I, too, write a little

Lorna Sage

  • The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks: Vol I edited by Margaret Scott
    Lincoln University Press, 310 pp, NZ $79.95, September 1997, ISBN 0 908896 48 4
  • The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks: Vol II edited by Margaret Scott
    Lincoln University Press, 355 pp, NZ $79.95, September 1997, ISBN 0 908896 49 2

These handsome volumes contain the last remains of Katherine Mansfield: a full and final transcription of the amorphous mass of hopeful notes, dissatisfied jottings, bad poems, sick scribbles, lists, sums and drafts, some dating back to her youth, which she left behind when she died in January 1923. All her bits and pieces are here, chronologically arranged and beautifully bound, with a picture of the cheap exercise books she used on the cover, their faded marbled fronts transformed into a bookish reliquary.

This was the material John Middleton Murry mined for the selections he called the Journal and the Scrapbook, though it’s long been known that there was no such distinction. Margaret Scott, who is also co-editor of the five-volume Mansfield Collected Letters, has worked for years on these Mansfield papers at the Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, where most of them are kept (the rest are in Chicago), and where she was a librarian. The long toil involved in deciphering their unreliable handwriting and arcane order must suggest a labour of love. Is Ms Scott perhaps the archival equivalent of Mansfield’s much abused lady minder ‘L.M.’ (Ida Baker)? Not in the least. Some of Mansfield’s own witty and acerbic tone seems to have rubbed off on her. She takes a cool pleasure in pointing out, for instance, that one of the mots Murry salvaged – ‘Spring comes with exquisite effort in England’ – actually reads ‘Spring comes with exquisite effect ...’, which is much less original. And her line on punctuation is distinctly interventionist. Instead of preserving Mansfield’s careless, impatient dashes, she has changed them in the interests of readability:

In the early notebooks she was scribbling so fast that the only form of punctuation she used was a dash. A dash was quicker and easier to make than a backward-turning comma or a stationary full stop. As she wrote, at top speed, and ‘heard’ the need for a pause she employed a dash. Since many of these dashes function as commas or full stops I have rendered them so.

Where Murry supplied exclamation marks and question-marks to dramatise Mansfield’s fervour, Scott renders her merely clear, wherever possible. This makes sense: these notebooks were not used to articulate an ‘inner’ rhythm, they were not another kind of writing – writing about writing – but a means to the end of work in the world.

More than anything Mansfield wanted to be an artist in the public sense. If the notebooks have an inward and reflexive dimension it’s because for most of Volume I, which takes us up to 1914, she was an adolescent and an apprentice – ‘I have a perfectly frantic desire to write something really fine, and an inability to do so which is infinitely distressing’ (1908) – and for much of Volume II, which covers the years until her death, she was ill with TB, and often artificially and unwillingly isolated. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of her jottings is that they question the assumptions we make about the nature of people’s interiority, and particularly about writers’ inner lives. Mansfield notes jokily on some loose leaves dating from around 1920 that nowadays selves are two a penny, we seem to have hundreds of selves: ‘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.’

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