Battle of the Wasps

C.K. Stead

The release in 2009 of the first two volumes of T.S. Eliot’s letters, and the year before of the final volume of Katherine Mansfield’s, raises questions about the relationship between these two and their spouses, Vivien Haigh-Wood and John Middleton Murry.[*] Why was Eliot distrustful, and even apprehensive, of Mansfield? What was Murry’s relationship with Vivien – and indeed with Eliot himself? Why were Vivien’s feelings about Murry so tortured – and was Mansfield jealous of her?

There can be no doubt that Eliot was deeply suspicious of Mansfield, and there is plenty of evidence that she observed him closely and accurately. According to Clive Bell, a number of the Bloomsbury set first heard ‘Prufrock’ in 1917, when Mansfield read it at Garsington: it ‘caused a stir, much discussion, some perplexity’. A short time later Eliot and Mansfield met at a dinner party in Hammersmith (Robert Graves was also present) where, she wrote, Eliot ‘grew paler and paler and more and more silent’ while their host (whom she likened to a butcher) ‘cut up, trimmed and smacked into shape the whole of America and the Americans’. The two, he without Vivien, she without Murry, left the party together, and her description of their walk seems to owe as much to the cityscape of his early poetry as to reality.

Mansfield’s letters in the next few years occasionally echo his poems, or reflect on his criticism; but their lives don’t overlap significantly again until 1920. In April of that year Eliot writes to thank Murry ‘very much’ for ‘your thought of me’. What Murry was being thanked for is not clear, but the year before he had offered Eliot the deputy editorship of the Athenaeum, and though Eliot declined he took the offer (as he said to his mother) as another sign that ‘there is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England.’ In the letter to Murry he says he and Vivien ‘are looking forward to seeing Katherine’.

Mansfield’s report of the dinner party that followed is waspish about Vivien, but offers, with momentary vividness, a revealing snapshot of the Eliots:

The Elliots [sic] have dined with us tonight. They are just gone – and the whole room is quivering. John has gone downstairs to see them off. Mrs E’s voice rises ‘Oh don’t commiserate Tom; he’s quite happy.’ I know it’s extravagant … but I dislike her so immensely. She really repels me. She makes me shiver with apprehension … I don’t dare to think what she is ‘seeing’. From the moment that John dropped a spoon & she cried: ‘I say you are noisy tonight – what’s wrong’ – to the moment when she came into my room & lay on the sofa offering idly: ‘This room’s changed since the last time I was here.’ To think she had been here before … And Elliot, leaning towards her, admiring, listening, making the most of her – really minding whether she disliked the country or not … I am so fond of Elliot … But this teashop creature.

M. comes up after they are gone, and he defends her. He tells me of a party he gave here & how she came & was friends with him & how he drank to get over the state of nerves she had thrown him into. ‘I like her; I would do the same again.’ I feel as tho’ I’ve been stabbed.

Perhaps Eliot was aware of this critical eye; and perhaps Vivien was too. In any case, only a few weeks later Eliot wrote to Pound, mocking Murry’s exaggeration (as he saw it) of Mansfield’s talent, and adding ‘I believe her to be a dangerous WOMAN; and of course’ – he goes on about the Murrys – ‘two sentimentalists together are more than two times as noxious as one.’ This impression of Mansfield as in some way powerful and a threat is echoed soon after in a letter in which, signing herself ‘Yr most adoring’, Vivien urges Tom: ‘Write to Schiff – very nicely. Must not let him fall into K.M.’s hands.’

Eliot’s professional life remained intertwined with Murry’s, but the degree to which his largely concealed dislike could rise is revealed in a letter to his mother in January 1921: ‘I and Murry have fallen apart completely. I consider his verse quite negligible, and I don’t like his prose style; his articles seem to me to become more and more windy, verbose and meaningless. Personally, I think him a man of weak character and great vanity, and I do not trust him.’ And how he feels about Murry seems to spill over into his view of Mansfield, who is all the more suspect because Murry slyly promotes her work. Scofield Thayer, in a letter to Eliot, is perhaps reflecting Eliot’s own view when he refers to Murry as ‘this sparse husband of England’s latest short story prima donna’.

But it is in 1922, when Eliot is establishing his new literary periodical, the Criterion, sponsored by Lady Rothermere, that his distrust of Mansfield reaches a peak. The first sign of the crisis comes in a letter from Vivien to Pound, in which she says that Lady Rothermere has written ‘three offensive letters’ to Tom about the Criterion’s first issue:

If when she sees T. she behaves in the same way as her letters I don’t see that he can do anything but throw up the Criterionand I believe that is what she wants. She is unhinged – one of those beastly raving women who are most dangerous. She is now in that asylum for the insane called La Prieuré [Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau] where she does religious dances naked with Katherine Mansfield. ‘K.M.’ she says in every letter ‘is the most intelligent woman I have ever met.’ K.M. is pouring poison in her ear (of course) for K.M. hates T. more than anyone.

There appear to be no grounds for this suspicion (and the naked dancing is surely a fantasy). Mansfield did not hate Eliot; she actually quite liked him, even as she viewed him with a certain amused detachment. In February 1922, for example, she wrote to Dorothy Brett:

Yes he is an attractive creature; he is pathetic. He suffers from his feelings of powerlessness. He knows it. He feels weak. Its all disguise. That slow manner, that hesitation, side-long glances and so on are painful. And the pity is he is too serious about himself, even a little bit absurd. But it’s natural; it’s the fault of London, that. He wants kindly laughing at and setting free.

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[*] The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Vol. II: 1923-25, edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton (Faber, £35); The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Vol. V: 1922, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (Oxford, £72). Michael Wood wrote about the second volume of Eliot’s letters in the LRB of 3 December 2009.