Kathleen Beauchamp was a shapeshifter with as many selves as Stendhal. Her pseudonyms included Katya, Katerina, Kissienka, Katoushka (the Russian variations of her name); her Maori personae were Kezia, Rewa, Tui, and Maata; she also referred to herself as Kass, Katharina, Kathë Schonfeld, Mrs. K. Bendall, Kathë Beauchamp-Bowden, Juliet, Vere, Ariadne, Sally, Pearl, and Guy; and she published stories, poems, reviews, and editorials under the names Lili Heron, Julian Mark, Matilda Berry, Elizabeth Stanley, the Tiger, Boris Petrovsky, K.M., and Katherine Mansfield. “True to oneself!” she scoffed in a journal entry.
Which self? Which of my many—well, really, thats what it looks like coming to—hundreds of selves. For what with complexes and suppressions and reactions and vibrations and reflections—there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests.
With the help of her second husband, John Middleton Murry, she created the character he called the “perfectly exquisite, perfectly simple human being,” and it was this mawkishly sanctified Mansfield whom Murry ceaselessly promoted after her death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four.
According to her first husband, George Bowden, there was nothing simple about her. The first time they met Mansfield was “inconspicuous and somewhat demure,” while the second time she was dressed theatrically in “more or less Maori fashion.” (Mansfield was born and raised in New Zealand, and left it forever at the age of nineteen.) Nearly half a century later Bowden was still disturbed by the opposing versions of the same figure, one fading silently into the background, the other loudly announcing her presence. “There was something almost eerie about it, as though of a psychic transformation rather than a mere impersonation,” he told Mansfield’s biographer Antony Alpers, before adding that she had looked, draped in her flamboyant scarf, “like Oscar Wilde.”
A.R. Orage, the editor of The New Age, where Mansfield’s stories were first published in England, recorded her “rapid and disconcerting” mood changes:
A laughing joyous moment would suddenly turn through some inadequate remark into biting anger…. Her great delight was a game she played of being someone else…riding in a bus or eating in a Soho café…. She would act the part completely until she even got herself mixed up as to who and what she was.
When they met in 1916, Virginia Woolf—the Greek chorus to Mansfield’s tragedy—was “a little shocked” by her “lines so hard & cheap” and her odor like a “civet cat that had taken to street walking,” but she saw immediately their affinity. Woolf had disliked having a rival, she later confessed, and had been jealous of Mansfield’s stories, but there was no other woman “with gift enough to make talk of writing interesting.” Lytton Strachey, for whom Mansfield produced “storyettes,” never got beyond the impression of a “foul-mouthed, virulent, brazen-faced broomstick of a creature” with an “ugly impassive mask of a face.” Everyone commented on the masklike face, another affectation she borrowed from Wilde, whose oeuvre Mansfield had consumed as a teenager. “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” said Wilde. “Don’t lower your mask,” Mansfield counseled Murry in one of her own aphorisms, “until you have another mask prepared underneath.”
Angela Carter wondered why “someone so gifted, so charming should have been so universally detested,” but it’s easy enough to appreciate Mansfield’s effect in the Bloomsbury drawing rooms. The Blooms Berries, as she called them, were snobs and xenophobes. If D.H. Lawrence, the son of a Nottingham coal miner, could be seen, as David Garnett put it, as the “plumber’s mate” and the “mongrel terrier among a crowd of Pomeranians and Alsations,” then Mansfield, with her slyness, accent, class indifference, and satirical pose, offered a whole new order of threat. The self she performed in literary London was the “colonial savage,” conjuring up the spirit of her barbaric homeland with costume changes, bad manners, and hints of a suitably dark sexual past. She seemed to have gone “every sort of hog since she was 17,” Woolf wrote to her sister, Vanessa Bell.
It’s little wonder that Mansfield’s biographers can’t get a handle on her character. Alpers, whose 1953 life was considerably revised and expanded in 1980, approaches his subject in the manner of a protective guardian, while Claire Tomalin (1987) keeps her at arm’s length. “Katherine,” says Tomalin, “was a liar all her life—there is no getting around this.” For Claire Harman in All Sorts of Lives, a high-speed primer for readers lately accustomed to textual brevity, she “was not a saint, she was not even a kind person.” But though she could be cruel, duplicitous, and disruptive, it was because, as Mansfield put it herself, “I’m a writer first & a woman after.”
It is the writer who interests Harman. “Apart from Chekhov,” she argues,
it’s hard to think of any single writer who contributed more to the sophistication of the short-story form in the twentieth century, reading and borrowing from other literatures, adapting techniques from avant-garde painting, music and the new media such as the cinematograph, trying all the time to find a suitably expressive vessel for her questing modern consciousness.
From Chekhov Mansfield learned to “intensify,” as she put it, “the so-called small things”; from Van Gogh she learned “a kind of freedom—or rather, a shaking free”; playing the cello taught her to choose what she called the “sound” and “length” of every sentence and the “rise and fall of every paragraph”; and from film, Harman argues, she learned the techniques of frames, tracking shots, close-ups, jump cuts, and fades.
She had, as Murry recognized, a Keatsian sensibility: Mansfield’s protagonists are content in the “half-knowledge” that Keats called negative capability. The heroine in “Bliss” (1918) both knows and doesn’t know that her husband is having an affair with the woman she is unconsciously also attracted to; the sisters in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” (1921) know and don’t know that their father, a monster, has made them monstrous too; the child in “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1912) half understands that the events of her day have been unsettling.
Mansfield’s theories of writing were equally Keatsian. “A Poet,” wrote Keats, “has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body.” For Mansfield, whose stories were acts of immersion in which she watched herself dissolve, “one must learn, one must practise, to forget oneself.” She wrote in her notebooks, “I can’t tell the truth about Aunt Anne unless I am free to enter her life without self-consciousness.” Mansfield entered into the life of everything—“Ive been a seagull hovering at the stern,” she told Murry when she had finished writing “The Stranger” (1920), “and a hotel porter whistling through his teeth”—and she found likenesses everywhere. She and Lawrence were “unthinkably alike,” as were she and Woolf. “We have got the same job, Virginia,” Mansfield told her, “& it is really very curious & thrilling that we should both, quite apart from each other, be after so very nearly the same thing.”
It was in keeping with her pose of the “little colonial” that Mansfield gravitated toward the most marginalized of fictional forms, and Harman approaches her subject through ten of the short stories that “did so much to revolutionise” the genre. The arrangement is not chronological: the first story, “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped,” published under the pseudonym Lili Heron, made its debut in the September 1912 issue of Rhythm. The second, “The Tiredness of Rosabel,” was written in 1908 and published posthumously in Something Childish and Other Stories, one of the collections put together by Murry. The third story, “The Child-Who-Was-Tired” (1910), was the first of Mansfield’s tales to be published in England (in The New Age) before also appearing in her debut collection, In a German Pension (1911), while the fourth, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” was written at breakneck speed so that it could be included in her final collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922).
Mansfield’s evolution as a writer therefore unfolds, like the narrative structure she pioneered, by prolepsis and flashback. Harman glides backward and forward between the tales, pointing things out like a docent; no sooner have we focused our gaze on one thing than she shows us something else. “How do they work?” she asks of the stories. “Where do they come from? And what was she striving for?” Each of the ten chapters—one for every story—is divided into two parts, “The Story” and “The Life.” “The Story” contains Harman’s discussion of Mansfield’s style and techniques, while her adventures are explored in “The Life.” Mostly the two parts blend and overlap, which is in keeping with a writer whose life was her work and whose work was to capture life.
In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (2021), a book comparable to All Sorts of Lives, George Saunders offers close readings of seven Russian short stories, the texts of which he includes in the volume. Harman instead provides a loose synopsis of each story with a critical commentary woven through, thus turning what was short to begin with into something even shorter. It is a risky decision, not only, as Harman recognizes, because every word in a short story counts, but also because the drama of a Mansfield story lies, as Mansfield put it herself, in “overtones, half tones, quarter tones” rather than plot (“the plots of my stories leave me perfectly cold”), making them particularly hard to summarize. A synopsis is an interpretation that will always, like a short story, leave something out—a problem that Mansfield, if not Harman, is highly alert to. “The truth is,” wrote Mansfield, “one can get only so much into a story; there is always a sacrifice.”
“How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” is a “strangely disquieting” thousand-word story reduced in these pages to two paragraphs of paraphrase and quotation. “Pearl is swinging on a gate when she is approached,” writes Harman,
by two women in brightly coloured dresses, who between them are carrying a big basket of ferns. They seem pleased to hear that the child’s mother is busy, and ask if Pearl would like to come along with them. “We got beautiful things to show you” whispered one.
They walk what seems a long distance to a log house where other women crowd around Pearl, playing with her “yellow curls” and kissing the back of her neck. One man rolls an enormous peach across the floor and another (Harman leaves this important detail out of her synopsis) rolls her a pear. Pearl eats the fruit, the juice spilling down her dress. The party then rides in carts to the sea, Pearl sitting on the lap of a woman who is “warm as a cat,” after which—in another detail Harman elides—she is given more fruit. They are playing on the sand when “little men in blue” run shouting and whistling toward them, and carry the screaming child back home.
“The cleverness of the story,” Harman observes, “and the thing Mansfield learned to exploit more effectively later, is the manipulation of the point of view.” Narrated in free indirect discourse, Pearl’s experience is presented as a happy adventure, a welcome break from the boredom of swinging on the gate, and Mansfield relies, for her effect, on the withholding of information: the events take place in an unnamed country, Maori are not mentioned (“this is a generic Other,” Harman writes), the motives of the women and the age of the child are not given, the plot remains unresolved. If the word “kidnapped” were not in the title we might assume that nothing sinister had taken place; perhaps nothing sinister has yet taken place and it’s the “little men in blue” (“an embodiment,” writes Harman, “of racial panic and impending vengeance”) who are sinister. What is striking, she notes, is how closely “Pearl Button” “speaks to some intensely preoccupying themes in Mansfield’s own life. Two nations, two races, two sexes; where does she belong, and could the answer be almost too hard to face?”
The biographical sections of the book, told in fragments and episodes, begin, as Mansfield’s stories do, in medias res. We are introduced to her at age fourteen, arriving with her family for the first time in England, where she is to complete her education; in the next chapter it is 1909 and Mansfield’s life is in free fall; by the fourth chapter it is 1921 and she is writing “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” “as fast as possible for fear of dying,” after which we are back in 1915 and she is tearing across France for a rendezvous with her lover, a soldier at the front. What this narrative flexibility makes apparent is that while a Mansfield story “just unfolds and opens,” as she casually put it, her life reads like the synopsis of a three-decker Victorian novel.
“Forever pursued by her dying,” Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West in 1931, Mansfield “had to press on through stages that should have taken years in ten minutes.” But even before her death sentence from tuberculosis, Mansfield propelled herself forward, grabbing as much experience as possible. If writing was, as she said, “a kind of race, to get in as much as one can before it disappears,” then so was living; when Mansfield’s stories took off, at the same time as her diagnosis, she was weakening with such speed that she wielded her pen, she said, like a walking stick.
The fourth of five children, Mansfield was born in Wellington in 1888. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, was a successful banker and one of the richest men in New Zealand; we are given a portrait of her mother, Annie, in the story “At the Bay”: “She was broken, made weak, her courage was gone, through childbearing. And what made it doubly hard to bear was, she did not love her children.” A fat and sensual child in a thin and cold family, Mansfield had, in every sense, an appetite for life. Her childhood love was a friend named Maata Mahupuku, the granddaughter of a Maori chief. In 1903, when she was sent to a progressive girls’ high school in London called Queen’s College, she learned to see herself as a cultural outsider. “I am afraid you do not count,” she recalled a teacher telling her. “You are a little savage from New Zealand.” It was at Queen’s College that Mansfield met Ida Baker, her future “wife” and one of the most curious minor characters of twentieth-century literary biography.
Having daydreamed her way through three years of lessons, Mansfield returned, aged seventeen, to the Wellington marriage market. “Life here’s impossible,” she wrote in the journal she kept. Depressed that Maata had found a husband—“I want Maata. I want her as I have had her—terribly”—she had a revenge affair with an artist named Edith Bendall. (“O Oscar! Am I peculiarly susceptible to sexual impulse?”)
In August 1908, with a number of her vignettes published in antipodean magazines, Mansfield persuaded her father to let her return to England, where she hurtled headlong into the series of events that led to her death. In love with a musician named Arnold Trowell, she lodged in London with his family, became engaged to his twin brother, Garnet, and was thrown out when his parents learned that they were sleeping together. After Garnet abandoned her she discovered, in early 1909, that she was pregnant. Desperate to legitimize the child, Mansfield married George Bowden on March 2, having met him only weeks before; leaving him that same day, she moved in with Baker, whom she referred to in her journal and correspondence as Lesley Moore. She then briefly reunited with Garnet (who knew nothing of the marriage or pregnancy), joined a light-opera company on tour, and became suicidal and addicted to Veronal.
Her alarmed mother, arriving from New Zealand, dispatched Mansfield to Bavaria for psychosexual treatment before sailing home and cutting her daughter out of her will. When Mansfield lost the baby in a late miscarriage she asked Baker to procure her an orphan boy from London who was delivered, like a recovery puppy, to Bavaria before being sent back “home,” wherever that was, and apparently never thought of again. Around the same time, Mansfield contracted gonorrhea from a man named Floryan Sobieniowski, who also introduced her to Chekhov’s stories in German translations. The stories Mansfield was now writing herself—including “The Child-Who-Was-Tired,” about an exhausted nursemaid who is driven to kill her charge—went into her first collection, In a German Pension, which she later disowned for reasons she never explained.
Fleeing from Sobieniowski, Mansfield returned to London and was taken in by the hapless Bowden. In London she collapsed with peritonitis, had a fallopian tube removed, escaped, with the help of Baker, from the rehabilitation center, and hotfooted it to the Sussex town of Rottingdean, where the two women lived for the next two months. The peritonitis was the result of the undiagnosed gonorrhea that also led to pericarditis, pleurisy, arthritis in her hips and feet, and vulnerability to the tuberculosis bacillus.
John Middleton Murry, an ambitious Oxford undergraduate who edited Rhythm, was a year younger than Mansfield. They met in December 1911; the following year he moved into her flat and published her stories and reviews; she was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, and when her divorce came through in 1918, they married. It was a hectic, homeless, infantilizing union in which Murry—a self-serving, sex-fearing sentimentalist—remained out of his depth while Mansfield continued to live like someone who had been handed a ticking bomb. “Do you remember as vividly as I do,” she wrote to Murry,
ALL those houses ALL those flats ALL those rooms we have taken and withdrawn from…For the time they have broken me and I must live from week to week and not feel bound…Time is passing, and we cannot afford to waste another year.
The only place Mansfield felt at home, wrote Lorna Sage in Moments of Truth (2001), her study of twelve female writers, was the short story. She worked ceaselessly at perfecting her technique, exploring in her notebooks and exchanges with Woolf what she wanted to achieve. In 1918 the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press published “Prelude,” and in 1920 Mansfield’s second collection, Bliss and Other Stories, appeared. The Garden Party and Other Stories, which appeared in 1922, is seen as Mansfield’s late style. She died on January 9, 1923, at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau-Avon, just south of Paris, having hemorrhaged after running up a flight of stairs.
Once Mansfield’s body began to consume itself, the fat child became an increasingly thin adult. “Although I am still snapping up fishes like a sea-lion,” she wrote Murry in 1917, “milk like a snake (or is that only ‘tale’?) and eggs, honey, cream, butter and nourishing trimmings galore, they seem to go to a sort of Dead Letter Office.” Aged thirty, she weighed ninety-seven pounds; aged fifty, she joked to her mother, she would look like a “midget toothpick.” “Few great writers,” writes Harman, “have been so much at the mercy of their body or biology,” a rash statement that elides the significance of Lawrence, who, Tomalin plausibly suggests, infected Mansfield with tuberculosis in the first place. Lawrence, like Mansfield, wrote as he did precisely because he was chronically ill; the same might be argued for Keats, Chekhov, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, and, more recently, Hilary Mantel.
Harman also suggests that while working as an extra in silent movies, Mansfield gained “unique insights into the storytelling power of the new medium” such as “creating character with just a few gestures, complicating it with a close-up or changed point of view.” But it will surely have been from watching movies, rather than hanging around on sets, that Mansfield absorbed these techniques. She also absorbed them from literature because short-story writers besides herself, including Lawrence, were similarly influenced by film. “The two arts have not only accelerated together,” wrote H.E. Bates in The Modern Short Story from 1809 to 1953 (1972), “but have, consciously or not, taught each other much”; in both cases the narrative is conducted by “a series of subtly implied gestures, swift shots, moments of suggestion.”
Murry remained, during his wife’s dying years, mostly at his desk in London; it was Baker who made her writing possible, accompanying Mansfield from pensione to pensione in pursuit of a better climate. “I…can’t really imagine being without you,” Mansfield told her in a rare moment of gratitude. Their relationship was otherwise sadomasochistic, with Baker responding to Mansfield’s cruelty like a bee to the sound of a brass pan. The character sketches of her companion in Mansfield’s notebooks, which Baker (referred to as L.M.) would have read when they were posthumously published by Murry, present her as literally devouring:
Does nobody want that piece of bread & butter says L.M. You really think from her tone that she was saving the poor little darling from the river or worse, willing to adopt it as her own child & bring it up so that it should never know that it was once unwanted.
Baker could leave nothing uneaten, and “I really do feel,” Mansfield complained to Murry, “that if she could she’d EAT me.”
Long before she was “stewing” in her own “consumption,” as Lawrence put it in one of his less charming letters to Mansfield, eating was one of her central metaphors. Harman only skims the surface of the relation for Mansfield between reading and food. The meat, fruit, cheese, and desserts that load down her writing are either tempting, terrified, or terrifying. “Dearest darling,” she wrote to Murry, “Two letters came—Saturday & Sunday heavenly ones full of rashers of bacon & fried eggs & casseroles.” In “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” which was, Mansfield told Baker, “about you,” a “white, terrified blancmange” trembles on the dining table while the two spinster sisters force their nephew to eat a meringue. (“Do you mind if I take half to begin with,” he bravely suggests.) Meanwhile Baker consumes bananas, Mansfield recorded,
so slowly, so terribly slowly. And they know it somehow; they realise what is in store for them when she reaches out her hand. I have seen bananas turn absolutely livid with terror on her plate or pale as ashes.
All relationships, for Mansfield, including those between writers, were cannibalistic. “Anatole France would say we eat each other,” she advised a correspondent, “but perhaps nourish is the better word.” The “absorption” of those writers we love was an instinctive process and her love of Chekhov is everywhere in her writing. “What the writer does,” Mansfield wrote to Woolf, “is not so much to solve the question but to put the question. There must be the question put. That seems to me a very nice dividing line between the true & the false writer.” “You are mixing up two things,” Chekhov wrote to Suvorin, “the solving of the question and the correct putting of the question. It is the latter only which is obligatory upon the artist.”
Perhaps because Chekhov was unknown in England until Constance Garnett’s translations appeared between 1916 and 1923, the resemblance between Mansfield’s story “The Child-Who-Was-Tired” and Chekhov’s “Sleepy” went unnoticed until the 1950s. “There has been a lot of tiptoeing round this issue,” Harman writes, “leaving a totally undeserved sense of unease around Mansfield’s creative achievement in relation to this story—and her probity generally.” Harman defends Mansfield on the grounds that she had been Chekhovian long before she was introduced to Chekhov by Sobieniowski in 1909, that she would not have considered her use of “Sleepy” to be plagiarism—because writers “absorb” one another—and that it little matters if the “basic” plots were “identical” because Mansfield placed no value on plot. But when, in 1920, Sobieniowski blackmailed Mansfield, demanding £40 in exchange for correspondence in his possession, she was willing to pay him off, Tomalin convincingly argues, probably because her letters proved that “The Child-Who-Was-Tired” was knowingly lifted from “Sleepy.” Mansfield’s desire to let In a German Pension go out of print tends to confirm this view.
Harman, for whom “the great short-story writers provide…infinite food for thought,” could take further Mansfield’s literary consumptions. As well as devouring Wilde, Keats, and Chekhov, Mansfield also clearly swallowed whole Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” a poem about eating, with powerful sexual undertones, whose plot she drew upon for “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped.” In “Goblin Market,” two golden-haired sisters are tempted from home by goblins who look like cats carrying baskets of fruit that the girls, in a bacchanalian frenzy, “suck’d and suck’d and suck’d.” In “Pearl Button,” the golden-haired Pearl, tempted from home by catlike strangers also carrying baskets, is similarly seduced by delicious fruit. “Please can I eat it?” she asks the man with the peach. Seen alongside “Goblin Market,” Mansfield’s sketch of Baker eating a banana gains a new dimension.
I am puzzled when Harman writes that the “shortness” of a Mansfield short story “is the least important thing about it.” The shortness of a Mansfield story is the most important thing about it; concision was her art. Long before her body shrank with the speed of Alice in Wonderland, Mansfield, the miniaturist of modernism, had enjoyed belittling herself: a “little colonial,” “a little savage,” a “small clerk of some hotel.” “I, too,” she told Roger Fry, “write a little.” Short of breath and short of time, she wrote in response to her own brevity. “I want,” as she put it, “to try all sorts of lives—one is so very small—but that is the satisfaction of writing.”