Skip to main content
Read page text


Stories that simply unfold

Katherine Mansfield’s place in the literary canon


ALL SORTS OF LIVES Katherine Mansfield and the art of risking everything CLAIRE HARMAN 304pp. Chatto and Windus. £18.99.

ALL EYES ON KATHERINE MANSFIELD! After 100 years of standing on the sidelines while the big players in literary modernism connue to shine – James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ezra ound, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence – here she is at ast, the short story writer (“only” short stories, she aid; “I should have done so much more”) coming n to take her place among them. “Where is she, ur missing contemporary?” Elizabeth Bowen emarked in 1956. “The perfection of the major piees sets up anguish that there could not be more f them.”

That sentiment, it is true, has been echoed by writers from William Faulkner to Elizabeth Hardwick to Angela Carter – all of whom admired the orm of narrative that Mansfield had made her own, ne that takes the reader straight into the midst of situation, a world, and simply lets events play out here, as though in real time. (“Katherine Mansfield quefied the short story”, V. S. Pritchett said. “She ut out the introductions, the ways and means which are simply barriers.”) But has her influence ver been fully acknowledged? It’s that word “only”

gain – like another Mansfield word, “little” – as hough the sheer brevity of her genre, the apparent nconsequentiality of her themes – “little stories like irds in cages” is how she described her work at he end of her life – hasn’t served her literary status t all well. “If only I could learn to work in the right way”, she despaired, “to write something that will e worthy.” Yet, as our own age reminds us, those who have become used to describing themselves hus – not good enough, not important enough, not worthy” – are no less due our attention. So how tting it is that at a time in our cultural life when we have never been more engaged by seeking to nclude and listen to those who’ve up until now only ver been “only” – on the margins, at the edges, rom someplace other, a somewhere else – we might, in this year, the centenary of Mansfield’s eath, look afresh at what this writer has to offer

ANUARY 6, 2023

and why those “feminine” little stories, as Eliot called them, might not be so little after all.

Of course, there are other reasons for Mansfield’s near-redaction from the Bloomsbury canon. She was born in 1888 and died thirty-four years later; she didn’t have much time. And while those others were busy from the start, founding the project of their own significance, generating a body of work – reviews, essays, long-form novels, poems – that would establish their reputation, Mansfield spent too many days and weeks and years chasing money and a cure for the tuberculosis that would kill her. Not that she ever called her illness by that name, nor felt herself as an artist to be constrained by even the notion of invalidism. She was on the move constantly, unpacking and repacking her bags and books, between London and Paris, Switzerland, Italy and the south of France, seeking peace and health while honing the form of prose Woolf acknowledged she was “jealous of ” – coming at her subjects in glimpses and impressions, eschewing the big “telling” of traditional narrative in favour of a story that simply “unfolded”.

Mansfield’s aesthetic aims – “deadly serious” – didn’t speak to the priorities of the “ultra modern young men”, as she referred to Eliot, Joyce et al, fixated as they were on forging a new kind of language that would describe a traumatized and broken world. Her last collection of stories, The Garden Party, published in 1922, the year before she died, alongside Ulysses and The Waste Land, could easily be seen as a cluster of bright, insubstantial tales of family life and parties, hats and dresses, trips taken, domesticity, marriage and motherhood. Eliot, who had admired her work – “in the best sense, slight”, he said – changed his mind about reviewing the book just after her death. Yet those same “slight” stories – “the minimum material”, he went on – were doing things in their very scale and ordinariness other writers were only just beginning to get at. That broken world they articulate and gesture towards is already sitting there at the back of Mansfield’s fiction – it shadows her lawns and gardens, and nothing is ever as straightforward or “feminine”, as it might seem. As Claire Harman’s wonderfully personal study shows, the reading experience that Mansfield has given us – to bring us so inside the ordinariness of the story’s life that we become part of its moral ambiguities and failures, its hypocrisies and deceits – is worth all the flummery of garden parties and Edwardian-seeming


“Woman of Words” by Virginia King, a statue honouring Katherine Mansfield in Wellington, New Zealand

Kirsty Gunn’s latest collection of short stories is Infidelities, 2014. She is the author of My Katherine Mansfield Project, 2015, and is working, with Delia Da Sousa Correa, on a “Selected Letters of Katherine Mansfield”

characters worrying about hats. Mansfield is our missing contemporary; hers the fiction of the troubled present, the doubtful moment, the now.

All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the art of risking everything comes off the back of a hard and fast few years of full-on Mansfield scholarship, study and publication. That forward thinking of hers – later called existentialism, “the mind that finds itself on the edge of things”, in the words of the Mansfield scholar Vincent O’Sullivan, “giving meaning to time” – has been celebrated in a host of serious academic works, re-presentations of the author’s fiction and nonfiction, conferences and a journal, Katherine Mansfield Studies, established in 2009. “There is a span of twenty-four years between Katherine Mansfield’s first story, published in a school magazine in 1898, and her last ... in June 1922”, wrote the editors of The Collected Fiction of Katherine Mansfield, O’Sullivan and Gerri Kimber, on its publication by Edinburgh University Press in 2012. Kimber had by then established the International Katherine Mansfield Society and instigated the impressive programme of bringing all of Mansfield’s literary output into one series; after the fiction came scholarly editions of The Poetry and Critical Writings, The Diaries, The Early Years and more. All of this is founded on earlier work: the Journals and Collected Letters, edited by Margaret Scott and O’Sullivan, that had started coming out in the 1980s, along with critical studies by a host of scholars, including Angela Smith, Sydney Jane Kaplan and Janet Wilson, all of whom had been establishing the modernist writer’s significance on the literary world stage, wresting her back from her widower, the critic John Middleton Murry, and the image he had promoted immediately after her death of a whey-faced consumptive penning female stories for a female market. “I write with acid”, Mansfield says in a letter to her brother-in-law, Richard Murry, “there mustn’t be one single word out of place or one word that could be taken out.”

Harman’s Mansfield, for sure, is the one who is dead certain about what she’s doing. “Shall I be able to express, one day, my love of work”, she quotes in her opening pages, “my desire to be a better writer, my longing to take greater pains. And the passion I feel. It takes the place of religion – it is my religion.” Her approach to the life – an innovative combination of factual detail and close reading of favourite stories – gives us an artist who stops at nothing to live on her terms and write the kinds of stories that, as Harman demonstrates, risk showing us things about culture and society that were ahead of her time and speak bang-on to the concerns and debates of our present day. Her Mansfield is the


My Bookmarks

    Skip to main content