The Letters of John Middleton Murry to Katherine Mansfield
selected and edited by C.A. Hankin
Franklin Watts, 394 pp., $18.95
Can we take any more of John Middleton Murry? Whether we can or not, here is a new volume of his correspondence. There are plenty of buffoons among men of letters, but he is distinguished by being better documented than most. When his life was published, two years after he died in 1959, even his loyal biographer Frank Lea sounded a rueful note: “For months at a stretch, it would be possible to follow his movements, including the movements of his mind, from day to day, almost hour to hour.”
Lea did not exaggerate. Murry was quite tireless in covering paper with ink in his neat and legible hand, the script of a prize-winning schoolboy; and he was never at a loss for something to say. He was prodigiously well-read and his urge to self-confession (“extended public self-therapy” is John Gross’s phrase) was equaled only by his urge to preach his latest gospel. He published scores of books and pamphlets; in all there was an element of spiritual unburdening.”God is using me to write a book,” he once exclaimed, and a friend remarked that it was often hard to tell where Murry ended and God began In his early letters at least—and this volume covers the years from 1912 to 1923 only—the difficulty was not so great.
Like many people with a literary education, Murry worshiped the idea of genius. He hoped of course to find it in himself but failing in this—for he also made strenuous efforts toward honesty—he consoled himself by discovering it in other people. Here he had more luck. D.H. Lawrence and the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska were his friends, Katherine Mansfield became his wife, and he proclaimed the genius in each of them. (He also hailed Frank Harris as a genius equal to Shakespeare, but quickly recanted.) He was the first critic to say that Thomas Hardy was the great poet he is now generally acknowledged to be; and his critical essays and books on Chaucer, Keats, Shakespeare, Swift, Gissing, Shelley, Godwin, John Clare, and other congenial subjects are well worth rereading. The same cannot be said of his letters.
Murry’s life, although it brought him into contact with tragedies for other people—two world wars and the illnesses and deaths of wives and friends—was a tale of almost unbroken success. From the very beginning he knew how to move in the right direction. Born in 1889 to a poor but ambitions London government clerk, he won a scholarship to the great school Christ’s Hospital and then to Oxford to read Classics, intending to enter the Indian civil service. At Oxford he was admired at once for his handsome white face and black hair, his quaint way of holding his head on one side, his shy smile, his spiritual expression; it was thought he might become a poet or a saint. In fact he was busy with his ascent through the English class system. Miserably ashamed of …