Oct 14, 2021 marked the 133rd anniversary of Katherine Mansfield’s birth. Born in New Zealand, “ a little land with no history,” as she once described it, she moved to London definitively in 1908. She had studied in England previously from 1903-1906, and had hoped to make a musician’s career there, but soon discovered she had no real talent for it. The petite, plump girl in glasses lugging a ‘cello up the stairs to her unheated bedsitter was destined to find other means of expression for her immense talents and ambitions. No one back in New Zealand who had read her girlish writings — some of which had shocked her elders — would ever have imagined that she would have changed the face of modern English literature.
LISTEN NOW! YORICK RADIO PRODUCTIONS UK Celebrates Katherine Mansfield’s birthday with a bonus episode: a discussion of Mansfield’s life & a reading from Katherine’s Wish.
Traditionally Mansfield has been seen as a pioneer of the short story in English. Some detractors have tried to lessen her reputation in recent years by overemphasizing her debt to Chekov. Feminists and gender studies scholars, like Angela Smith, see her as a representative of “liminal experience,” that which lies beyond the fixed boundaries of gender, identity, self. Friends and biographers alike have puzzled over her penchant for “playing” with many masks and names and with the mendacious lives that seeped from her fiction into fact and then back again.
Her death in January 1923 at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau is an enigma to many – how did she end up there and why? Reading the last stories, the last journals and letters, one finds many glimpses of her hunger for a more “permanent core” of self which attracted her to the teachings of Gurdjieff.. Perhaps this is what Virginia Woolf alluded to when, writing of Katherine’s diary, she remarked, “ But writing, the mere expression of things adequately and sensitively, is not enough. It is founded upon something unexpressed; and this something must be solid and entire.”
A few of Mansfield’s stories may seem dated today – but most have stood the test of time. Many are masterpieces: The Woman at the Store, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, The Fly, Prelude, The Man without a Temperament. Her journal, diaries, and letters remain among her best loved works – and, like Virginia Woolf’s diary, give us a full portrait of Katherine as a woman as well as a writer. The moods, flashes, experiments; the epiphanies and the anxieties , the make-overs and the mistakes of a writer’s working life are all there to be pondered, sifted through, studied, absorbed.
Though Mansfield lamented the “fragmentary” nature of her work – and strove despite the pressures of her illness continually for a higher level of achievement, many readers find a mysterious “wholeness” and sense of unity in the stories, diaries, letters, and fragments all taken together, in a seamless coalescing of art and life. Mansfield was not only a story-teller – she herself was the story, a story whose quality fascinates and yet refuses to be defined.
This may be why she has appeared often in the fiction of her own day and later times as a “character.” She appears as Gudrun in DH Lawrence’s great novel , Women in Love and as the protagonist of his late short story, “Mother and Daughter.” She appears as Walter Bidlake’s pitiful wife in Huxley’s Point Counterpoint. More generous snapshots of Katherine appear throughout Woolf’s diary and writings, showing us how deeply Mansfield continued to influence her, even long after her death. Nelia Gardner created a fictional portrait in an early fictionalized biography: Daughter of Time. CK Stead gave us a portrait of Mansfield’s early years, in Mansfield in 2008, the same year I published Katherine’s Wish with Wordcraft of Oregon. Several more have followed.
Though I consulted innumerable sources in my research while writing Katherine’s Wish, the most fascinating of all was James Moore’s incomparable study: Mansfield and Gurdjieff, by now a collectors’ item. What is it about her story that obsesses us so? The brevity of her life? Her fragility? Her nonconformism? We find so much of ourselves in her stories and especially in her diaries and letters. But she won’t be pinned down to any one identity, or to any of the many stories we weave about and around her. For though she belongs to many, she is possessed by none.
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