Novels and Novelists

Almost immediately after Katherine Mansfield died from tuberculosis, her husband John Middleton Murry began cashing in on her legend, her work, her talent—possibly because he had none of his own. Several editions of her stories, letters, and notebooks began to hit the presses, Murry plotting this mere weeks after her death, despite her injunction to destroy most of her letters:”Have a clean sweep, Bogey, and leave all fair – Will you?” This volume issued forth in 1930, a staggering collection of all of KM’s book reviews that she churned out for Murry’s periodical, The Athenaeum, between April 1919 and Dec 1920. 321 pages worth, all delicately phrased, intelligent reviews of books that were published during that time.

The quality of her reviews makes me want to stop pretending that I come close to reviewing books here (and actually, I don’t claim to. This is a mere memory aid for me). She frequently pairs novels together, like her cousin Elizabeth’s Christopher and Columbus reviewed alongside Rose Macaulay’s What Not.

It seems to me that her feelings about the authors influenced her opinions of their work. Compare her attitude toward her cousin’s writing (whom she loved) to that of Virginia Woolf’s (with whom she had a complicated relationship). The first example below is for Elizabeth.

‘Elizabeth’ appreciates their danger, for the minds of toads and spiders are open books to her. But having them by heart, she, with her delicate impatient pen, is not in the least tempted to make a solemn copy of them. All that she wants she can convey with a comment – at a stroke. There is a whole volume for one of our psychological authors in Mr. Twist’s quarrel with his mother; she dismisses it in a little chapter.

And therein perhaps lies her value as a writer; she is, in the happiest way, conscious of her own particular vision, and she wants no other. She is so enchanted with the flowers growing in the path she has chosen that she has not, as the twins might say, a ‘single eye to spare’ for her neighbors. In a world where there are so many furies with warning fingers it is good to know of someone who goes on her way finding a gay garland, and not forgetting to add a sharp-scented spray or two and a bitter herb that its sweetness may not cloy.

On Virginia’s Kew Gardens:

But it would seem that the author, with her wise smile, is as indifferent as the flowers to these odd creatures and their ways. The tiny rich minute life of a snail—how she  describes it! the angular high-stepping green insect—how passionate is her concern for him! Fascinated and credulous, we believe these things are all her concern until suddenly with a gesture she shows us the flower-bed, growing, expanding in the heat and light, filling a whole world.

On Virginia’s Night and Day (a review which rankled VW, who noted “KM wrote a review which irritated me – I though I saw spite in it. A decorous elderly dullard she describes me; Jane Austen up to date.”):

It is impossible to refrain from comparing ‘Night and Day’ with the novels of Miss Austen. There are moments, indeed, when one is almost tempted to cry it Miss Austen up-to-date. It is extremely cultivated, distinguished and brilliant, but above all—deliberate. There is not a chapter where one is unconscious of the writer, of her personality, her point of view, and her control of the situation. We feel that nothing has been imposed on her: she has chosen her world, selected her principal characters with the nicest care, and having traced a circle round them so that they exist and are free within its confines, she has proceeded, with rare appreciativeness, to register her observations. The result is a very long novel, but we do not see how it could be otherwise. This leisurely progression is essential to its manner, nor could the reader, even if he would, drink such wine at a gulp.

Among other notables, she reviewed Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, a seemingly positive review until the last line, “Heaven forbid Miss Stein should become a fashion!”