SHORT STORY MODERNISER
‘I believe the greatest failing of all is to be frightened.’ Katherine Mansfield, letter to John Middleton Murry, 18 October 1920 Katherine Mansfield revolutionised the 20th Century English short story. Her best work shakes itself free of plots and endings and gives the story, for the first time, the expansiveness of the interior life, the poetry of feeling, the blurred edges of personality. She is taught worldwide because of her historical importance but also because her prose offers lessons in entering ordinary lives that are still vivid and strong. And her fiction retains its relevance through its open-endedness—its ability to raise discomforting questions about identity, belonging and desire. Katherine Mansfield's brief life was also a lesson in casting off convention. Famously, Mansfield remarked ‘risk, risk everything’. In the words of one of her biographers, ‘It was largely through her adventurous spirit, her eagerness to grasp at experience and to succeed in her work, that she became ensnared in disaster . . . If she was never a saint, she was certainly a martyr, and a heroine in her recklessness, her dedication and her courage.’ The Great Ghost
Virginia Woolf once said that Katherine Mansfield had produced ‘the only writing I have ever been jealous of.’ Woolf also, jealously, wrote, ‘ . . . the more she is praised, the more I am convinced she is bad.’ D.H. Lawrence, with whom Mansfield had a fraught friendship, visited Wellington, her birthplace, and was moved to send Mansfield a postcard bearing a single Italian word, ‘Ricordi’ (‘memories’). It was a small and cryptic gesture of reconciliation; they’d fallen out badly and in his previous letter he had said ‘You are a loathsome reptile—I hope you will die.’ T.S. Eliot found her ‘a fascinating personality’ but also ‘a thick-skinned toady’ and ‘a dangerous woman’. And if we want to add one more voice to this roll-call of mixed, self-clashing responses: the Irish writer Frank O’Connor, in his classic study of the short story,The Lonely Voice, called Mansfield ‘the brassy little shopgirl of literature who made herself into a great writer.’ As New Zealanders we tend to think we have invented the ambivalence that surrounds our most famous writer. Our often grudging admiration perhaps has the cast of a distinctively local attitude to high artistic achievement. Yet Katherine Mansfield was always divisive, wherever she was received. The impression she left on those who knew her was strong and ambiguous. She affects her readers in a similar way. After Mansfield died, Virginia Woolf often dreamed at night of her great rival. The dreams gave her a Mansfield who was vividly, shockingly alive, so that the ‘emotion’ of the dream encounter remained with Woolf for the next day. Hermione Lee, Woolf’s biographer, writes that ‘Katherine haunted her as we are haunted by people we have loved, but with whom we have not completed our conversation, with whom we have unfinished business.’ It is a formulation that captures wonderfully the current position of Mansfield. She is a key figure in the development of the short story and yet she remains somehow on the margins of literary history. She is also the great ghost of New Zealand cultural life, felt but not quite grasped. A New Zealand of the Mind
Unfinished business lies at the heart of the Mansfield life story, not least because she died young—in 1923 at the age of thirty four, the author of just three books of short stories (a fourth and fifth would appear after her death). Her own feeling, as she was dying of tuberculosis, was that she had only just started as a writer. Two weeks before she died, she expressed, with characteristic restlessness, her dissatisfaction and her ambition: ‘I want much more material; I am tired of my little stories like birds bred in cages.’ Yet there are other aspects of the life that also bear the stamp of incompletion.
Katherine Mansfield with her...