Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life
by Claire Tomalin
Knopf, 292 pp., $22.95
Katherine Mansfield’s contemporaries, including, though reluctantly, Virginia Woolf, agreed that she was brilliant. Woolf admired her besides for going “every sort of hog,” while she herself remained regretfully respectable. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mansfield is that she managed to construct for herself, a century or at least half a century too late, a classically Romantic career. Born in 1888 into a prosperous New Zealand family and educated for three years at Queen’s College, Harley Street, an enlightened London girls’ school, she rejected her background, comforts and all, to starve in a succession of European attics and unheatable cottages, to combine a hectic love life with dedication to her work, to make it into the literary and artistic avant-garde of her day, and to die, at thirty-four, of a mixture of tuberculosis and gonorrhea. Even Baudelaire could do no more.
The trouble with Mansfield is that she’s exciting without being interesting. Hardly anyone could fail with a biography of such lending-library potential as hers. Claire Tomalin does better than that: it’s hard to find fault with her book. It is both sensible and sensitive, sympathetic and sufficiently detached, and written with elegance, irony, and humor. She even manages to be fair to Mansfield’s second husband, Middleton Murry, a man of letters whom she forced into bed when they were both twenty-three and he should have been finishing his studies at Oxford. Nobody could stand him. “Squirming and oozing a sort of thick motor oil in the background,” he spoiled Virginia Woolf’s visits to Katherine.
Tomalin analyzes a number of Mansfield’s works as she goes along. In the end her assessment boils down to admiring Mansfield’s gift for conveying mood and atmosphere in a manner she calls Post-Impressionist, presumably because of the fragmentation, but which could also be labeled Impressionist for its characteristically vivid way with light, texture, and movement. “The lack of stamina,” says Tomalin, “which prevented her from producing a novel encouraged other virtues: speed, economy, clarity. They became her hallmark, admired and imitated by later writers.”
Tomalin also speaks of her talent for deadpan comedy, agreeing with Leonard Woolf that it was underused. “Murry corrupted and perverted and destroyed Katherine both as a person and as a writer,” he thought. “She was a very serious writer, but her gifts were those of an intense realist, with a superb sense of ironic humour and fundamental cynicism. She got enmeshed in the sticky sentimentality of Murry and wrote against the grain of her own nature.” Not much humor is left in, unless you count the embarrassing mimicry of genteel and working-class speech which makes some passages in her work sound like the party pieces of a snobbish, ill-natured debutante. It’s a cheap device. (“Cheap” was Virginia Woolf’s recurrent adjective for Mansfield: “I thought her cheap and she thought me priggish.”) Still, it can work, and in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” it does.
“When I was with Lady …