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!”

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.”

The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks

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:

Journal of Katherine Mansfield

Should you trust the journal of an author edited and released by her husband a few years after her death? (Answer? No. See addendum at very end.) Murry’s gotten a lot of flak over the years for supposedly exploiting KM by releasing her journal, but I’m glad we have something, even if it’s an edited version. I wonder if he stripped any bits about Woolf out, specifically because I’m on the hunt for traces of their relationship, the Woolves being the high-powered literary couple that perhaps he did not want to anger. Virginia writes in a letter to Vita her reactions upon reading KM’s Journal: “I’ve been reading KM with a mixture of sentiment and horror. What odd friends I’ve had – you and she.” (5 Aug 1927) I’ve yet to get to her diary reaction, perhaps there’s more gold there. Lounsberry notes that the “horror” was likely driven by Mansfield’s revealed religious bent.

At any rate, this Journal covers the last eight years of Katherine Mansfield life as she struggles with illness (pleurisy, consumption) and with getting all the writing done that she had in her.

March 31, 1914: A splendid fine morning, but as I know I have to go out and change the cheque and pay the bills, I can do nothing and I feel wretched. Life is a hateful business, there’s no denying it. When G and J were talking in the Park of physical well-being and of how they could still look forward to ‘parties,’ I nearly groaned. And I am sure J could get a great deal of pleasure out of pleasant society. I couldn’t. I’ve done with it, and can’t combat it at all now. I had so much rather lean idly over the bridge and watch the boats and the free, unfamiliar people and feel the wind blow. No, I hate society.

May 16, 1915: I bought a book by Henry James yesterday and read it, as they say, ‘until far into the night.’ It was not very interesting or very good, but 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. I don’t doubt this is genius: only there is an extraordinary amount of pan and an amazingly raffiné flash – One thing I want to annotate. His hero, Bernard Longueville, brilliant, rich, dark, agile, etc., though a witty companion, is perhaps wittiest and most amused when he is alone, and preserves his best things for himself… All the attributive adjectives apart I am witty, I know, and a good companion – but I feel my case is exactly like his – the amount of minute and delicate joy I get out of watching people and things when I am alone is simply enormous – I really only have ‘perfect fun’ with myself… Life with other people becomes a blur: it does with J, but it’s enormously valuable and marvellous when I’m alone, the detail of life, the life of life.

Feb 13, 1916: I have written practically nothing yet, and now again the time is getting short… I keep half-doubting my will to perform anything… Why do I hesitate so long? Is it just idleness? Lack of will-power? Yes, I feel that’s what it is, and that’s why it’s so immensely important that I should assert myself… This year I have to make money and get known. I want to make enough money to be able to give LM some [Lesley Moore/Ida Baker]. In fact, I want to provide for her. That’s my idea, and to make enough so that J and I shall be able to pay our debts and live honourably.

Feb 19, 1918: I don’t want to be ill… I don’t want to find this is real consumption, perhaps it’s going to gallop – who knows?  – and I shan’t have my work written. That’s what matters. How unbearable it would be to die – leave ‘scraps,’ ‘bits,’ nothing real finished.

May 22, 1918: [Looe, Cornwall, England] The sea here is real sea. It rises and falls with a loud noise, has a long, silky roll on it as though it purred, seems sometimes to climb half up into the sky and you see the sail boats perched upon clouds – like flying cherubs.

July 1918: I pose myself, yet once more, my Eternal Question. What is it that makes the moment of delivery so difficult for me? If I were to sit down – now – and just to write out, plain, some of the stories – all written, all ready, in my mind ‘twould take me days. There are so many of them. I sit and think them out and if I overcome my lassitude and do take the pen they ought (they are so word perfect) to write themselves… Whenever I have a conversation about Art which is more or less interesting I begin to wish to God I could destroy all that I have written and start again: it all seems like so many ‘false starts.’ Oh how badly this is expressed! How confused and even ungrammatical!

May 19, 1919: I really only ask for time to write it all – time to write my books. Then I don’t mind dying. I live to write. The lovely world (God, how lovely the external world is!) is there and I bathe in it and am refreshed. But I feel as though I had a DUTY, someone has set me a task which I am bound to finish. Let me finish it: let me finish it without hurrying – leaving all as fair as I can.

May 31, 1919: Shall I be able to express one day my love of work – my desire to be a better writer – my longing to take greater pains. And the passion I feel. It takes the place of religion – it is my religion – of people – I create my people: of ‘life’ – it is Life.

June 21, 1919: I have consumption. There is still a great deal of moisture (and pain) in my BAD lung. But I do not care. I do not want anything I could not have. Peace, solitude, time to write my books, beautiful external life to watch and ponder – no more. O, I’d like a child as well – a baby boy; mais je demande trop! [This confused me… it seems from her stories and letters that she’s pretty anti-child]

Feb 29, 1920: 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 though I too were struck down. The day turned cold and dark on the instant. It seemed to belong to summer twilight in London, to the clang of the gates as they close the garden, to the deep light painting the high houses, to the smell of leaves and dust, to the lamp-light, to that stirring of the senses, to the languor of twilight, the breath of it on one’s cheek, all those things which (I feel today) are gone from me for ever… I feel today that I shall die soon and suddenly: but not of my lungs. There are moments when Dickens is possessed by this power of writing: he is carried away. That is bliss. It certainly is not shared by writers today.

August 1921:  “I have been writing a story about an old man.” She looked vague. “But I don’t think I like old men—do you?” said she. “They exude so.” This horrified me. It seemed so infernally petty, and more than that… it was the saying of a vulgar little mind. Later: I think it was shyness.

January 2, 1922: I have not done the work I should have done. I shirk the lunch party [see The Doves’ Nest]. This is very bad. In fact I am disgusted with myself. There must be a change from now on. What I chiefly admire in Jane Austen is that what she promises, she performs, i.e. if Sir T is to arrive, we have his arrival at length, and it’s excellent and exceeds our expectations. This is rare; it is also my very weakest point. Easy to see why…

Added notes once I read about Murry’s treatment of the material:

Barbara Lounsberry: “Although readers must be grateful for Murry’s devotion and skill in translating Mansfield’s almost illegible hand, the 1927 Journal is astonishingly unreliable and self-serving. It also serves Mansfield in a misguided way, for it projects an image of a purse soul, a saintly suffering mystic, that in the full spread of her notebooks and papers proves simple, sentimental, and false.” Later she notes that Murry’s 1927 version has been “discredited and supplanted” by The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks by Margaret Scott, but that the version is a “curious yet brilliant monument to reputation-making, to a husband’s mythologizing a dead wife.”

She notes that Murry claimed KM destroyed all record of the time between 1909 and 1914 when in reality he had four notebooks and many unbound pages from that time period. Comparing Margaret Scott’s complete version of the Notebooks with Murry’s whitewashed version, he left out his loss of status in her eyes and her unhappiness with him. To wit, this has been excised: “How little Jack shares with me… He ought not to have married. There never was a creature less fitted by nature for life with a woman.” In another passage, he leaves out “I do not trust Jack.”

Stories by Katherine Mansfield

I was curious about Prelude, the story hand printed and stitched by VW on the Hogarth Press in 1918. It nestles up nicely to At the Bay (1922), where the story is continued, and which is one of my favorite KM stories. Prelude deals with the family moving from town to the countryside, mother Linda languid and not caring too much about the whereabouts or activities of her daughters. In fact, at the beginning, she jokes of jettisoning them, leaving them behind, because there’s not room in the cart for the two youngest. “A strange little laugh flew from her lips, she leaned back against the buttoned leather cushions and shut her eyes, her lips trembling with laughter.” This fits nicely with her attitude toward her infant son in At the Bay where she tells him coldly, “I don’t like babies.”

In Prelude Linda reveals her delicacy, that she may die at any moment, “I have had three great lumps of children already…” And she wavers between love and hatred of her husband: “For all her love and respect and admiration she hated him… It had never been so plain to her as it was at this moment. There were all her feelings for him, sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest. She could have done her feelings up in packets and given them to Stanley. She longed to hand him that last one, for a surprise. She could see his eyes as he opened that… She hugged her folded arms and began to laugh silently. How absurd life was– it was laughable, simply laughable. And why this mania of hers to keep alive at all? For it really was a mania, she though, mocking and laughing.”

The Montana Stories

An interesting method of collecting some of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories in a new way—chronologically, and only those written during a brief, highly-productive period of seven months in Switzerland in 1921. Includes several previously unpublished fragments and some slightly cheesy stories she wrote for The Sphere magazine just to pay the bills. My favorite of her stories is among these—At the Bay—and the children in that story show up again in The Doll’s House, a tale where the sisters (Kezia, Isabel, Lottie) receive a gorgeous doll house and invite everyone in their school in pairs of two to see it except, cruelly, the poorest girls in school; Kezia sneaks them in to see it and is roundly scolded. The Garden Party was written during this hectic productive period, too, and those children in it show up elsewhere in Her First Ball, written earlier in the month; strangely they all seem to be named after characters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (Meg, Jose, Laura, Laurie).

One previously unread piece was the unfinished A Married Man’s Story, with deadly precision about a writer’s process:

Curious! Before I wrote it down, while it was still in my head, I was delighted with it. It seemed to express, and more, to suggest, just what I wanted to say. But written, I can smell the falseness immediately and the… source of the smell is in that word ‘fleet.’ Don’t you agree? Fleet, grey brothers! ‘Fleet’. A word I never use. When I wrote ‘wolves’ it skimmed across my mind like a shadow and I couldn’t resist it. Tell me! Tell me! Why is it so difficult to write simply—and not only simply but sotto voce, if you know what I mean? That is how I long to write. No fine effects—no bravura. But just the plain truth, as only a liar can tell it.


Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield

Always a fan of Mansfield’s short stories, I plucked this book from the shelves without glancing inside. I would later find myself reading a Franken-book produced by a company called “” (check out their website… no really! It’s pre-web).

It makes you appreciate the actual craft of book design once your eyes are scarred by being force-fed story atop story. Clearly this book has been printed from some enormous text file, no one caring for the white space necessary to demarc the end of one story and beginning of another.

This company chose 35 of Mansfield stories, with little rhyme or reason, and stuffed them tip to toe into this volume. Some I’d already read in the 13 stories about a German pension. Some were cribbed from the awesome Garden Party and other stories. And a handful were new to me, which I suffered through the poorly-designed text to savor her words. Design matters, Digireads.

In a German Pension: Thirteen Stories

I went to the library with a list of titles I thought might be worth reading and none of them passed muster. Exasperated, I looked up on a shelf near me and spotted this slim volume of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, her first published collection, which contains the supposed Chekhov plagiarism in The-Child-Who-Was-Tired story. For this reason, Mansfield was supposedly keen to see this collection sink into obscurity, hoping that no one would discover the copying. I for one disagree in this theory, having just read a translated version of Sleepy (by Chekhov). The only similarities are that the main character is a young servant girl who is worked hard and who is desperately tired, who then realizes that her salvation is in smothering/strangling the baby who intrudes on her sleep. For anyone who attempts to write, you see the words formed by Mansfield and have an appreciation for them on their own. So the contours of the plot are the same, so what? It’s not like we don’t repeat the same boy-meets-girl story over and over.

The rest of the stories are without controversy and delightful, Mansfield working her magic to make you laugh unexpectedly, wryly smile. The narrator in the story, the “I” is a woman taking the cure in Germany from England, but neither English nor American (Mansfield was Australian). In one of the stories, a group from the hotel goes on an 8 kilometer excursion and she hears the lady novelist pontificating about beauty and how women must give themselves as gifts to men. KM echoes a line she earlier gave to the man insisting that the hike was 7.5 kilometers, who argues back and forth with an old man on the road: “Ignorance must not go contradicted!” This last utterance to cap off her retort to the novelist that her theory about women and love was way out of date.

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life

What a relief it is to be able to pick up a book again after two days of being committed to activities that forbade it. I read Tomalin’s biography of Katherine Mansfield with my copy of Virginia Woolf’s Vol 1 Diary close at hand, to revel in Woolf’s dismissal of Mansfield’s hubby Murry and delight in Woolf’s enthusiasms about KM herself. (April 1919: “I had tea with Katherine yesterday & Murry sat there mud-colored & mute… The male atmosphere is disconcerting to me. Do they distrust one? despise one? & if so why do they sit on the whole length of one’s visit?” VW also includes an amusing anecdote about hearing Murry drone on and on about his own accomplishments but VW fearing she’d be late for dinner interjects a brief comment about her own novel, which sends Murry spiraling back to earth … “d’you know I must be going.”) VW and KM famously shared high opinions of each other’s work, and the biographer grants credit for VW’s shift away from the traditional novel structure to KM’s review of Night and Day, who called it “Jane Austen up-to-date.”
In the intro, Tomalin calls out

Her life was essentially a lonely one. She traveled too far outside the boundaries of accepted behavior for her family to feel she was one of them, but she did not find herself at home in any other group, nor did she make a family of her own. The particular stamp of her fiction is also the isolation in which each character dwells. Failure to understand or to be understood is endemic in Mansfield… Family life may have a complacent surface, but beneath it fear and cruelty stalk. In one of her most memorable images a good wife imagines giving her husband little packets with her feelings in them, and his surprise as he opens the last packet to find it full of hatred. Hatred was her favorite emotion.

Mansfield escaped her girlhood home of New Zealand and made her way bravely as a writer in London, although also supported by a modest allowance by her wealthy father. She lived large, free, and shacked up with various men. After becoming pregnant, she hastily married another man whom she then ignored and had an affair with another man who gave her gonorrhea, a disease that would eventually kill her through weakened immune system via tuberculosis. She inexplicably ends up with John Middleton Murry, a flop of a writer whom none of her talented friends ever really liked (including DH Lawrence). Upon the outbreak of war, Murry hurried to enlist, only to change his mind on the bus ride home, going then to his doctor to get an excuse about TB. All in all, this was a lovely biography of a writer whom we’ve all more or less turned our backs on this century.

Mid-August reading

Finally forced myself to “finish” reading The Years by Woolf; I just didn’t want it to end, I kept circling back back back to re-read. Delightful. Will definitely re-read, perhaps as soon as next month. I also gulped down another Gabrielle Bell graphic novel (her first)- Lucky (I’m preferring her later work, though).

Laura Riding’s 1928 Anarchism is not enough urges us to think critically, to reject the easy path, to consider poetry. “What is a Poem?” says that poems are nothing:

The only productive design is designed waste. Designed creation results in nothing but the destruction of the designer: it is impossible to add to what is; all is and is made. Energy that attempts to make in the sense of making a numerical increase in the sum of made things is spitefully returned to itself unused. It is a would-be-happy-ness ending in unanticipated and disordered unhappiness. Energy that is aware of the impossibility of positive construction devotes itself to an ordered using-up and waste of itself: to an anticipated unhappiness which, because it has design, foreknowledge, is the nearest approach to happiness. Undesigned unhappiness and designed happiness both mean anarchism. Anarchism is not enough.

And Katherine Mansfield. Finally, to read the other writer whom Virginia Woolf could talk shop with! I enjoyed The Garden Party and Other Stories, especially the lyrical At the Bay, describing KM’s early life in New Zealand at the beach. After setting the scene, “Ah-aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again…”, a bather alights from a bungalow, plunges into the water, “Splish-Splosh! Splish-Splosh! The water bubbled round his legs as Stanley Burnell waded out exulting. First man in as usual! He’d beaten them all again. And he swooped down to souse his head and neck” only to find that Jonathan Trout was swimming and hailing him with “Glorious morning!” Stanley has a quick swim, then back home for breakfast. After he leaves, the whole family exults. “Oh the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house. Their very voices were changed as they called to one another; they sounded warm and loving and as if they shared a secret.” Stanley’s wife Linda begrudges the children she’s had to bear: “It was all very well to say it was the common lot of women to bear children. It wasn’t true. She, for one, could prove that wrong. She was broken, made weak, her courage was gone, through child-bearing. And what made it doubly hard to bear was, she did not love her children. It was useless pretending.” Later, Jonathan drops in, reluctantly headed back to work in a few days:

‘It seems to me just as imbecile, just as infernal, to have to go to the office on Monday,” said Jonathan, ‘as it always has done and always will do. To spend all the best years of one’s life sitting on a stool from nine to five, scratching in somebody’s ledger! It’s a queer use to make of one’s… one and only life, isn’t it?’

Definitely enjoyed most of the other stories in this collection, the famous Garden Party, The Daughters of the Late Colonel (free at last after their father’s death!), Mr and Mrs Dove, 15 stories in all. Mansfield, read her.
Last but definitely not least, Evelyn Scott’s The Narrow House, published in 1921 and a miracle of prose. I picked up her ignominiously titled biography (Pretty Good For a Woman) but decided I’d rather read some of her work first. This novel reads like a five act play, with the kind of writing that knocks you out. Laurie/Laurence marries Winnie and has two kids, Bobby and poor ignored May (the oldest), lives at home with elderly father & mother and spinster sister Alice. Winnie is sick with some deathly illness, forbidden to have another child, and yet lures Laurie to impregnate her, later resulting in her death upon the arrival of baby #3. There is unrelenting tension between the father and mother, apparently he had an affair with a woman in Kansas City years earlier that resulted in a child. Alice is intent on freeing her parents of the burden of staying together, tries to get them to part. Winnie’s death is a relief, her constant whinging of being unloved, her self-love overshadowing everything.

Laurence went out of the room, out of the house A pale fiery mist rose up from between the houses and filled the wet morning street. The houses with lowered blinds were secret and filled with women. Girls going to work came out of the houses like the words of women. Women going to market passed slowly before him with their baskets. Pregnant women walked before him in confidence. The uncolored atmosphere threw back the sky. It was the mirror of women. Laurence felt crowded between the bodies of women and houses. He walked quickly with his head bent. On the concrete pavements, washed white as bones by the storm of the night before, were rust-colored puddles. Dark and still, they quivered now and again, like quiet minds touched by the horror of a recollection. The reflections of the houses lay deep in them, shattered, like dead things.