Katherine Mansfield’s Secrets

The Life of Katherine Mansfield

by Antony Alpers
Viking, 466 pp., $16.95

Katherine Mansfield
Katherine Mansfield; drawing by David Levine

Nearly sixty years after her death, the name Katherine Mansfield still projects a sharp, strong presence. Not that Mansfield was her true name; it was one of several she made up. Her image too can be turned about; it changes, now vulnerable and wounded, now imperious and exacting, now the wild, ambitious colonial girl, now the simple seeker after purity and truth in art and life.

It was said, by Leonard Woolf and others, that her face was like a mask. She was described as both pale and dark: first too fat and then too thin; elegant and not quite elegant. If she had genius, she lacked stamina, the sticking and staying power genius needs if it is to do more than flash erratically. Yet this was not for want of struggle—to make something new and perfect, to overcome disease, to keep her balance as a person and a writer in an awkward age and within a group of other gifted and difficult people.

She was disliked, both as a person and as a writer; she was also revered as both. Not many took a position between these two attitudes, although some alternated, bewildered and fascinated. The fascination continues; this is the second major biography Katherine Mansfield has received in two years* (and I must declare an interest: I have one in hand). Whether, when she was living, her power to fascinate stood her in good stead is a reasonable question to ask. Wyndham Lewis, quoted by Antony Alpers, referred to “the famous New Zealand Mag-story writer” having been “advertised and pushed cynically.” The implication is that her success was due to nonliterary causes, her personality, her attractiveness, her connections, etc. Yet it has continued among readers, surviving both the ill-judged attempts of her husband Middleton Murry to sanctify her for literature and the condescension of critics who never knew her but dislike her legend—Frank O’Connor’s phrase about “the brassy little shopgirl of literature,” for example.

It would be absurd to try to disconnect the life and the work. She herself was heartily dissatisfied with her own achievement at the end, and even her warmest admirers have to make what they can of the small quantity of first-rate Mansfield. She died at thirty-four and illness was destroying her steadily throughout most of her adult life, first undiagnosed and untreated gonorrhea and then tuberculosis. Poverty, or the fear of poverty, and an inability to settle in one place or let anyone settle her played their parts. Mr. Alpers points to her sense of insecurity—the cultural insecurity, he suggests, of the uprooted colonial—which he makes responsible for much of the “peculiar intimacy” of her tone.

She cared a great deal for friendship. She continually sent out letters, making offerings, seeking reassurance. But she was not an easy friend. The predominant impression from all those letters to her lovers and Murry, to Ottoline…

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