Katherine Mansfield: The Modernist Outsider
Exploring the modernist short story writer on the 100th anniversary of her death
Katherine Mansfield was known for her modernist short story collections. She never wrote a novel, but her short stories explored sexuality and the anxieties of the time. Her stories are easily accessible as an introduction to the modernist writing style, and she was openly critical of more opaque narratives such as James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Known for her acerbic wit and considering herself an outsider, the New Zealand born writer was said to be the only author of whose work Virginia Woolf expressed jealousy. I have written before about their tempestuous friendship, which was often seen as rivalry, and Mansfield often felt on the outside of the impenetrable Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists.
A Narrative Of Their Own is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
As Mansfield commented in her own journal in 1919, the Bloomsbury Group treated her as ‘the little Colonial walking in the London garden patch – allowed to look, perhaps, but not to linger.’1 She was mocked for her accent by Rupert Brooke, amongst others, and Virginia Woolf infamously described her as smelling like a ‘civet cat that had taken to street walking’, whilst Dora Carrington judged her ‘very much a female of the underworld, with the language of a fishwife in Wapping’, and Lytton Strachey as ‘that foul-mouthed, virulent, brazen-faced broomstick of a creature’.
However, much of this venom perhaps stemmed from her own fearlessness in ingratiating herself into their crowd. Leonard Woolf commented in his autobiography that nobody had ever made him laugh more than she did in those days, and commented on her ‘astringent wit’. Her ability to mock the group was infamous, making the rooms rock with laughter.
One of her most famous stories ‘Bliss’ has been suggested to represent a satirical viewpoint on this group of privileged writers and artists.
The story features Bertha, privileged and consciously bohemian, who holds a dinner party for members of the London metropolitan elite; ‘modern, thrilling friends, writers and painters and poets or people keen on social questions – just the friends they wanted’. In an indication of their classist views, Mansfield’s characters discuss an incident with a ‘taxi-man’, whom they clearly reference as below their high-minded intellect.
Mansfield’s witty observations of this literary elite are not difficult to associate with the Bloomsbury Group – or ‘Blooms Berries’ as she wittily referred to them. Virginia Woolf was said to have thrown her copy of ‘Bliss’ to the floor on first reading, clearly seeing herself and her friends as represented on the page.
Bad health plagued Mansfield’s life, and she spent much of it moving to warmer climates in order to improve it. She died in France at the age of 34 from tuberculosis. Somewhat controversially, her widower John Middleton Murry published her journals following her death, which she had specifically not wanted. The journals, which take the form of notebook combined with diary, show the way she worked as a writer and her personal reflections. As with her personality in life, these are often harsh and ironic criticisms of other writers. What is impressive however is her dedication to her development as a writer.
Similar to the writing of modernist Jean Rhys, Mansfield’s early stories reveal links to her own difficult youth, involving unwanted pregnancies and rejected female characters, not unlike herself. She portrays ostracised women, likely reflecting her own experience of not fitting in.
Mansfield’s perhaps most famous and longest of her short stories is ‘Prelude’, which appears as a series of vignettes following the Burnell family as they move to a semi-rural suburb of New Zealand. In true modernist style, the story is an impressive sequence of ideas and impressions, rather than a definitive plot or storyline.
When Mansfield wrote this story, it has to be remembered, the term ‘stream of consciousness’, often used to describe modernist writers of the early 20th century, had not yet been coined. Perhaps one of the most famous proponents of stream of consciousness writing, Woolf commissioned ‘Prelude’ for publication by Hogarth Press, the publishing company she set up with husband Leonard, and it is easy to see how Woolf may have learned a lot of the modernist style she was to become famous for from Mansfield.
Mansfield also had a lifelong relationship with former fellow student Ida Baker, whom she met at Queen’s College. Both women adopted their mother’s maiden names for professional purposes, (Mansfield’s actual birth name being Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp), and Baker came to be known as ‘LM’, having adopted the name ‘Lesley Moore’; Leslie being the name of Mansfield’s younger brother. Though Mansfield was often discourteous to Baker, their friendship endured, and Baker was one of the closest allies to Mansfield.
In the foreword to Claire Tomalin’s biography Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Tomalin writes that: ‘Hers was a painful life, and it has been a painful task to write about it,’ and suggests that she judged Mansfield to be ‘a liar all her life – there is no getting round this’.2
Brigid Brophy also referred to Mansfield’s ‘cannibal imagination’, which she suggested bordered on aggression, positing that anger ‘was probably one of the precipitators of her illness’. Author Philip Larkin, however, reacting to such comments, stated: ‘All this stuff about hate & rancour makes me wonder if they’ve got hold of the same book as I. Haven’t they ever been cross? Haven’t they ever let off steam?’ Placating Mansfield’s ‘rage’ as stemming directly from having contracted tuberculosis and for marrying Murry, who appeared quite content to live apart from her.
Some have suggested that Mansfield’s lack of deference towards authority or men and her sense of humour could have led to her behaviour being perceived as inappropriate, particularly given her youth. Her tragicomic story, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’, for example, was shunned by reviewers as being ‘cruel’; Mansfield later commented in a letter of 1921 that it was ‘almost terrifying to be so misunderstood.’
Mansfield sits within the literary world as one of the ‘New Women’ of the turn of the century: a dedicated artist, she claimed freedoms as a woman, a writer, and an outsider, which likely led to her often being perceived as harsh and difficult. Her life was pretty tragic but she had a comic talent and an awareness of beauty within her writing, which amounted to over 100 short stories written within her relatively short lifetime. Her prose often represents her delight at – as she put it – ‘The amount of minute and delicate joy I get out of watching people and things’, and as she wrote in her journal: ‘the detail of life, the life of life.’
Postscript: This has been an extra, mid-week literary exploration, in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the death of the remarkable Katherine Mansfield. To receive more literary biographies like this, consider taking a paid or free subscription to ‘A Narrative of their Own’.
Katherine Mansfield, Journal of Katherine Mansfield, (Persephone Books).
Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, (Penguin, 2012).