Katherine Mansfield Again

 

I finished Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of Katherine Mansfield quite a while ago, but it’s one of those books that needs to sink in. Having read Jeffrey Masson’s account of Mansfield’s life previously, I was intrigued by the difference in approach here. Tomalin is a cool, cautious biographer. Although Mansfield’s life is fraught with scandal and lies and intrigue, she downplays all that in an elegant fashion, refusing to take sides in the many arguments and disasters in which Mansfield became entangled. I admired the even-handedness of Tomalin, but wondered whether Mansfield herself would have approved: she seemed to revel in the heightened tensions of the dramatic. The vast majority of her friendships ended in acrimonious dispute, unless the friend concerned was too servile to break away from Mansfield’s influence, and her love affairs were a series of what can only be called catastrophes. It seems that Mansfield was not a very good judge of character, and for this she paid a disproportionate price.

 

She was born in New Zealand to a wealthy, sociable family. Katherine was the odd one out – rebellious, artistic, and self-dramatizing, and she despised the luxurious conservative milieu in which she was brought up. Although she fearlessly chose poverty for most of her life, it was not a state that ever really suited her. Three years at a finishing school in England marked a decisive break for her; she wanted to be involved in the arts, music or writing, or both, and she found herself attracted equally to men and women. One friend from this era, Ida Baker, was to be the most constant of all of Katherine’s companions. Katherine treated her appallingly, but Ida remained a loyal worshipper throughout the rest of her life, traveling across Europe whenever Katherine wanted her, nursing her through the worst of her many illnesses, enduring her temper tantrums and her constant demands, giving her money, furniture, places to stay, and always the best of her love. In the end Katherine would refer to her as ‘my wife’ and in the biography of her that Ida wrote fifty years later ‘She gave her the uncritical devotion of a perfect widow,’ Tomalin writes, ‘in its pages, Katherine is always either a victim – of family, of lovers, of illness – or an idol, brilliant and irresistible in all her whims.’ One might wonder what kind of mentality Ida had to put up with Mansfield’s caprices, but she wrote of Katherine, most touchingly, I think, ‘just as she expressed herself in writing, so I expressed myself in service.’ It is typical of Mansfield’s life that the person who gave to her most generously and freely, who was able in the end to do the most good for her, is the person who was most shoddily treated, abandoned and sent packing many a time, then recalled effortlessly when the need was felt.

 

Katherine fell in love first with the younger son of a family who were friends with her own. Garnet Trowell was a musician and a bit of a wimp, and when Katherine fell pregnant he was too young and insolvent to be of much help to her. Katherine rapidly arranged herself a marriage of convenience, without really informing her bewildered new husband what the deal would be, and in the end, Katherine’s mother carted her off to Germany, left her there unceremoniously and cut her out of her will. Katherine miscarried, which was a piece of ambivalent luck, as she fell in love again while in Germany with a translator, Floryan Sobieniowski. This liaison, once more lived by Mansfield as if it were a remake of Wuthering Heights, struck her down with gonorrhoea. Tomalin points out just how freakishly disastrous this was, back at the beginning of the century. At this point in medical history, men could be quickly cured of the disease, but once it infected a woman and established itself in her reproductive system, it was impossible to eradicate. Worse still, it transformed that once healthy woman into a permanent invalid, subjecting her to a series of crippling illnesses like arthritis and pleurisy whose source no doctor could properly understand, and usually rendering her infertile. From this point onwards, Katherine’s health would decline in exactly this pattern. Sobieniowski became a nuisance to her in other ways as well, tracking her down in England, years later, hanging around her and cadging a place to stay and money and work. He was aware of another uncomfortable secret of Mansfield’s, which was that one of her early published stories was an unaccredited translation of Chekov. Busy, lazy, or perhaps just hoping she’d get away with it, Katherine never fixed the mistake of her plagiarism and Tomalin suggests that many years later, once she was becoming well-known, Floryan stooped to blackmail over this sore point.

 

Katherine settled down into her most defining and most unsuccessful relationship yet with John Murray Middleton. Middleton was weak, not particularly talented, but very ambitious. He was also more than willing to fall into a fantasy world with Katherine in which they lived out a glorious love affair and were both geniuses. In reality they struggled, with not enough money, not enough success at work, and when it boiled down to it, not enough love. The sicker Katherine became, the more she clung to Murray, however, and if she had not been such an invalid (although it was Ida who took care of her, Murray disliking the atmosphere of the sick room and becoming utterly pathetic there) it is more than likely she would have left him. Instead, she built ever more preposterous fantasies around their relationship, which were easier to maintain if she lived in the South of France for her health and he stayed in England. Their most significant friendship was with D. H. Lawrence and his second wife, Frieda. The two couples became very friendly whilst Lawrence was still at the early stages of his writing career, when the great success of Sons and Lovers was followed by the excessive negative reaction against The Rainbow. Lawrence and Mansfield were very good friends, nothing more, although Lawrence was clearly fascinated by her personality: Tomalin points out the number of characters in his work who dramatize parts of her life story. But even this relationship had a negative impact on Mansfield’s life, as Tomalin suggests that Lawrence was the source of the consumption that would kill her so young.

 

Looking back over her life and the pattern of her relationships, I couldn’t help feeling that two great forces of infection and resistance played havoc with Mansfield’s existence. She stood resolute and firm against influences that could have been good for her; her family’s support, Ida’s selfless love, and even the friendship with Virginia Woolf that occurred when Woolf was a fledgling writer and Mansfield fully established, and that Mansfield distanced herself from with queenly disdain although she loved discussing literature with another intelligent woman. Instead she kept company with dangerously contagious spirits, not just in terms of physical diseases, but also in terms of her writing influences: D. H. Lawrence always swore that Katherine was never as good a writer as she could have been because she allowed herself to be infected with the sickly sentimentality favoured by Murray. He felt it besmirched the qualities of purity, impartiality and fragility that were visible in her best works. But Katherine was a woman who played out her identity in a multitude of parts, and presenting herself with self-absorbed dramatic flair probably blinded her to the weaknesses and problems of her supporting cast. It is a flaw in the attention seeking that they are not sufficiently discerning in their choice of audience. And yet in terms of her work, Tomalin portrays Mansfield as a woman utterly serious about her craft, determined to write well, battling illness with remarkable fortitude to produce her literary legacy of short stories. She concludes by summing up Mansfield thus: ‘If she was never a saint, she was certainly a martyr, and a heroine in her recklessness, her dedication and her courage.’ I thought this was an excellent introduction to a difficult, if fascinating, woman writer, and I would warmly recommend it.

14 thoughts on “Katherine Mansfield Again

  1. Gosh. What a life! What a post! Where to start?
    Well, following on from Alice Munro, on the previous post, I instantly wondered when’s the biopic coming out? I note the references you make to her dramatising of herself. You seem to support it yourself as you tell us Mansfield and Sobieniowski’s liaison, was ‘lived by Mansfield as if it were a remake of Wuthering Heights’. Then I wonder what does this say about the nature/nurture debate? Why was she such an odd one out in the family? As to Ida, Mansfield seems her silver screen idol, her knight in shining armour, to be propitiated by her own servile love, rather like the knights of chivalry serving their ladies, who treat them with disdain, travelling in quest of a holy grail. That’s it – another remake – Monty Mansfield and the Holy Grail. Sorry. Flights of fantasy! However, interesting how issues of gender seem to be alive here. If anything Mansfield seems to be a ‘male’ presence in many of these relationships, the idolizing Ida, the feeble Middleton Murray, the dubious Sobieniowski.It always strikes me as odd that a writer so perceptive could, in life, be a poor judge of character, as you say. Opens up perspectives on how literature appears to illuminate life. I’ve got to say I’ve only come across her in regard to Woolf and Lawrence, but she sounds like someone heading for the old TBR pile.

  2. I know almost nothing about Mansfield, so this post was fascinating. I love a good biography and, as you know, find it quite relevant. I sometimes wonder whether my current life is just way too dull for me to be much of a writer…

  3. I knew almost none of this and it is fascinating indeed. I haven’t always liked Tomalin’s biographies but you have made me want to read this one. Thanks.

  4. What a fascinating figure! I knew little about Mansfield beyond her ambivalent relationship with Woolf, and all this information is certainly intriguing. She’s someone whose biography I could happily read even though I haven’t read much of her work, although surely the biography would inspire me to read more of it. As for Tomalin, I really enjoyed her biography of Samuel Pepys.

  5. I read this a while ago, as I adore Katherine Mansfield’s writing, and actually found it quite a tricky one. Somehow, despite Tomalin’s excellent research and style, I found Mansfield remained a very shadowy figure. Perhaps that was accurate, even with all her activity and the famous people she knew? Or perhaps I’d never be satisfied with the author’s life, as it could never match up to the beauty of her writing?!?

  6. Bookboxed – why Mansfield is the odd one out in her family is an intriguing question. The book suggests that she was the least loved daughter – awkward and unworldly in manner, less charming than her sisters, introspective and critical. It also suggests, equally fascinatingly, that Ida was set up as the mother Mansfield wanted but never had – completely unconditionally loving. I think you are spot on when you point out her innate masculinity. Emily – oh not at all! From what I read of your current life, it is full of significance and beauty and interest! Take comfort from Jane Austen that you can lead a good, loving life and write wonderfully witty and urbane novels. Harriet – thank you so much! This is the first book I have read by Tomalin and am most interested to know your opinion on her. I’ll check your site for reviews. Dorothy – I think this is a book you would like! And I’d love to know what you make of it. Thank you so much for the recommendation of the Pepys biography. I notice she has also written on Mary Wollstonecraft, which might interest us both. Simon – do you know, I understand just what you mean. I wondered whether Tomalin was being polite and at the points where she had nothing nice to say about her subject, chose to say nothing. Mansfield seemed to have aroused fierce passions in others, but Tomalin was gently compassionate throughout, and perhaps left us with more shadowy contours in consequence. I am delighted to find you, too, by the way, and will certainly be adding you to my blogroll!

  7. Hello, Litlove! I won’t pretend to know anything about Katherine Mansfield, but it’s been so long since I’ve commented here at the Reading Room I wanted you to be sure to know I’m still here reading and admiring what you do and wishing you the best. I might have commented about your post on Henry Miller, but I was sick this week and only saw it for the first time today. But I’ll get back to that and reflect on it for you soon. Until then!

  8. Hello David! You’ll always find a warm welcome here in the reading room whenever you can make it. I know you’re very busy. But I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been unwell! I’m thinking of you and sending the very best recovery vibes over to you and do hope you’re feeling much better now. I’d love to know your thoughts on Miller, but just whenever you can.

  9. I’ve only known Mansfield through her fiction. It is interesting to get a glimpse into her life. D.H. Lawrence’s comment about her never quite writing as well as she could have is a fascinating idea to ponder. I don’t know whether he was right, but its true that sometimes a person so preoccupied with their own drama loses some of the objectivity necessary to create truly revolutionary art. Will have to revisit Mansfield one of these days!

  10. I read Mansfield’s Journal last year. I found it sort of hard going at times–what an amazing person–certainly an amazing life and not one easily sorted out. I didn’t realize she got TB from Lawrence. I have this biography on my pile (meant to read it after her Journal, but it felt like too much at once). You introduce her life wonderfully well and now make me want to pick up the Tomalin book now. It’s curious how often the people who love you most (Ida) are the people you treat the worst(generally speaking of course). I wonder why humans do that.

  11. Great to see my big sister getting such a good write-up! I must actually set out to buy this, being an abosolute addict when it comes to KM. What a shame she never wrote a novel!

  12. Pingback: Katherine Mansfield short stories « Incurable Logophilia

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