There is a birthday today and it belongs to Katherine Mansfield: colourful character, wisecracking ingénue, and celebrated modernist writer of short stories that are imaginative, intelligent and expressive in style and form.
Mansfield led a tragically short life blighted by depression and illness, but her existence was also full of spontaneity and freedom. ‘Would you not like to try all sorts of lives – one is so very small – ?’ she wondered, with the same curiosity and lust for excavation into the human character as her contemporary Virginia Woolf, who longed to ‘dig out caves behind my characters’ and peer within.
Mansfield believed writing to be a form of impersonation; transcending the limits of the personal in order to engage in the vivid exploration of fellow consciousnesses. A skilled chameleon, she did lead many lives, parallel and contrasting, and moved in varied circles, from the literary salons of Bloomsbury, where she mingled with the Woolfs, T. S. Eliot and Betrand Russell, to immersing herself in other kinds, and definitions, of civilization and culture altogether. She cultivated friendships – and one torrid love-affair – amongst the Maoris of her native New Zealand, and threw herself into everything with zest and wit – travelling, writing, relationships with both men and women – all of which she regarded as love affairs of the heart.
An intense character who inspired extremes of opinion amongst even her closest friends and contemporaries, she was eventually abhorred by D. H. Lawrence as a ‘loathsome reptile’. Woolf found her simultaneously magnetic and repugnant, remarking that she ‘stank like a civet cat that has taken to street-walking’. Angela Carter, a great admirer of Mansfield, wonders why ‘someone so gifted, so charming, should have been so universally detested’.
Mansfield keenly felt the difficulty of shining out in a close circle of literary prodigies, and felt creatively stifled during her relationship with John Middleton Murray, the respected and much-published writer of journals and periodicals. She wrestled with the age-old challenges faced by women writers that Virginia Woolf addresses in her polemic essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’.
Mansfield, like Woolf, believed that women needed space and freedom from domestic and prosaic restraints in order to find and communicate their voice. She complained bitterly of ‘walking about with a mind full of ghosts and saucepans and primus stoves’ rather than succeeding to nurture and channel an inner poetry that lurked deeper, sometimes too deep.
The dynamic impetus of Katherine Mansfield’s injunction, ‘Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.’ strikes a particular and stirring chord. Stark rather than eloquent, it is as compelling, in its own way, as Walter Pater’s immemorial commandment to burn always with a hard and gemlike flame.
Mansfield’s own flame was finally extinguished by her long and painful battle with tuberculosis. But a shimmering prose, and the stubborn ghost of a strong character remain unsnuffed; bright and iridescent, quick to ignite, and flickering firmly with the light of many hues.