is that secret and I can’t give him all I long to give him nor can I rest in him because of it. I have no abiding place. Peace of mind. Yes, I had it when I was first here…. No, I’ve been poisoned by these ‘letters’. How can he know someone so strange to me? To us? Not only know her but cherish her?” The “I have no abiding place” breaks my heart into a million pieces; KM was always on the move, looking for a place to settle down, a home.

Notebook 36 (with “1. Baby 2. Thief 3. Snow” written on the cover), on writing: “Oh, I must not yield! I must, this evening, after my supper, get something done. It’s not so terribly hard after all. And how I shall live my good life if I am content to pass even one day in idleness. It won’t do. Control – of all kinds. How easy it is to lack control in little things. And once one does lack it the small bad habits – tiny perhaps –  spring up like weeds & choke on’e will. that is what I find.”

In Notebooks 6 and 44, KM records her impressions of various Shakespeare plays, pulling out her favorite lines and analyzing them.

The very short Notebook 21 starts with a list of household accounts and also includes this gem: “It is remarkable how much there is of the ordinary man in J. For instance, finding no towels in his room tonight his indignation, sense of injury, desire so to shut his door that it would bring the house down – his fury, in fact in having to look for the blarsted things – all was just precisely what one would have expected of his Father … It makes one think again of the separation of the ARTIST and the MAN. It’s like his Why is lunch late? As tho’ I had but to wave my hand and the banquet descended. But doesn’t that prove how happy he would have been with a real WIFE!

Newberry Notebook 6, on writing. “Wasting time. The old cry – the first and last cry. Why do ye tarry! Ah, why indeed! My deepest desire is to be a writer, to have a “body of work” done, and there the work is, there the stories wait for me, grow tired, wilt, fade, because I will not come. When first they knock how fresh and eager they are. And I hear & I acknowledge them & still I go on sitting at the window playing with the ball of wool. What is to be done. I must make another effort, at once. I must begin all over again. I must try and write simply, fully, freely, from my heart. Quietly, caring nothing for success or failure, but just going on.”

Notebook 41: “I wonder why it should be so difficult to be humble. I do not think I am a good writer; I realise my faults better than anyone else could realise them. I know exactly where I fail. And yet, when I have finished a story & before I have begun another I catch myself preening my feathers. It is disheartening. There seems to be some bad old pride in my heart; a root of it that puts out a thick shoot on the slightest provocation… This interferes very much with work. One can’t be calm, clear, good as one must be while it goes on. I look at the mountains, I try to pray, & I think of something clever. It’s a kind of excitement within one which shouldn’t be there. Calm yourself. Clear yourself. And anything that I write in this mood will be no good; it will be full of sediment. If I were well I would go off by myself somewhere & sit under a tree. One must learn, one must practice to forget oneself.”

Unbound papers: “I seem to have lost all power of writing. I can think, in a vague way, and it all seems more or less real and worth doing. But I can’t get any further. I can’t write it down. Sometimes I think my brain is going. But no! I know the real reason. It’s because I am still suffering from a kind of nervous prostration caused by my life in Paris. For instance, those interviews with the dentist.” More on writing in that same bundle: “I have been thinking over this story this morning. I suppose I know as much about it now as I shall know. So it seems. And if just the miracle happened I could walk into it and make it mind. Even to write that brings it all nearer. It’s very strange, but the mere act of writing anything is a help. It seems to speed one on one’s way. But my feet are so cold.”

January 1922 diaries are in Notebook 20. “I have left undone those things which I ought to have done and I have done those things which I ought not to have done e.g. violent impatience with L.M.   Wrote The Doves Nest this afternoon. I was in no mood to write; it seemed impossible, yet when I had finished three pages they were ‘alright’. This is a proof (never to be too often proved) that once one has though out a story nothing remains but the labour.” Also something I think I already copied from Murry’s version of Journal about what she admires in Austen “what she promises she performs i.e. if Sir T. is to arrive we have his arrival at length and it’s excellent and excels our expectations. This is rare; it is also my very weakest point. Easy to see why…”

On January 11, 1922 a visit from ‘Elizabeth’ – “In the afternoon Elizabeth dame. She looked fascinating in her black suit; something between a Bishop and a Fly. She spoke of my “pretty little story” in The Mercury [The Garden Party]. All the white she was here I was conscious of a falsity. We said things we meant; we were sincere but at the back there was nothing but falsity. It was very horrible. I do not want ever to see her or to hear from her again. When she said she would not come often I wanted to cry Finito. No, she is not my friend. There is no feeling to be compared with the joy of having written and finished a story.” Despite her threats, on January 14 Elizabeth comes again “She and I were alone. She wore a little blue hood fastened under the chin with a diamond clasp. She looked like a very ancient drawing. She suggested that if I did become cured I might no longer write…” On January 27, another visit: “A strange fate overtakes me with her. We seem to be always talking of physical subjects. They bore and disgust me for I feel it is a waste of time and yet we always revert to them.”

Also in the January 1922 diaries, thoughts on Chekov & writing. “The truth is one can get only so much into a story; there is always a sacrifice. One has to leave out what one know & longs to use. Why? I haven’t any idea but there it is. It’s always a kind of race, to get in as much as one can before it disappears. ”

Notebook 5 begins with my favorite theme: “I find the rapture at being alone hard to understand. Certainly when I am sitting out of sight under a tree I feel I would be content to never return… Should I be as happy with anyone by my side? No. I’d begin to talk, & it’s far nicer not to talk.” She goes on with a bit of caution that strikes my heart: “I do not want to be a book worm. A worm burrows everlastingly. If its book is taken away from it the little blind head is raised, it wags, hovers, terribly uneasy, in a void until it begins to burrow again.”

Random bits

Virginia Woolf is only mentioned once in the 700+ pages: “1 July 1920… Virginia Wed. afternoon”. T.S. Eliot only mentioned as his address is in her address book (Eliot, T.S. 18 Crawford Mansions, Baker Street, London).

A postal strike in France keeps letters from KM in 1919.

She includes details of her income and expenses, like toilet paper, soap, cold chicken, taxis, cigarettes, laundry, telegrams, flowers, medicine, envelopes, stamps, ink, butter, oatmeal, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, garlic, rice, flour, vinegar, mustard, nutmeg, chocolate, rennet, eggs, lettuce.

The notebooks also contain unfinished scraps of stories and plays, too numerous to mention.

She’s hilarious at times, such as this rant against her constant companion, Ida Baker/Lesley Moore: “L.M. is also exceedingly fond of bananas. But she eats them so slowly, so terribly slowly. And they know it somehow: they realise what is in store for them when she reaches out her hand. I have seen bananas turn absolutely livid with terror on her plate – or pale as ashes.”

Discovered Georges Banks in a footnote: a woman artist who with her friend, the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, physically attacked Murry in his office in 1913 because they thought he cheated them out of payments. Sydney Janet Kaplan has this explanation in her book, Circulating Genius: John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield and D. H. Lawrence: