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BooksMay 7, 2023

Not just for the fangirls: An innovative new book about Katherine Mansfield

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Hannah August finds an accessible and art-first approach in Claire Harman’s new biography All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything.

Nearly two decades ago, I took an English Honours course at Victoria University that is still taught today. Entitled “Mansfield and Friends”, it looked at the works of New Zealand’s most famous modernist export alongside those of writers she’d been influenced by and those she’d known personally: Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence. Something about the course’s title and its focus on writerly social networks licensed a particular attitude to the figure who tied the course content together.

For several of the young women in the class, Katherine Mansfield was clearly not just an often-overlooked innovator of literary modernist form. She was someone they identified with, someone they felt they knew intimately. They spoke enthusiastically in tutorials about aspects of her life that weren’t particularly relevant to the stories we were examining. They occasionally showed up wearing her signature coloured stockings. They called her “Katherine”, or, sometimes – with no hint of embarrassment – “Kathy”. 

Katherine Mansfield’s signature coloured stockings. (Photo: Stephen A’Court for Katherine Mansfield House & Garden exhibition)

It’s not hard to see why Katherine Mansfield is a talismanic figure for certain bright, young, female-identifying Pākehā, convinced that they can only become the best versions of themselves if they move to Europe – only to discover that, once there, they can’t quite shake a nostalgia for the country they left behind. (For those unfamiliar with the details of Mansfield’s life, that’s a very condensed summary of its trajectory.) But while Mansfield might have enjoyed her transformation into a celebrity, she’d have hated to see it happen at the expense of careful critical attention paid to her writing.

Like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath – two other women writers whose work is often overshadowed by the details of their lives – Katherine Mansfield took her craft extremely seriously. To fixate on her approach to living and to read the writer’s work through the lens of her sexual relationships, her nationality, her class, is to belittle her professional achievements. Yes, writers write what they know, but they also use their skill and their imagination to turn what they know into something new.

Thank goodness, then, for the approach taken by Claire Harman in her highly readable new book, All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything, published to commemorate 100 years since Mansfield’s death. Herself a short-story-writer and poet, Harman’s method is to examine Mansfield’s short stories alongside key stages of her life, but – in each of ten chapters focused on an individual story – to place the literary analysis before the biographical account, such that (guided by chapter sub-headings) we read about “The Story” before we read about “The Life”. In this way, the thing that takes precedence is Mansfield’s extraordinary inventiveness and skill as a short-story writer, unpacked via Harman’s perceptive and accessible close analysis. 

If you’re someone who’s read Katherine Mansfield’s stories and struggled to put your finger on what, exactly, makes those bite-size slices of prose stick in the mind – or if you’ve avoided Mansfield entirely and are curious about what’s behind all the centenary fuss – Harman’s commentaries illuminate just what she is doing and why it was so revolutionary. Choosing stories written at different stages of her short life (Mansfield died from tuberculosis aged 34) allows Harman to show how insatiably experimental she was, how she eschewed narratives that were “plotty” in favour of “a different sort of experience, free from the burden of cause-and-effect”.

This is, of course, a hallmark of literary modernism, but Harman demonstrates how Mansfield’s writing refuses neat classification, noting that in a story such as ‘Je ne parle pas français’, the effect of the unreliable first-person narrator creates the feeling of “Mansfield speeding right past modernism and into the postmodern”. Nor is her modernism entirely “literary”. Harman shows, for instance, how a story such as ‘Prelude’ draws inspiration from editing techniques and storytelling devices used in a relatively new artistic medium, that of film, while the pacing of a late story, ‘The Fly’, mimics the tempo of a musical composition. 

If these observations sound drily academic, they’re not – Harman excels at bringing unfamiliar stories alive, enticing the reader to encounter them on their own terms, while also putting her finger on just what a more famous story does to justify its fame. Take, for instance, this apt summation of ‘The Garden Party’: “It’s as if the sound of the band and cheerful animation around the party casts a spell on the reader which the reader willingly stays under, even though nudged to do otherwise; an effect of deep, structuralised irony.” In noting that “the story both has its cake and eats it”, Harman nods to the fancy cream puffs that are a centrepiece of the catering in this story in which rich people party while a poor man lies dead. It is the type of criticism that is enjoyable to read for its own sake, as well as astutely pinpointing the reasons for the stories’ success.  

Katherine Mansfield (Photo: Supplied)

‘The Garden Party’ is one of Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, set in a clearly recognisable Thorndon – the party itself takes place at a house modelled on 133 Tinakori Road, one of the Wellington homes in which Kathleen Beauchamp (later Katherine Mansfield) grew up. Do we need to know this to better understand the story? Probably not. Do we need to know it to better understand the person who wrote the story? Possibly.

Having emigrated permanently to Britain at the age of nineteen, where she struggled to shake off the feeling of being a “little colonial”, Mansfield would have felt deeply ambivalent about her home country’s subsequent determination to describe her as a “New Zealand writer”. The British Harman is freed from the need to claim Mansfield as such. Instead, in the parts of the book focused on “The Life”, she captures the intensity with which the erstwhile New Zealander hurled herself at a life that was in opposition to the one she felt able to have in the country she’d been born in. 

If you don’t know anything about the details of Katherine Mansfield’s life, prepare to be enthralled by her sexual escapades, her reinventions of self, her catty comments, her tragic premature death. If you know all these things already (there are several other biographies), appreciate instead the way Harman draws on Mansfield’s notebooks and correspondence to show how forcefully committed she was to her writing career, determined to continue working as she battled the debilitating symptoms of both gonorrhoea and tuberculosis. If every biography recasts its subject in a new light, the light shone on this version of Mansfield reveals both her disability and her queerness, describing her early affairs with women with a “so what?” frankness that feels possible only in 2023. 

Throughout, the portrait Harman constructs of Mansfield – passionate, self-involved, deeply committed to art – feels as convincing and grounded in evidence as her literary analysis. Only once does she overreach, speculating about what might be behind an odd event towards the end of Mansfield’s life, in which she allowed herself to be blackmailed by a former lover who demanded a large sum of money in return for some incriminating letters Mansfield had sent him. Imagining the letters to have contained “something sexual”, Harman muses: “Could her knowledge of the demi-monde have been more than that of an observer[?]”, co-opting a character from one of Mansfield’s stories to support her supposition. It is a moment where the divide between artist and work should have been maintained, and a mystery retained rather than stabbed at in the dark.

Elsewhere, All Sorts of Lives illuminates the many facets of Katherine Mansfield and her writing in ways that are rewarding and engaging for all sorts of readers – not just the stockinged fangirls.  

All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything by Claire Harman (Penguin, $37) is available to purchase from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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