- Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin
Viking, 292 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 670 81392 3
Katherine Mansfield, unlucky in life, has been lucky in death. Where some figures sink under successive waves of literary fashion, she remains buoyant. One Mansfield vanishes but another takes its place. If you measure simply by the fictional product you might conclude she has had more than her fair share of attention. If you take, not the work, but the writer, then the attention seems entirely justified. Three major books on her to appear in the past decade have all been biographies – one by an American, one by a New Zealander, and now one by an Englishwoman. In all of them she appears not only as a writer of some importance in the development of modern fiction, but also as a presence in and influence upon the lives and work of a number of major figures, most notably D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.
In her foreword, Tomalin (who refers to Mansfield throughout as Katherine) points out that she is ‘of the same sex as my subject. It may be nonsense to believe that this gives me any advantage over a male biographer. Yet I can’t help feeling that any woman who fights her way through life on two fronts – taking a traditional female role, but also seeking male privileges – may have a special sympathy for such a pioneer as Katherine, and find some of her actions and attitudes less baffling than even the most understanding of men.’ I’m not disposed to quarrel with this: but I’m interested in an element of conflict, or contradiction, I think I detect between Tomalin, ‘the woman who fights her way through life on two fronts’ dealing with Mansfield, and Tomalin the feminist. She would say they are the same. But whereas the subject of this book, if she could read it, would respond to and be grateful for the parts which spring from Tomalin’s sympathy with the woman who wanted to work, and marry, and have children, I feel quite sure she would be distressed and angered to discover herself casually described as ‘sexually ambiguous, with a husband, a wife and lovers of both sexes’. Inevitably Tomalin’s publishers seize on this flamboyant description for their press release, while improving it by changing ‘a husband’ to ‘two husbands’.
What I’m saying is that Tomalin, so sensible, careful, accurate and intelligent in most of what she has to say, is inclined, in the area of sexuality, to slip into the clichés and trigger-words of the feminist movement. She’s not alone in this. Rather, she’s letting the times do her thinking for her. Just as it was once fashionable to present Mansfield as some kind of otherworldly, pure, mystical person, it’s now fashionable to present her as ‘bisexual’; and though the new view might be marginally nearer the truth than the old one, both are wrong.
The principal, and almost the sole, ground for the ‘bisexual’ Mansfield is a journal written when she was 18, in which she described a beach holiday spent with Edith Bendall, a Wellington artist then aged 27.
Last night I spent in her arms – and tonight I hate her – which, being interpreted, means that I adore her: that I cannot lie in my bed and not feel the magic of her body: which means that sex seems as nothing to me. I feel more powerfully all those so-called sexual impulses with her than I have with any man ... Gone are all the recollections of Caesar and Adonis [two young men she had recently been in love with]: gone the terrible banality of my life. Nothing remains but the shelter of her arms.
A page or so later she writes:
O Oscar! am I peculiarly susceptible to sexual impulse? I must be, I suppose – but I rejoice. Now, each time I see her [I want her] to put her arms round me and hold me against her. I think she wanted to too; but she is afraid and custom hedges her in, I feel.
In the next journal entry she is once again in love with Caesar and bored with Edith.
[*] The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Vol. II, 1918-1919, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan with Margaret Scott (Oxford, 365 pp., £17.50, 5 February, 0 19 812614 X).
Vol. 10 No. 2 · 21 January 1988
SIR: C.K. Stead’s anxiety to quash mat aspect of Claire Tomalin’s biography Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life which he sees as deriving from a hackneyed feminism (LRB, 26 November 1987) produces a series of crude misreadings extending beyond Tomalin’s book. Far from being a recent feminist trend, the argument for considering bisexuality as a problematic pole of Mansfield’s identity was mooted over a decade ago by Vincent O’Sullivan in his article ‘The Magnetic Chain: Notes and Approaches to K.M.’, published in the New Zealand quarterly Landfall (June, 1975). O’Sullivan’s qualified claim, based on a range of material from Mansfield’s notebooks, that ‘as a young woman (and to some extent all her life) Mansfield was bisexual’ is fully elaborated in Cherry Hankin’s study Katherine Mansfield and her Confessional Stories (1983), which analyses what Mansfield experienced as her ‘disunited being’ in terms of a struggle to deny her erotic attraction to women, an attraction Hankin sees developing out of Mansfield’s childhood sense of emotional neglect. The picture which emerged from Hankin’s study was of Mansfield as latently bisexual, maintaining for the duration of her short life an emotional dependence on a woman. Ida Baker (LM), who also served as an object through whom Mansfield could repudiate her lesbian feelings. Tomalin’s biography of Mansfield assumes a similar model: hence her several references to Mansfield’s bisexuality or ‘sexual ambiguity’. Contrary to the implications of Stead’s review, however, Tomalin does not present Mansfield’s relationship with LM as part of an argument for the adult Mansfield as actively bisexual. She does indeed instance the historical and social constraints which might have prevented Edith Bendall from recognising her experience with the adolescent Mansfield as erotic. But with regard to LM Tomalin is not, as Stead asserts, ‘sceptical of [her] denials’ (what LM denied was knowledge of the term ‘lesbian’) – she in fact confirms LM by stating that her love for Mansfield was innocent, never realised as something sexual. Stead’s additional claim that Mansfield’s abrupt overnight departure from her marriage to George Bowden ‘is allowed to hover as evidence of “bisexuality” ’ is a further misreading. It is plain from the text that it was Bowden who construed Mansfield’s bizarre behaviour as an indication of lesbianism;in Tomalin’s narrative this episode is clearly framed within Mansfield’s heterosexual affair with Garnet Trowell.
Stead’s review shows him bent upon proving Mansfield’s mature and unswerving heterosexuality. This approach is, at the very least, misjudged. Part of the value of Mansfield’s personal writing in the realm of sexual and human relations is that her responses loosen divisions between adult and infantile states and masculine and feminine roles in a way which entirely escapes the normative and prescriptive. When Tomalin describes Mansfield as ‘sexually ambiguous, with a husband and wife, and lovers of both sexes’, she conveys the troubled complexity of Mansfield’s domestic existence, for while married to and deeply loving J.M. Murry, she also relied upon, even demanded, the practical help and emotional sustenance of Ida Baker in the role of subservient spouse, telling her towards the end of their long and motley relation: ‘try and believe and keep on believing without signs from me that I do love you and want you for my wife.’ Stead’s careless misquotation of Tomalin’s text (‘sexually ambiguous, with a husband, a wife and lovers of both sexes’) literalises her meaning, so obscuring its figurative power.
I wish to make one further point relating to the issue Stead raises of the ‘New Zealandness’ of Mansfield’s writing. Stead describes a shift in Mansfield’s stories away from a ‘harsh regional realism’ to a more muted style which neutralises the New Zealand context, invoking the stories of ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’. He supports this claim with reference to Mansfield’s review of Jane Mander’s The Story of a New Zealand River in which she isolates a sentence and comments on its failure to produce an emotion, or convey a picture to ‘an English reader’. Mander’s sentence reads: ‘Stiff laurel like puriris stood beside the drooping lace fringe of the lacy rimu; hard blackish kahikateas brooded over the oak-like ti-toki with its lovely scarlet berry.’ Stead points out that Mander is calling native trees by their Maori names and castigates Mansfield for her Anglocentrism. But if one reads the rest of the review it is immediately clear that Mansfield is criticising, not the use of Maori names, but the congested prose in which they are cast, for Mander can find no other descriptive terms for indigenous trees but those of laurels, oaks and lace tablecloths. What Mansfield wanted, and what she was aiming at in her own writing, was poetic evocation of New Zealand’s difference, in place of reassuringly British and taxonomic prose. This is evident both from her statement that Mander is ‘immensely hampered in her writing by her adherence to the old unnecessary technical devices’, and, a little further on. ‘she leans too hard on England.’
In the opening section of Mansfield’s ‘At the Bay’ one reads of ‘big bush-covered hills’, of ‘ferny basins’, ‘silvery, fluffy toi-toi’, a man in a ‘wide-awake’, ‘an enormous shock-haired giant with his arms stretched out’ which in the next sentence becomes a gum-tree, a ‘charred-looking little whare’. I am unsure whether it is because I am currently on foreign soil, but to me, in terms both of its reference and its method, this writing does not signal ‘relax’: rather it produces a vivid sense of that mixture of the strange and the familiar which I associate with New Zealand.
Darwin College, Cambridge