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Mr. Wrong

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 his family, he pretended that his father was dead and his mother living abroad on a small pension. Instead of going home to East Dulwich for his vacations, he found lodgings with a Gloucestershire farmer who taught him to ride and introduced him to foxhunting. Later he spent vacations as tutor to young lords, his duties mostly those of a partner in golf, fishing, or stag hunting. He was “surprised and gratified by the ease with which I adapted myself to my new environment” and decided that he could have become “a very convincing member of the aristocracy.”

Murry was attractive to men and women, but rarely felt any sense of commitment to those who befriended him. The Gloucestershire farming family was dropped as ruthlessly as his own; so were girls, including a trusting file de bohème he acquired and promised to marry on his first visit to Paris. It was this trip that set him on course for life; the postimpressionist painters and writers of the left bank filled him with enthusiasm. He was particularly struck by a Scottish painter called Fergusson who told him that art was not a profession but “a quality of being—an achievement of, or an effort towards integrity.” Murry returned to Oxford fired with the idea of founding a magazine that would bring the gospel of modernism to “Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, London, Oxford, Cambridge, paris, New York and Munich, and all over the world by subscription.” Rhythm was founded with money raised from friends and friends’ fathers; it first issue contained a Picasso reproduction, a poem by Francis Carco, and an essay by Murry on Bergson in which he spoke of the “supremacy of the intuition and the spiritual vision of the artist in form, in words and meaning.”

Rhythm caused a small stir. It also led to Murry’s meeting with Katherine Mansfield, who was trying to establish herself as a writer and living apart from her husband, and to the beginning of their famous association. It is a selection of his letters to her that Mrs. Hankin has chosen to edit and publish, on the grounds that we have all heard Katherine Mansfield’s side of the correspondence, and should now be allowed to hear Murry’s side and understand his character accordingly.

Perhaps the best that can be said about these letters is that Murry was young when he wrote them—determinedly young. He often had doubts about his own status as an adult and was much given to exclamations such as “I’m an awful child,” “Child, don’t you know that I am a child?” and “I wish to God I were a man. Somehow I seem to have grown up, gone bald even, without ever becoming a man” (this in 1919, when he was thirty). On another occasion he tells Katherine that he has taken her doll to bed with him; in the morning, “I thought he was going to rub his eyes and say something—something terribly like us; but he didn’t But still, he enjoyed himself.”

Although he and Katherine are such children he is determined to enroll them both among the literary elect. He cannot mention the English Romantics without adding “we belong to these people”; when he writes about Rousseau, he tells her, “you will see from this Rousseau article when it appears—that Rousseau was of the same kind as us.” Belonging among ‘these people,” they were also more sensitive than their contemporaries. Murry was exempt from military service, but he told Katherine at the end of the First World War, “It’s a quaint, queer mystery to me…. I am convinced that you and I have suffered the war more than anyone, that we have really known, do really know, what sorrow and pain are.” (At least Murry did see the quality of a poem by “the dead soldier Wilfrid Owen” at first glance, and regarded it as a coup to publish it.)

Katherine had lost her brother in the was and seen her own health slide downward so that she was a permanent invalid by the end. Such worries may have prevented her from wondering whether Murry was entirely sane when he wrote to her:

Sometimes now I begin to think tremulously high thoughts, thoughts that make me dizzy. Suddenly, I seem to know the secret of the universe. And this at least I know, beyond all doubt, that I know the way to the secret and that my life will be spent in trying to make the pathway clear. I know this, too, that you [and] I are geniuses.

Later in the same letter he added, “If any of my letters are alive still, will you keep them? I have all yours—and I think they may be important to us one day.”

Of course Murry was right: the letters were very important to him when he set up his literary shrine to Katherine. On the other point too he predicted quite correctly—he did spend the rest of his life seeking to tell the secret of the universe to those who would listen, sometimes with considerable success, even if the sequence of his spiritual rebirths and conversions—paralleled by his secular amours and marriages—would need a biographer with the skill of Feydeau to do them justice.

In 1923, immediately after Katherine’s death, he enjoyed a mystical experience that convinced him he “belonged” to the universe and was upheld by love, a love which ‘upheld by all, like children, to the lips of God.” Armed with this confidence, he naturally determined to launch a new magazine that promised: “the standard by which the contents of The Adelphi will be decided is ‘significance for life.’ ” Murry began to preach in its pages—he was always trembling on the verge of taking holy orders, believing as he did that religion and literature were more or less synonymous—and The Adelphi flourished for a while, especially in the north of England where there was still an audience for sermons. But when Murry printed extracts from Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious, pronouncing that Jesus was a failure, subscriptions fell off. Murry himself claimed that Jesus was a great deal more real to him than anybody he knew in the flesh, a remark calculated to impress readers rather than those close to him (“This Jesus stuff simply nauseates me,” exclaimed one of his women friends later, shortly before her pious adulterous lover broke with her).

Murry’s brand of faith was never orthodox and veered wildly from year to year. In 1929 he was preaching the necessity for “Catholicism without God.” In 1931 he was thinking seriously of becoming a Church of England parson. In 1932, “moved to tears” by a reading of Das Kapital, he embraced communism and decided to convert Oswald Mosley, Harold Nicolson, and his local vicar; when he failed with this last, he gave up churchgoing temporarily. Instead he joined the Independent Labour party and began to boast of his humble family origins. He declared his intention of “extirpating” pacifists from the party, and was in continual demand as a lecturer. This was fortunate because his third wife (wife number two had died, like Katherine, of tuberculosis, leaving two small children) made his home life unpleasant.

Two years in the ILP were enough; he broke with it and set off for the United States, where he lectured about Katherine, speaking of her on public platforms in a way that shocked a number of American academics. In 1937 he was again convinced that God was speaking through him. After an operation he experienced another religious enlightenment. “I am re-born into the knowledge that there is no power, no life, no future, no anything except Love.” Although locked in an impossible marriage and frequently resolving to leave his wife, he allowed her to have another child and tried to sweeten the domestic atmosphere by making her improve her handwriting, reading a daily psalm aloud at breakfast, and urging her to copy out great poems into a special leather-bound book.

By the late Thirties Murry had become a convinced pacifist; he found a considerable following—not surprisingly, given the times—and became editor of Peace News. Throughout the Second World War he published pamphlets arguing for passive resistance and it was only when peace became a reality that Murry discarded his pacifism. He decided to put his faith in running a community farm and he was lucky enough to find at last a woman who adored him without qualification. Wife number three would not divorce, but Murry, who never ceased to say that love was his religion, was unperturbed by this or the traumatic effect his defection had on his children and continued to sermonize in Christian terms too. He also published a book attributing his late-found sexual happiness in some way not only to Lawrence (now seen to be right about sex) and Katherine (whose memory was sanctified) but also, mysteriously, to Keats: “I owe it to them—and to Keats—that I have this life with Mary.” There was a real sense in which he did owe it to Katherine, of course: the royalties from the publication of her letters and diaries and steady sales of her stories gave him a comfortable income.

She would never have resented this—or would she? The impression given by most of her letters—an impression that comes through this selection of his letters also—is that Katherine managed to sustain her relationship with Murry by an elaborate system of self-deception. Whenever she caught a glimpse of the real Murry she was aghast, and all the playing at being children, in which both were complicit, the talk of dream houses and dream children, was a defense against the knowledge that he could never be the dominant and protective lover she was so clearly crying out for. There were many things she never told him about herself, and many she did not want to know about him.

So she kept reconstructing the image of the dear little innocent boy, the perfect lover, the attentive husband throughout her years with him, in the face of all the evidence that he was cold, inattentive, sickly, sentimental without being of any practical assistance to her in her illness, mean with money, lacking in any real sense of humor, sexually disappointing (he apologized to her for failing to take her in his arms after their wedding, explaining that he thought, because of her illness, it might “hurt her”), and unable to give her any really useful literary advice. At least she seems to have kept him off Jesus and God, both notably absent from this part of his correspondence, in which Murry seems spiritually less assured than usual, harboring quite worldly anxieties about his status in literary London, and eager to impress Katherine’s family by introducing them to “distinguished” people such as Lady Ottoline Morrell.

It is possible to feel pity for the Murry who appears in these letters. He had got a tiger (and a sick tiger too) to contend with, and he was baffled by her tigerish rage and disappointment in him. But it is impossible to like him. In that sense, the publication of the letters does not change the existing view of Murry except perhaps to make it a shade worse.

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