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.