Author: Berry, Neil
Date published: September 1, 2011
WHEN Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis in 1923 at the age of 34, she left behind three volumes of short stories and the poignant sense of an aborted career. It is testimony to the power of her fiction that it has been continuously in print for almost a century. Yet the reason Mansfield impinges on literary consciousness still is not just because of her stories but also because of her journal, notebooks and luminously expressive letters. Composed of sentences that read as if freshly minted, her literary remains have come to be regarded as all of a piece. Angela Carter remarked that they could be construed as a 'fabulous autobiography of the soul'.
By this stage, Mansfield has been the subject of both formal biographies and biographical novels: if her miscellaneous writings comprise a unity, it is also true that they have melded with the narrative of her life to project the personality of a many-sided pioneer. In Edwardian London, this New Zealand businessman's daughter enjoyed the kind of freedom which recent generations of women have taken for granted but which was unusual then. A mercurial, bi-sexual fugitive from genteel Wellington, she was as adventurous in her life as in her elliptical, modernist fiction. Sustained by a paternal allowance, she treated the British capital as a stage on which to try out an assortment of personae, not always refraining from outright deception as she led what was in many ways a theatrical existence. She can seem especially contemporary in the way her life straddled cultures and classes: in New Zealand a white settler mindful of the subjugation of the indigenous Maoris, in London often patronised as a colonial interloper. Struggling to resolve the question of her true identity, the woman whose original name was Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was sure of only one thing: that she was a writer.
Mansfield's most notable biographers have been the New Zealand scholar Anthony Alpers, who followed up his original life of her, Katherine Mansfield: A Biography, published in 1954 with a much more ample one, The Life of Katherine Mansfield, in 1980, and Claire Tomalin, whose Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life appeared in 1988. Now, in Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller, Kathleen Jones has written an outstanding fresh life of New Zealand's greatest claim to literary fame. Ten years in the making, the book is the most penetrating portrait of Mansfield yet. Among much else, it demonstrates how, though she had to come to Europe to mature as a writer, it was her New Zealand childhood and ambivalent relations with her parents, three sisters and younger brother that inspired her best work.
Mansfield's New Zealand mirrored Victorian England in its bourgeois Christian aspect. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, who traced his roots back to a silversmith in Pepys' London, rose to prominence as a colonial financier, becoming director of the Bank of New Zealand and receiving a knighthood for his services to commerce. Though it could boast of being more progressive than Britain - it was the first country, in 1893, to grant women the vote - what New Zealand conspicuously lacked was a literary culture. As an insatiably bookish teenager, Mansfield felt ashamed of 'young New Zealand', railing against her people's mental torpor and exclaiming that they needed to be intoxicated by a 'mad wave' of 'super-aestheticism'. Her first exposure to London between 1903 and 1906 as a pupil at the Harley Street finishing school for young ladies, Queen's College, deepened her sense of her country's defects. She went home equating London with the possibility of self-realisation, New Zealand with the 'Suitable Appropriate Existence', the deadly prospect of becoming somebody's dutiful wife. Already exhibiting literary flair, she begged her father to let her go back to England. When she sailed away for a second time in 1908, it was for good. Yet for all that Wellington stifled her, she was indelibly marked by the land of her birth. Kathleen Jones underlines the lasting influence of her upbringing on the 'insecure margin between a recent immigrant civilization and the encroaching wilderness inhabited by an older, more primitive culture that had been dispossessed'. Behind the literary masks lay a sensibility shaped by an antipodean landscape brimming with drama and menace.
Dizzied by the rival selves that swarmed inside her, Mansfield often struck the pose of a street- wise cynic. Yet behind her hard-boiled façade, she was a romantic, even religious, figure, fervent in her belief that it was the writer's mission to nurture the creative imagination, to furnish it with raw material. Her apprenticeship to 'decadent' wordsmiths, such as Wilde and Walter Pater, was no mere affectation. Obethent to Pater's command to 'burn with a hard, gem-like flame', she lived impulsively and recklessly. By her early 20s, she had not only twice crossed continents but endured an abortion and a miscarriage, entered into a fleeting marriage of convenience to an older man and, under duress from her God-fearing mother, spent time in a German convent. She had also contracted the gonorrhea that was possibly the source of the disease that killed her. It may be that her febrile awareness of transience and decay, of what she called the 'slug beneath the leaf, was inseparable from a deep inward sense of being stricken.
Vividly etched in Kathleen Jones' pages are the significant figures in Mansfield's brief but crowded life: her put-upon friend Ida Baker; her dubious lovers, including the raffish French writer, Frederick Carco; her much-loved brother Leslie, whose death during the First World War while teaching the use of a hand grenade left her inconsolable; and the editor A.R. Orage, who presided over the prescient weekly journal, the New Age, honing her writing skills and publishing satirical stories that appeared in her first book In a German Pension (1911). What sets Jones' book apart from earlier biographies is its approach to Mansfield's central relationship with the critic John Middleton Murry, whom she married in 1918. Making use of Murry's unpublished journals held by Wellington's Alexander Turnbull Library, she has written an account of the relationship that is punctuated to telling effect by chapters that flash forward to describe its extraordinary after-life. For all that he was to marry three other women, Murry remained inexorably married to Mansfield in his head until his death in 1957, with baleful consequences for the children by his second and third wives. His daughter by his second marriage, Katherine, felt she was more Mansfield's child than that of her own mother, Violet Ie Maistre, who, in the aftermath of Mansfield's death, presented herself to him as his late wife's double, aping her appearance, writing Mansfield-esque short stories and even dying an untimely death from consumption. Murry has been depicted by Claire Tomalin and others as an insensitive egomaniac, who let Katherine Mansfield down - rather as Ted Hughes has been felt to have betrayed Sylvia Plath. In the main, Kathleen Jones lets Mansfield and Murry's story speak for itself. It is the story of a relationship that fused literature and life.
Mansfield met Murry in 1911 when he published her brooding story of the New Zealand outback, 'The Woman at the Store', in his magazine Rhythm. The handsome son of a lowly London government clerk, Murry had won a classical scholarship to Oxford and was still an undergraduate when he started the magazine in which he championed modernism in literature and art. At the time, Mansfield was living a bohemian existence in a flat high above London's Gray's Inn Road that featured a skull with candles protruding from it. Murry needed somewhere to live and she suggested he become her lodger, soon afterwards inviting him to make her his mistress. Murry, whose intellectual precocity was not matched by his emotional maturity, hesitated, but before long they became lovers. For the next twelve years, they led nomadic, chain-smoking, at times desperately impecunious, lives in London, Paris, the south of England and the south of France. Infidelities and separations notwithstanding, they were soul-mates united by their devotion to literature and longing for harmony in their own psyches and the world around them. Aghast at the carnage and wasted heroism of the First World War, they grandly imagined that they were heirs to the English Romantics. Yet as Mansfield wrote stories that were a 'cry against corruption' and Murry (who was exempted from military service on health grounds) published verse, insipid novels and brilliant reviews, they duly made names for themselves and became deeply involved in English literary life. As self-conscious outsiders, they were drawn to the Outlaw of modern literature', D.H. Lawrence, who urged them to form an alternative society with him and his wife Frieda in Cornwall (and who satirised them as Gerald and Gudrun in his novel Women in Love after they failed to follow him in his pursuit of 'something unattained in human relations'). But they had much to do, too, with the bourgeois insiders, Leonard and Virginia Woolf. It was the Woolf s ' Hogarth Press that published Mansfield's autobiographical story 'Prelude' in 1918; and between Mansfield and Virginia Woolf an uneasy friendship developed, with Woolf envying Mansfield for having 'knocked about' and Mansfield coveting Woolf's monied security, yet both feeling a profound affinity for one another as literary women with radically new ideas.
At the outset of the 1920s, Murry and Mansfield were among literary London's leading young contenders. After a stint at the War Office vetting the foreign press, Murry had become editor of the ailing weekly Review The Athenaeum, and was establishing it as the mouthpiece of Britain's disenchanted post-war intelligentsia. Mansfield, meanwhile, who published reviews and stories in her husband's pages, was being hailed as a female Chekhov. A counter-factual scenario proposes itself in which Murry went on looming large in the metropolitan intellectual world and Mansfield figured as Virginia Woolf's chief rival. But they were contending with excruciating private difficulties. Even before the First World War ended, Mansfield's health was declining precipitately and she had to travel south to avoid the English winter: her fervent letters to Murry were written because circumstances kept them apart and she was driven to imagine how happy they would be when they finally settled down. It is the plangent lyricism with which she gave expression to her dreams of bearing children and yearning to be in Hampstead with Murry and her cats that make her letters so affecting. ('Ah, Love, when I come back . . . the very cups and saucers will have wings'.) Throughout much of this time, Murry himself, obliged to earn his living in London and work long hours, was often close to collapse. When Mansfield rejoined him, he struggled to come to terms with his formerly forceful spouse's invalid condition and sought solace with other women. In the end, they came to feel that their love for each other was killing them and needed to die. But it never did die.
Ravaged by illness, Mansfield embraced the mystical teachings of the Russian guru, George Gurdjieff. Her final months, in 1922, were spent in the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man that he started at Fontainebleau outside Paris. Murry, who had quit the Athenaeum, arrived just in time to witness blood pour from his wife's mouth before she was whisked away by doctors to expire out of his sight. She had left him a letter addressed to his 'secret self. Entreating him to destroy her papers, it ended with words that must have haunted him: 'In spite of everything - how happy we have been! I feel no other lovers have ever walked the earth together more joyfully - in spite of all'. Claire Tomalin commented that the relationship between Mansfield and Murry was a fantasy, each fabricating a 'dream version' of the other, she the suffering genius, he the beautiful scholar. Yet if their relationship unfolded as much on paper as in actuality, it remains, in Mansfield's letters and in narratives of her life, furiously real and alive. It could be said to endure as an episode in the history of Romanticism. More prosaically, Murry and Mansfield could be said to have prefigured the fallible modern couple as they endeavoured to live as equals and reconcile their enmeshed emotions with their individual ambitions and shifting circumstances, often finding that they could neither live with nor without one another and that they were never more together than when apart. People have been curiously quick to judge them - even singling out for censure their habit of calling one another by childish names, as if there were something freakish about such behaviour. Little allowance has been made for the harrowing times they lived through or for the cruel burden placed upon them both by a disease from which in the early twentieth century thousands were dying every week.
Mansfield's death plunged Murry into a profound crisis that awakened in him religious emotions, a desire such as she had experienced to be spiritually re-born. Incurring the Bloomsbury Group's highbrow disdain, he started his own populist literary magazine, theAdelphi, in 1923, turning it into a vehicle for Mansfield's work and that of D.H. Lawrence, from whom he had become estranged but whose belief in the deathliness of 'machine civilisation' and the need for a revolution in consciousness he shared. His objective was to uphold Romanticism and the 'inner voice' against the rationalism and aestheticism of Bloomsbury and the high Toryism and classicism of T.S. Eliot. Initially, the Adelphi flourished, though Murry was accused by some of indulging in a ghoulish cult of his dead wife. In later years, he was to be charged with flouting Mansfield's wishes and making available her literary remains in order to profit from them, and it is true that he enjoyed a steady income from the royalties on her work. It would be alleged, too, that he sought to beatify her, while covering up his own ignoble conduct. Yet, in his defence it can be said that, whatever his failings, Murry published her work because he was its greatest admirer, and that he laid the basis for her posthumous reputation. The American academic critic Sydney Janet Kaplan speaks up for him in Circulating Genius, a meticulous new study of his literary involvement with Mansfield and Lawrence, in which she contends that Murry was a more honourable and important figure than legend has suggested - one in fact not at all unlike the flawed crusader depicted by F.A. Lea in his Life of John Middleton Murry (1959), the only biography yet written of the critic.
Murry had a compulsion for baring his soul, which Mansfield cautioned him against and which many found repellant. The hypersensitive product of a harsh Victorian upbringing, he was indeed an egregious agoniser. Yet his life and times, which after all encompassed not one but two world wars and the Great Depression, gave him much to agonise about. A self-appointed prophet, he extolled Christ as the greatest of moral teachers and hailed the works of Keats and Shakespeare as embodiments of the faith in the redemptive power of Christian love that he believed defined the English Romantic tradition. Before the Second World War, he was variously a Marxist, an independent socialist and a pacifist; after it, he emerged as a votary of the 'free society', deploring the New Statesman's indulgent attitude towards Soviet Communism. Malcolm Muggeridge sniped at him as a 'moral strip-tease artist'. Murry viewed himself as a man in a state of continuous evolution, a questing spirit in an age of turmoil. He wrote too much, but his best books, such as Heaven - and Hell (1938), his discussion of the making of British Christian civilization as exemplified by the minds of great English writers, reveal him as a philosopher critic of extraordinary range and argumentative rigour. What set Murry apart from fellow English public consciences, such as Orwell and Aldous Huxley, was that he put his intellectual concern with the 'good life' to practical test. Stepping out of his study, he set up a cooperative farm, actuated by the faith that writing and the cultivation of the land were aspects of the same endeavour. It was a development that would have pleased Katherine Mansfield, who had exhorted her hyper-cerebral husband to grow things, to find happiness 'in contact with the earth'.
What would she have made of the vicissitudes of the husband who lived for her memory? Mansfield's latest biographer recounts Murry's hellish third marriage to his housekeeper, Betty Cockbayne, which spanned the 1930s, pointing out the irony that throughout the time when he was a pacifist seeking to curb man's destructive impulses, his own home (a former vicarage, as it happened) was a war zone. Not until the last phase of his life, in the 1950s, did Murry find domestic serenity, with his fourth wife, the pacifist, Mary Gamble. In his last years, despite failing health, he published a critically acclaimed life of Jonathan Swift, an idealist's attempt to comprehend a misanthropist, and remained a voracious reader. It is striking that the young writer whom he rated most highly was J.D. Salinger. Mansfield might well have shared his enthusiasm for the protagonist of Salinger's novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, with his loathing of 'phoniness', the quality that Salinger arguably identified as the hallmark of the 'American century'. For John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield alike, the best literature was an expression of authenticity; it was also a means of imagining how different things might be and of keeping faith with the future in desperate times.
Neil Berry is a columnist for the Arab daily newspaper, Arab News. His enlarged edition of Articles of Faith: the Story of British Intellectual Journalism appeared in 2008.