B I O G R A P H Y
feminist who “pioneered ‘fragmented’ narratives ahead of them all”, not afraid to take on themes of male sexual predation and abuse. She is the critical theorist, counter-reading and writing the society around her as a “cry against corruption”, as Mansfield put it, who can see cinematically, in “split or shifting” scenes. She is the insider, “completely up to date”, Harman writes, who can take on the establishment and is close to people such as Bertrand Russell and the literary chatelaine Ottoline Morrell, while being the outsider who patrols its boundaries and walls – “we’ve got, in the long run, to be our own teachers”, she believed. She is also gender-fluid – “gone every kind of hog”, Woolf reported – and sexually emancipated, able to proclaim herself “a very MODERN woman”.
The “little colonial” who was already postcolonial, Mansfield was described by an earlier biographer, Antony Alpers, as “uprooted twice”, with her experience of Empire gained first-hand. Calling Great Britain home, she found herself a foreigner there after she left New Zealand in 1903; she was the “civet cat” about whom the Bloomsbury set gossiped and could never quite sum up. “Katherine Mansfield”, Lytton Strachey wondered, “– if that’s her real name ...” Altogether, the free, indirect narrative style she’d so developed and perfected, moving in and out of different points of view and situations without any apparent effort, could also be regarded as a metaphor for her life. “Though she was on the margins of both English society and every artistic group she ever had contact with, she came to relish that position, and gravitated naturally towards the most marginalised fictional form”, Harman writes.
Born in New Zealand to a banker and his socialite wife; in love with a Maori princess as a schoolgirl at Queen’s College in London; a bestseller under her belt by 1911 (In a German Pension) that she later dismissed as not being anything like good enough; two critically acclaimed collections of short stories (Bliss and The Garden Party) published across just two years: Mansfield packed a lot into her short life. Harman takes a creative approach to her review of it: “zig-zagging”, she calls it, cutting across traditional chronology to pick out a set of themes. “I’m going to look at ten of Katherine Mansfield’s stories”, she begins, “not a ‘top ten’ but a group representing aspects of her revolution and achievement” – and off we go, from “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped”, a story of race, “suspended culturally” between two countries, two different kinds of people, to “The Fly”, where the “twist” in a story apparently about the First World War and masculinity “is to do with uncovering feeling” and “the passage of time”, a theme that runs throughout Mansfield’s work. Each chapter takes a story favoured by an “enraptured reader”, as Harman describes herself, and gives it the kind of close attention that delivers up the richness and sophistication of Mansfield’s “special prose”, showing its underlying preoccupations and motifs that, Harman says, are crucially relevant to our own age. When it comes to “Prelude”, for example, the long story published by Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1918, Harman traces in parallel the event of that fiction (a family moving from town to country that is also an existential account of life and death contained within the space of a single day) and the events in real life from which it emerged (the death of Mansfield’s brother in the trenches in France and her sense of making for him in that story an “elegy”).
All Sorts of Lives gives a portrait of an artist acutely aware of “a kind of tragic knowledge”, as Mansfield described it to Murry, that “has to be there” for fiction to be serious. She is free from “the burden of cause-and-effect”, Harman observes, and in her fiction “none of the ‘epiphanies’ stop the action”. There were “enkindling” conversations, meanwhile, between Woolf and Mansfield, that vivified them both as writers; Harman is informative about this relationship, as she is about Mansfield in relation to the broader cultural environment, from Shakespeare and Chekhov to the Ureweras and the New Zealand bush.
One might ask for more of this. Harman makes it clear in her introduction that this is a personal, subjective study – that “enraptured reader” again, “who wants to ... praise the writer” – but All Sorts of Lives would have benefited from more explicitly bringing some of the influences denoted by her bibliography into the body of the book. The biographies by Alpers and Claire Tomalin figure in the introduction, but a range of scholars from whose groundbreaking work Harman has clearly drawn are invisible here. That, and a timeline to link the stories with chronology – to draw together Harman’s this-way-and-that approach – would have enriched further a compelling and thoughtful study.
The subtitle of this book – a biography that is not, per se, a biography – conveys its key note. Risk is a fine word to include in the title of a literary study, especially in a publishing environment more often than not averse to it. It seems all too appropriate for Mansfield, who strove to keep testing the limits of her ability and eschewing traditional methods of storytelling. “Risk! Risk anything”, she wrote in her notebook. The results were significant. Harman shows in her attentive close readings how Mansfield risked representing otherness in “all sorts of lives”, well outside the charmed circle of Bloomsbury. “Je ne parle pas français”, for example, as Harman reminds us, is a creepy story of a failed writer with “his sexualised imagination”. Both Murry and her publisher wanted certain passages redacted, for fear of losing sales and prestige. Mansfield defended the story as a breakthrough in her creative method.
Writing that takes a reader inside someone else’s experience, even if that someone is a paedophile, a misogynist and a sexual predator, feels revolutionary, and strangely all the more so in the modern cultural climate. To really think about what it might be to be marginalized or left behind or ignored – to imagine so fully, as Mansfield does, what it is to be inside and outside – is to see that risk exploding at the level of the sentence. “Prelude” portrays a disillusioned wife and her blustering patriarchal husband even as it portrays a woman with post-natal depression and a man who only wants her to be happy. To show both, to change, to let a story jump around in all kinds of directions so it’s never “about”, but rather just “is” – that’s risk. In the end Claire Harman’s book does that thing that all good literary biographies do. It sends us straight back into the delicate, exhilarating, risking world of Mansfield’s fiction and shows us how the greatest risk she took was in letting something “little” do so much. n
V Paul Muldoon’s most recent collection of poems is Howdie-Skelp, 2021
By the Time You Read This
By the time you read this I’ll be gone for a newspaper and quart of milk never to return, a half-mowed lawn leading to me as a scroll of silk once led to the mulberry silkworm. By the time you read this I’ll be gone AWOL in spite of the fact, in terms of domesticity, I’ve outshone even the heedful trumpeter swan that spends five weeks constructing a nest. By the time you read this I’ll be gone less because of some profound unrest than my fascination with the Cree and the sandhills of Saskatchewan into which windswept immensity, by the time you read this, I’ll be long gone.
A nose for stink An artist records the indiscreet charm of the Dutch bourgeoisie
IAN BURUMA THE PORTRAITIST Frans Hals and his world
360pp. University of Chicago Press. £28 (US $35).
PETER SCHJELDAHL, the distinguished American art critic for the New Yorker, who died earlier this year, once described the people in Frans Hals’s paintings as “bores of one caliber or another: oafish, supercilious, run-of-the-mill”. It is not entirely clear which sitters he had in mind: the jolly drinkers or “The Laughing Cavalier” (Wallace Collection), perhaps, or the unsmiling worthies sitting around heavy wooden tables at almshouses and other institutions that they governed with somber Protestant benevolence.
The former might suggest the uninvited bonhomie of pub bores, and one wouldn’t have looked to the latter for a rollicking good time. But they are all alive and intimately human. To assume that they were inherently less interesting than priests or aristocrats depicted in paintings filled with the pompous props of church or court is as much a political as an aesthetic choice. Indeed, the aesthetics of Hals’s portraits are an expression of the sitters’ politics.
The seven provinces of the northern Netherlands, rebelling against the king of Spain, were a republic, albeit with a hereditary Stadtholder with royal pretensions from the House of Orange as a kind of head of state – and even that rank was abolished between 1650 and 1672. Some old Dutch noble families were still around, but the ruling class was mostly made up of rich merchants. What distinguished these so-called regents from hoi polloi, apart from superior wealth, was an air of stern Protestant virtue. The grace of God, in Calvinist eyes, came from thrift, industry and clean living; not decoration but utility was what they prized. To make money, then, was a good thing, since it showed God’s blessing, but ostentatiousness was a sin. Hence, to borrow the title of Simon Schama’s book about the Dutch Golden Age, the ruling Dutch bourgeoisie was supposed to have suffered from “an embarrassment of riches.”
These are the men and women you see in some of Hals’s celebrated portraits, some in groups and some alone. The artist spent most of his life in Haarlem, a prosperous textile-manufacturing and beer-brewing town near Amsterdam, many of these dignitaries were in those trades. There they sit, unadorned by Greek columns, billowing velvet drapes or mythological frippery, dressed in black against a sombre background embellished at most with a family crest, sometimes with a Bible at hand, sometimes holding a pair of gloves. In fact their black clothes were beautifully cut from the finest silk, but they still exude sober respectability.
When the regents did dress up, it was as members of a civic guard. Not much fighting was done by these richly uniformed brewers and merchants, painted by Hals and others, wielding finely worked lances and enveloped in colourful sashes. There is a lot of posturing in these pictures. They were clearly having a good time and don’t look particularly sober.
As Steven Nadler points out in his splendid book, people drank more beer than water in those days – and a good thing too, since water was extremely unclean. In the first decades of the seventeenth century Haarlem brewers averaged “fifty-seven
JANUARY 6, 2023
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