Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)

Sierra Club


It's a terrible thing to be alone - yes it is - it is - but don't lower your mask until you have another mask prepared beneath - as terrible as you like - but a mask.


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New Zealand's most famous writer, who was closely associated with D.H. Lawrence and something of a rival of Virginia Woolf. Mansfield's creative years were burdened with loneliness, illness, jealousy, alienation - all this reflected from her work in the bitter depiction of marital and family relationships of her middle-class characters. Her short stories are also noted for their use of stream of consciousness. Like the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, Mansfield depicted trivial events and subtle changes in human behavior:

Henry was a great fellow for books. He did not read many nor did he possess above half a dozen. He looked at all in the Charing Cross Road during lunch-time and at any odd time in London; the quantity with which he was on nodding terms was amazing. By his clean neat handling of them and by his nice choice of phrase when discussing them with one or another bookseller you would have thought that he had taken his pap with a tome propped before his nurse's bosom. But you would have been wrong. (from Something Childish But Very Natural)

Katherine Mansfield was born in Wellington, New Zealand, into a middle-class colonial family. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, was a banker and mother, Annie Burnell Dyer, a genteel. She lived for six years in the rural village of Karori. Mansfield has later told that "I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was, too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, that nothing at all." At the age of nine she had her first text published. As a first step to her rebellion against her background, she withdrew to London in 1903 and studied at the Queen's College, where she joined the staff of the College Magazine. Back in New Zealand in 1906, she then took up music, and had affairs with both men and women. Her father denied her the opportunity to become a professional cello player - she was accomplished violoncellist. In 1908 she studied at Wellington Techical College typing and bookkeeping. Her lifelong friend Ida Baker (L.M., Leslie Moore in her diary and correspondence) persuaded Mansfield's father to allow Katherine to move back to England, with an allowance of £100 a year. There she devoted herself to writing. Mansfield never visited New Zealand again.

After an unhappy marriage in 1909 with George Brown, whom she left a few days after weddings, Mansfield toured for a while as an extra in opera. Before the marriage she had an affair with Garnett Trowell, a musician and became pregnant. In Bavaria, where Mansfield spent some time, she suffered a miscarriage. During her stay in German she wrote satirical sketches of German characters, which were published in 1911 under the title In a German Pension. Earlier its stories had appeared in The New Age. On her return to London in 1910, Mansfield became ill with an untreated sexually transmitted disease, a condition which contributed to her weak health for the rest of her life. She attended literary parties without much enthusiasm: "Pretty rooms and pretty people, pretty coffee, and cigarettes out of a silver tankard... I was wretched."

In 1911 Mansfield met John Middleton Murry, a Socialist and former literature critic, who was fist a tenant on her flat, then her lover. Mansfield coedited and contributed to a series of journals. Until 1914 she published stories in Rhythm and The Blue Review. During the war she travelled restlessly between England and France. In 1915 she met her brother "Chummie". When he died in World War I, Mansfield focused her writing on New Zealand and her family. Prelude (1916), one of her most famous stories, was written during this period. In 1918 Mansfield divorced from her first husband and married John Murry. In the same year she was found to have tuberculosis.

Mansfied and Murry became closely associated with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. When Murry had an affair with the Princess (née Asquith), Mansfield did not object to the affair but her letters to Murry: "I am afraid you must stop writing these love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world." (from a letter to Princess Bibesco, 1921)

In her last years Mansfield lived much of her time in southern France and in Switzerland, seeking relief from tuberculosis. As a part of her treatment in 1922 at an institute, Mansfield had to spend a few hours every day on a platform suspended over a cow manger. She breathed odors emanating from below but the treatment did no good. Without the company of her literary friends, family, or her husband, she wrote much about her own roots and her childhood. Mansfield died of a pulmonary hemorrhage on January 9, 1923, in Gurdjieff Institute, near Fontainebleau, France. Her last words were: "I love the rain. I want the feeling of it on my face."

Mansfield's family memoirs were collected in Bliss (1920), which secured her reputation as a writer. In the next two years she did her best work, achieving the heigh in the Garden Party (1922), which she wrote during the final stages of her illness. Only three volumes of Mansfield's stories were published during her lifetime. 'Miss Brill' was about a woman who enjoys the beginning of the Season. She goes to her "special" seat with her fur. She had taken it out of its box in the afternoon, shaken off the moth-power, and given it a brush. She feels that she has a part in the play in the park, and somebody will notice if she isn't there. A couple sits near her. The girl laughs at her furry and the man says: "Why does she come here at all - who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?" Miss Brill hurries back home, unclasps the necked quickly, and puts it in the box. "But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying." In 'The Garden Party' (1921) an extravagant garden-party is arranged on a beautiful day. Laura, the daughter of the party's hostess, hears of the accidental death of a young local working-class man, Mr. Scott. The man lived in the neighbor. Laura wants to cancel the party , but her mother refuses to understand. She fills a basket with sandwiches, cakes, puff and other food, goes to the widow's house, and sees the dead man in the bedroom where he is lying. "He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane."She tells crying her brother who is looking for her: "'It was simply marvellous. But, Laurie - ' She stopped, she looked at her brother. 'Isn't life,' she stammered, 'isn't life - ' But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood."

Mansfield was greatly influenced by Anton Chekhov, sharing his warm humanity and attention to small details of human behavior. Her influence on the development of the short story as a form of literature was also notable. Among her literary friends were Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, who considered her overpraised, and D.H. Lawrence, who later turned against Murry and her. Mansfield's journal, letters, and scrapbook were edited by her husband. [Adapted from Women Writers]

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