Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller by Kathleen Jones
(2010, 524 pages)
Read to the end of the post for information on the author sponsored give-a-way on this book.
I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to read shortly after its publication what I am sure will be the definitive biography of Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller
by Kathleen Jones. There have been four other major biographies of Katherine Mansfield (the last one was Kathleen Mansfield: A Secret Life
by Claire Tomalin published in 1989.) Only Kathleen Jones has had full access to the vast correspondence that has been published since 1989 as well as the full notebooks of Katherine Mansfield.
Kathleen Jones spent more than ten years working on Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller
during which she spent a great deal of time in New Zealand studying archives there and meeting with people who had actually known Katherine Mansfield or her family. She traveled extensively in England and France visiting the places where Mansfield lived out her life. She has also written highly regarded biographies of Margaret Cavendish, The Duchess of Newcastle (A Glorious Fame), Christina Rosetti (Learning Not to Be First); and an account of the lives of women who lived with the English Lake Country Poets (Passionate Sisterhood).
. More information on the background and career of Professor Jones can be found at her web page
My history with Mansfield began in May of this year when I read her story "Miss Brill" when it was selected as the classic short story of the day on a web page I follow. I confess I had never heard of Katherine Mansfield prior to that day. I was very taken by "Miss Brill". I thought it was a brilliantly illuminating look into a sad and lonely life. I did a bit of research and read a few more of her stories. I like to know something of the lives and import of the writers that matter to me and I soon discovered many consider Katherine Mansfield the best ever female writer of short stories. She is considered to have radically altered the nature of the short story. I then decided I wanted to read and post on each of her 85 or so short stories individually. As I posted on the stories I tried to gradually learn something about Mansfield and her life and background. Virginia Woolf famously said of Mansfield that she was the only writer that ever made her jealous. Mansfield has clear ties to Joyce and Woolf but unlike them she is also a writer for lonely people who never quite fit in anywhere, for people who retreat into visions of beauty, for those happy to sit for hours alone in a cafe watching people walk by with no hope of understanding them. I think Woolf was also a bit afraid Mansfield saw into the roots of her madness. Anyway, I thought I should explain a bit why I am interested in Mansfield. I will talk more on it when I shortly post my The Reading Life Guide to getting into Katherine Mansfield.
When I first received my copy of Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller I was very impressed by the very high production values of the book (published by Penguin/Viking). It includes a lot of wonderful photographs of Mansfield, her parents and siblings, her husband John Middleton Murry, and others that were close to Mansfield.
One of the dominant themes of Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller is the acknowledgement of the very deep impact of the beauty of New Zealand on Mansfield's mind and sensibility. As I read Mansfield's stories I tried to get to know at least a little the person behind them, to see beyond the mask. I saw a woman caught up in an ugly time in England and France. I saw a woman used to being taken care of (her father was the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand) reduced to trying on occasion to figure out how to pay for her meals. I also saw a woman with a very powerful sensuous nature. She liked beautiful exotic to her women and handsome near fey young men. Mansfield is considered to have had affairs and brief encounters with both men and women. As she lived in the days before people felt comfortable disclosing their full sex lives in public on talk shows, the Internet, and in tabloids and tell it all autobiographies we have no precise knowledge of her exact sexual preferences and proclivities.
Jones gives us beautiful descriptions of the natural beauty of New Zealand. Unlike any other writer I am aware of, Jones talks about the influence of the Maoris on Mansfield. Mansfield had a relationship with a Maori princess that many felt was a romantic one. We do not know if this was simply a school girl crush or if it was an intimate relationship. I confess I did not know much concerning the culture of the Maoris in early 20 century New Zealand and was a bit surprised to learn that one of the cousins of Mansfield's father married a rich Maori woman. Jones writes in a very interesting way about the colonial roots of Mansfield. She made me see what a backwater New Zealand must have seemed like to people in London and Paris and how much Mansfield felt initially liberated when she moved to London. Later Jones made us see how Mansfield often seemed to long to return to New Zealand.
Jones gives us a good look at the day- to- day struggles of Mansfield to feed and house herself. Mansfield got a modest allowance from her father that she could have lived on if she lived very modestly. Jones tells us in a very clear fashion of all the various men and women with whom Mansfield was linked with romantically. Jones spends a lot of time talking about D. H. Lawrence's and Frieda Lawrence's relationship to Mansfield and her husband. Jones also helped us understand Mansfield's relationship with Virginia Woolf but does not exaggerate it. The relationship was close but there was no real intimacy and their times together were more like meetings than two friends spending time together. We learn a bit about various Bloomsbury figures (Mansfield was not for a number of reasons a member of the Bloomsbury set). The general atmosphere of the set Mansfield moved in can be described as erotically charged. Mansfield was attracted to guru - like men ranging from her second husband John Middleton Murry to D. H. Lawrence. Mansfield went through a "Russian phase" also. Jones deals with the issue of the claim that Mansfield plagiarized a Chekhov story. Basically Jones says the whole matter is much ado about nothing and I agree completely.
Jones goes into enough details about the terrible effects of tuberculous on Mansfield so that we understand it. We see how an effort to cure it while at the same time ignoring it dominated the last few years of Mansfield's short life.
Jones also spend a lot of time helping us understand the role of Ida Baker in Mansfield's life. I would say I still do not quite understand fully the relationship of Baker and Mansfield but I understand a good bit more than I did before I read Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller. This relationship shows us an ugly side of Mansfield where she would use Ida when she needed her and push her away when she did not.
Jones takes two risks in Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller. One of the risks is a stylistic one. Most of the book is written in the present tense as if it were happening now. Some reviewers of the book have not liked this. To me it is brilliant touch on the part of Jones to let us live in the present with Mansfield, not see her as remote long -dead woman from an era we can barely relate to. Jones brought Mansfield very much to life for me. Many of the backgrounds and autobiographical nature of the most important stories are explicated in a very illuminating fashion by Jones.
The second risk is her treatment of the life of John Middleton Murry (1889 to 1957) who lived on long after Mansfield died. Mansfield and Murry had an odd at times difficult relationship. Mansfield was not nearly as good a husband as Leonard Woolf. I think Jones has seen that one of the keys to understanding Mansfield may be in trying to understand why Murry meant so much to her. Jones deals in sort of interlude chapters in Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller with each of Murry's three post Mansfield marriages. One of the wives looked very much like Katherine and I admit I got chills when that wife, Violet, was happy to learn that she had Tuberculous just like Katherine Mansfield did. Each of the three other women seemed to embody a part of the full psyche of Mansfield. We can decide for ourselves how we feel about the way Murry handled the literary estate of Mansfield and the wealth it brought him.
Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller will be the definitive Mansfield biography for a long time, I think. Jones knows Mansfield well and has read deeply and widely in her work and era. Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller is not just about Mansfield. It has a lot to teach us of the historical period it deals with and the diverse set literary figures in Mansfield's world. It tells us a lot about the state of relations between the sexes in the period. We get look at life in Edwardian England from the ground up through the eyes of an outsider who never really fit in anywhere. Jones also lets us understand a lot about how the creative process works by letting us see the struggles of Mansfield.
Kathleen Jones has very generously offered to send a copy of her wonderful book to a reader of my blog, anywhere in the world. If you are interested please leave a comment. The winner will be selected at random December 27.