Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life
by Claire Tomalin (1989, 292 pages)
This book is a very good I would say near must read by anyone with more than a passing interest in the life and art of Katherine Mansfield. It is the only work on Mansfield referred to by Hermione Lee in the chapter she devotes to Katherine Mansfield in Virginia Woolf . In years past I have read and learned from Tomalin's (1933, England) biography of the purported mistress of Charles Dickens, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Teman and Charles Dickens though I admit I found the book too unsympathetic to Dickens and I somehow felt she was using too much the sensibilities of the 1990s to imagine how Teman and Dickens felt about each other. I also read her Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. One of the great reading experiences of my life so far has been the Diaries of Pepys and her book helped fill in the missing years and a lot of the politics.
Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life is not a homily to a great person. Mansfield has what anyone can see are some issues but to me I forgive them all and that Tomalin can do the same meant a lot to me. I just want now to make a few observations on things in this book I liked a lot. The issues she had helped make her a great artist, they did not hinder her. Anyone can see the pain in her work.
I could not help but be fascinated by the account of the relationship of Virginia Woolf to Mansfield. Woolf was seven years older that Mansfield. Woolf was culturally and in a conventional sense intellectually superior to Mansfield (of course you can put almost any name in here and this will still be true). Woolf grew up around the literary giants of her day. Mansfield came from a well off family in Wellington New Zeland. There is no indication of ever any physical intimacy between the two of them even though they were very close. I think, this is just me, that Woolf may have been a little worried just how far Mansfield could see into her mind and what she might know about her that she did not know about herself. All you have to do is look into the eyes of Mansfield and you can see why Woolf with her fear of madness might be made nervous by her. Woolf needed a large support group. There is nothing of the artistic loner about her. Mansfield seemed somehow to always be alone no matter who she was with. There is a lonely quality to her. Mansfield was also a user of people, especially Ida Baker. In my mind the jury is still out on Mansfield's husband, John Middleton Murry but I think he was the kind of man she really needed. I do not think many could have taken true intimacy with Mansfield and Murry was always somehow a bit removed but personally I think he tried to help his wife and if he exploited her work after she was gone I see no harm in this.
As to her parents, I admit being annoyed at her wealthy father (Chairmen of the Bank of New Zealand). He was not, it seems a bad man he just expected his daughters to stay home in Wellington and marry conventional men who could support them. His other two daughters did that. He gave her an allowance of 100 British Pounds a year. This was enough to live on but he could have given her 500 pounds and not even known the difference and made her life a lot better. Somehow I resented this. Maybe we see a bit of her father in the seemingly kind old men in her stories who turn on the young female lead character in the end. Maybe her mother is in part the older women who scorn women who do not fall into purely conventional life styles we see in the stories. We do not get as much insight in this book as to the early childhood of Mansfield as I would have liked and perhaps the inner dynamics of her childhood cannot be reconstructed from the data we have.
I would have also liked to know more about Ida Davis. I think I may be in the minority in accepting Murray as not a bad husband. We meet a lot of famous people in this work. We see her affair, for example, with Bertrand Russell and learn of her relationship with several semi-sinister men that we come to greatly dislike. There is also a lot of real good material on her relationship with D. H. and Frieda Lawrence.
I like Katherine Mansfield. Of course I admire her work but I somehow like her personally. She was a user, she could be nasty in conversation, she lied when it suited her and there is the issue of her plagiarizing a story (which she almost certainly did it now appears).
I am altering the Katherine Mansfield Reading Life Project a bit. There are, I think, about 35 or so stories that I still have not read. I have decided rather than posting on them in groups I will post on each one individually. I want to know her work and I want a Google search of any of her works to at least find my post. To my blog readers, I will continue on with all my other projects and interests, God willing.
As I come closer to the end of the reading of her stories, I will say more on why I think she is a great artist. (Some of her stories are silly and she knew that and told Murray not to publish them but he did anyway). I will also draw up a list of her, in my mind, five best works so one can sample. One great thing is most of her work can be read free online.
Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life is out of print but I bought a nice used copy at amazon.com for about $5.00 plus shipping.
As always I give my thanks to my quite brilliant Texas cousin for her editing suggestions. I have not always followed her advice so any oddities in the style come from me!