Katherine Mansfield (nee Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp) was born on 16 October 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand while Jack the Ripper was terrorising London’s East End. She suffered a fatal tubercular haemorrhage on 9 January 1923 in Fontainebleu, outside Paris, on the same day that Mrs Edith Thompson, another thoroughly modern woman of the 1910s and early 1920s, was hanged for murder (but really adultery) in Holloway Prison.
These grisly coincidences feel apt considering Mansfield’s short life of high drama and dark incident - or perhaps I’m drawn to the macabre as I’m now the age the Mansfield was when she died. Claire Harman’s new biography All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything (“Would you not like to try all sorts of lives – one is so very small”), published to mark the centenary of Mansfield’s death is first and foremost a literary biography arguing for Mansfield as a chief innovator of the modernist movement rather than an afterthought.
Harman is an exceptionally perceptive and eloquent literary critic and each of the ten chapters is narrated through the prism of one of Mansfield’s stories, tracing the themes and development of her writing, The most fulfilling way to read it is to (re)read each relevant story first (a tie-in collection of the selected stories is available). I hadn’t realised that ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ was provisionally titled ‘The Non-Compounders’, a nod to the Queen’s students who attended lectures but didn’t sit for qualifications. If Harman had wanted to tap into the very early juvenilia, she might have used ‘About Pat’, by far the most accomplished of her stories published at Queen’s, featuring a New Zealand handyman who reappeared in ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’. Other featured stories include the much-loved ‘Bliss’ and ‘The Garden Party’ – her own harshest critic, Mansfield deemed her masterpiece “a moderately successful story and that is all”.
Mansfield’s writing has often described as “exquisite” (which hasn’t necessarily done her many favours, with its implication of daintiness), her stories pivoting on seemingly small events that can turn a life upside down (I find this technique particularly powerful in the very short stories). Virginia Woolf said that hers was ‘The only writing I was ever jealous of’. As a person, she was temperamental and often unkind. She and the luckless Ida Baker, whom she met at Queen’s, were locked into what we would call a toxic friendship. If we’d met, I’m sure I would have found her formidable, if not terrifying. With her flair for a lacerating turn of phrase, I can’t help wondering what she would have been like on Twitter.
As a writer of short stories, a considerable amount of Mansfield’s work was unpublished in her lifetime and she was an inveterate notebook scribbler, much like Sylvia Plath. All of it pulsates with energy despite her years of illness - perhaps because she was aware that her time was limited. As was the case with most middle-class bohemians, her independent London life was supplemented by a private allowance. She had relationships with men and women, several possible pregnancies and was blackmailed by an ex-lover. Goodness knows what Camilla Croudace and Clara Wood, those good ladies responsible for pastoral care at Queen’s in Mansfield’s time, would have made of it all.
I loved Harman’s exploration of Mansfield’s interest in the performing arts (she studied the cello at Queen’s and had hoped to become a professional musician). She talked about pioneering a new style of elocution recitals influenced by avant-garde modern dance. I was fascinated to learn about her interest in cinema, employing techniques that Harman describes as “the prose equivalent of a freeze-frame” and she even appeared as an extra in a couple of silent films (titles unknown). Who knows, she’d lived longer, perhaps she would have had a stint as a Dorothy Parker-esque Hollywood screenwriter.
The more I read about Mansfield, the more evasive she feels. It’s fitting that she operated under so many nicknames and pseudonyms. It’s impossible not to mourn for what she might have achieved if she’d lived longer but what she did create in such a short time could hardly have glistened more brightly. Indeed, with this book, Harman makes a fine argument for why Mansfield’s collected stories may well be the book I’d choose to take to a desert island.
Written by Julia Rank (OQ 1999 - 2006)