The Life of Katherine Mansfield 
by Antony Alpers.
Cape, 466 pp., £9.50, May 1980, 0 224 01625 3
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On 7 August 1922, in a letter for her husband John Middleton Murry to be opened after her death, Katherine Mansfield wrote:

All my manuscripts I leave entirely to you to do what you like with. Go through them one day, dear love, and destroy all you do not use. Please destroy all letters you do not wish to keep and all papers. You know my love of tidiness. Have a clean sweep, Bogey, and leave all fair – will you?

The next week, when writing her Will, she made her wishes still more sweepingly plain. ‘All manuscripts note books papers letters I leave to John M. Murry likewise I should like him to publish as little as possible. He will understand that I desire to leave as few traces of my camping ground as possible.’

Five months later, in January 1923, Katherine died at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, near Fontainebleau. She had been inhaling the breath of cows and, following an uncontrollable paroxysm of coughing, gasped: ‘I believe... I am going to die.’ Then the blood came plunging from her mouth, oozed through her fingers and the towel she pushed against her lips. Two doctors hurried Murry from her room. She stared at the door: but he was not called back until after she was dead.

Over the next quarter of a century, Murry took possession of her. Unfortunately, he had a genuinely dreadful memory. He forgot, for example, to pay the bill for her funeral, so that (until her father put things right some years later) she was buried in the pauper’s part of the cemetery at Avon; and he forgot the reality of their life together. ‘Now the only thing that matters to me,’ he told Ottoline Morrell, ‘is that she should have her rightful place as the most wonderful writer and the most beautiful spirit of our time.’

The materials for this beautification were at hand among the papers she had hoped he would destroy. During her life she had published only three volumes of short stories: In a German Pension (1911), Bliss (1920) and The Garden Party (1922). But posthumously, under Murry’s supervision, she grew miraculously prolific. He brought out two more volumes, The Dove’s Nest (1923) and Something Childish (1924), which included unfinished fiction and brought her collected oeuvre to 88 stories. He made a book from her verses; he made another book of her reviews; and, having paraded them through the columns of his magazine the Adelphi, he made several books out of her journals and letters. According to C.K. Stead, ‘Murry published something like 700,000 words of those papers he was instructed to tidy and leave fair.’

Professor Stead (who produced an unindexed edition of the letters and journals in 1977) and the other academics who have been circling round the Mansfield papers in New Zealand are in the uneasy position of being accessories after the fact. For if Murry had not disobeyed Katherine’s wishes, there would be little enough material for them to edit, comment upon and add footnotes to: their occupation would be gone. Professor Ian A. Gordon, in his Introduction to The Urewera Notebook,* comments rather severely upon Murry for having ‘discarded, suppressed, edited, and manipulated’ her journals in order to raise up his pious memorial to a dead wife. But the plucking out of harsh views on friends and fellow writers (as with Leonard Woolf’s and James Strachey’s edition of Virginia Woolf’s correspondence with Lytton Strachey) was inevitable. The truth is that Murry added nothing to Katherine’s writing that was not already there, that he made her popular, and that he kept her work continually in print and handed on all the material intact so that, to his own disadvantage, she could subsequently be ‘rediscovered’ by us.

Katherine Mansfield’s camping ground having been thrown open to the public, those who swarmed in, guided by Murry, found that they had entered on holy ground. Katherine had become a myth, Murry having, as Antony Alpers writes, ‘sealed her in porcelain’. Though his idealised picture of her as ‘a princess manifest, a child withouten stain’ created a sentimental cult that swept through France, it shocked many of those who had known her in England: ‘why that foul-mouthed, virulent, brazen-faced broomstick of a creature should have got herself up as a pad of rose-scented cotton wool is beyond me,’ remarked Lytton Strachey after reading Murry’s edition of her journal in 1927.

It is fashionable to upbraid Murry for this prim embalming. As Antony Alpers modestly acknowledges, he became ‘one of the most unpopular men to be found in the world of English letters’. Even the Dictionary of National Biography reports him as being ‘the best-hated man-of-letters in the country’. People who could agree on nothing else were united in their enthusiastic disgust over his bad taste. It is unusual, for instance, to find Wyndham Lewis (for whom Murry was merely a ‘crafty gushbag’) so overtaken in the matter of invective. Virginia Woolf, who saw in him a posturing little man with bad teeth and a profoundly perverted nature, wrote: ‘he has been rolling in dung, and smells impure.’ For Carrington, he was a ‘great decaying mushroom’; to D.H. Lawrence, an ‘incorrigible worm’; though Aldous Huxley thought him more of a ‘slug’ who (with regard to Lawrence) had invented a new literary genre, the ‘vindictive hagiography, malice expressed in terms of worship’.

So the comedy of abuse rattled on, losing something of its humour as it was taken up by writers who never knew Murry. He lies ‘supine’ in Brigid Brophy’s psychoanalytical pages and crawls, a monster of ‘appalling egoism’, through the last-but-one biography of Katherine Mansfield, by Jeffrey Meyers. But in correcting Murry’s emphasis it is easy to fall into another form of sentimentality which attributes all Katherine’s embarrassing mannerisms to his influence. Jeffrey Meyers describes only as ‘exaggeration’ the complete fabrication of D.H. Lawrence’s vindictive gossip: ‘I hear Katherine’s letters sell largely, yet Murry whines about poverty and I hear he inserts the most poignant passages himself. Ottoline declares that in the letters to her, large pieces are inserted, most movingly.’

This is a trap into which Antony Alpers does not fall, having met and corresponded with Murry while writing an earlier biography of Katherine Mansfield which was published in 1953, and which helped to remove some of Murry’s saintly cosmetics. ‘Murry himself had not known of many things of which he first read in my first biography.’ Mr Alpers has explained, ‘for K.M. had used concealment – deception too – with him.’ That is undoubtedly true. But Katherine always knew she was concealing the truth (‘if she tells lies,’ Frieda Lawrence wrote of her, ‘she also knows more about truth than other people’), whereas Murry’s frankness was often a kind of falsity arising from his deep self-deception. It was the shining earnestness of this self-deception that initially appealed to people. He radiated ‘a kind of religious enthusiasm’, Huxley remarked. ‘At first, people tended to catch fire from this enthusiasm. But after a while they began to discover that the flame was only a stage effect.’ He attached himself to others, but since he could not cope with real people, he changed them into literary concepts, wrapping them up with high-flown intellectual notions, then whirling round them in a violent ritualistic dance until he could celebrate Frank Harris as another Shakespeare, James Stephens as greater than Milton, Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrence as of the same order as Christ: and only a little above the lot of them, in ‘her rightful place’, Katherine Mansfield. There he could love her.

Antony Alpers’s new Life, as he explains in his Preface, is not a revised edition of his earlier book but ‘a distinct and different biography’. He has placed himself in the almost ideal position of beginning his research while Katherine Mansfield’s friends were still alive and producing the final results of this research after they are all dead – a programme which, with intervals for books on dolphins and legends of the South Seas, has taken up almost thirty-five years. His book, which is reinforced by an excellent Chronology, is the most reliable guide to the facts of Katherine Mansfield’s life, to what is hesitantly known and to what (sometimes more resoundingly) remains unknown. But it does not greatly alter our view of her since she emerged from the mists of Murry’s high-mindedness.

She ‘craved for experience and a name’ wrote Hugh Kingsmill in 1938. She had been born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, the third daughter of a prosperous New Zealand businessman who had wanted a son. Unloved by her mother who ‘didn’t handle babies’ (her parents left her several months in England when Kathleen was one), she grew up insecure, chubby and invaded by terrors. Influenced probably by the talk about her father’s first cousin, the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden, she announced at the age of nine that she was ‘going to be a writer’. Antony Alpers notices a death wish in her very early work. ‘I shall end of course by killing myself.’ she wrote, aged 18, in a note book. It was as if she wanted to murder the unloved Kathleen Beauchamp, find a new name and become another person through her writings. ‘Life here is impossible,’ she complained from Wellington. But in London, through her imagination, she could re-create a possible life in New Zealand, rewrite the personalities of her parents, be in command of it all.

‘Would you not like in try all sorts of lives?’ she asked a friend. For Katherine the pen was a magic wand. She stepped into her stories and impersonated the lives of her characters. Her own life was organised like a series of rehearsals for these stories; and the bewildering number of names she gave herself and those near her (most famously changing Ida Baker into ‘I Lesley Moore’) was an indication of how she used her experiences as experiments to be made real through fiction. Her engagement to a musician, her strange one-day marriage to George Bowden, her subsequent pregnancy by the musician’s brother, her lesbian escapades, her selection of Ida Baker as remorselessly self-effacing lifelong friend – a sort of understudy, dresser and sweetly poisonous competitor to other friends – all have the feel of unreality, of fiasco, unless treated as the pressing of raw material, the forming of memories, to be distilled in her work.

Murry (whom Lawrence was to use for Gerald in Women in Love and Aldous Huxley, more convincingly, as Burlap in Point Counter Point) must have seemed wonderfully fruitful material to her. You could do with him what you liked. His ‘stage effects’ provided endless possibilities for acting. Like her, he was attractive to both sexes (to Lawrence and to Frieda, for example), his dejected expression and crumpled posture stirring protective feelings among women and adding fresh complications to the marriage. From Katherine he received little protection. Her smouldering fires seemed faintly to kindle him, and, Hugh Kingsmill observed, ‘when he was about to deliver an opinion he used to look across at her and then, straightening himself, gaze past one at an unseen audience,’ his voice ringing out like an auctioneer’s as he quantified the value of one writer versus another.

This biography is far more substantial than its predecessor, yet there is a sense of something missing. An early review by Fleur Adcock in Quarto notes the book as having 512 pages though, in fact, it only reaches page 466. It is as if there had been extra pages full of excellent matter that Mr Alpers, feeling it to be too well-known, at the last moment obliterated. He is so aware of all that has been written about Katherine Mansfield, that he tends to impoverish his book by undervaluing some accounts simply because they have already been published elsewhere. When he gets hold of an unpublished item, he puffs out rather an announcement about it: ‘The story of this catastrophe... has not been told before’; or, ‘The reason for this extract’s remaining unpublished until now will emerge in Chapter XI’; and he chucks in a poem called ‘October’ because it ‘didn’t get into the collected Poems’, and so, he adds, ‘here it is.’

All this is symptomatic of something that has happened to Mr Alpers since the publication of his first biography. In an article in the Times Literary Supplement of 28 March, he tells how, ‘partly on the strength of the book, I was invited in 1966 by Dr George Whalley to join the Department of English at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario.’ Here he received ‘research funds and sabbatical leave’ to work on this new biography, which he has dedicated to George Whalley. Unhappily, the engaging open-air Antony Alpers, South Seas and dolphin man, is constantly being interrupted by the sabbatical Professor Alpers, teacher of English and American Literature at Queen’s University. These two characters (assisted by the American but never the British editor) appear to have written the book in awkward collaboration, sometimes using the first person plural, and often occupying a good deal of the page in hurling at each other furious examination questions that neither one is able to answer: ‘What was she referring to?... What had really led to this event?... How does one discover what Kathleen did in Wörishofen?... Was she simply short of money?... Did Virginia dislike perfume altogether? Is there any in her novels?... Was Katherine simply mistaken in thinking she was pregnant by Francis Heinemann? Did she knowingly mislead L.M.? Or was she – against all medical probability – in fact with child.... How does someone who has no religious faith and is only 31 “accept” the imminence of death? How does anyone do that at 31? How does a woman possessed of a talent which is just on the point of turning into something more – something very much more – accept the fact that this may never be? And if there was once, when young, a romantic wish to die, and a courting of death, what then? Will there be guilt, and a dark attempt to shift the blame?’

These are not real questions. Long before we can dial through to Ontario and press our own special insights on the author, the narrative lunges on, leaving us redundant. Nor are these questions used to echo Katherine’s own feelings and help put us in her place. They are merely shadows thrown by the problems of research. This might be appropriate had he constructed his biography as a search, like A.J.A. Symons’s Quest for Corvo or J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself. But since this is not his method, the screen of rhetoric becomes an irritating intrusion between his subject and the reader.

‘But this is biography,’ protests the professor on page 203 of his book. He has certain ideas about biography. Though the book is described on the jacket by the publisher as the ‘definitive biography’ of Katherine Mansfield, the author himself has sensibly written: ‘Such a thing as the “definitive biography” does not exist.’ He has set about constructing an almost inflexible chronological account. It can’t strictly be done, of course, but his attempt is brave. The narrative is like a horse that he is constantly having to urge forward, then rein up short, to keep it abreast of actual time. It makes for a bumpy and disconcerting ride, like that of a rocking-horse going backwards and forwards and getting nowhere. For example: ‘ ...of which we saw an opening scene in the previous chapter... As the reader will discover... The point is of some importance, but will have to be left aside for the moment... The subject of Kennedy’s relationship with Katherine will return in the next chapter... already cited in Chapter VI... it calls for a chapter to itself... but it belongs to a later chapter... will be heard of in due course... has been given in Chapter XIV... her acknowledgement will be seen in due course ...’

Another of Professor Alpers’s biographical notions is to revive the panoramic method last fully employed by Philip Guedalla in his Palmerston of 1926 – that is, making a mosaic of contemporary happenings. This kind of kaleidoscope, which has long been thought obsolete, is full of nostalgia:

The war being three years past, she was soon to write ‘The Fly’. Around the corner, as it were, downstream at Lausanne, was T.S. Eliot, granted sick leave by his bank to recover from a breakdown caused by his marriage. He had brought with him a long poem... A mile or so upstream from Sierre, at Muzot, was Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Duino Elegies, held in suspension throughout the war, would soon miraculously complete themselves within a space of eight days. In Paris James Joyce awaited the publication of his Odyssey composed from the fragments of a single day in Dublin in 1904, while at 44 Rue Hamelin, racked by asthma and all the ills of a youth whose mother had unmanned him with her kisses, lay Marcel Proust, completing his own great work about time present and time past. At Hogarth House, Richmond, on 4 November, Virginia Woolf, who had been ill again during the summer, wrote the last pages of Jacob’s Room, an experimental novel which declared that for one human being to know another is not possible. Lawrence, down in Sicily, was about to spit on Europe for the last time and depart. Living next to Basil Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, in the best of psychic health, was W.B. Yeats, whose latest volume ...

There’s scholarship for you!

Antony Alpers has a nice sense of irony, and a sense of adventure too. He sometimes begins a sentence dramatically only to have it snatched from him by the sabbatical professor from Ontario: ‘This hectic letter... which is quoted in Sylvia Berkman’s critical study of her work ...’ The result is that Antony Alpers’s humour and shrewdness are too often checked, and his common sense set aside, by the professor’s pseudo-profundities the most striking example being his replacement of Chekhov by the XVth Idyll of Theocritus as the most important influence on Katherine Mansfield’s writing. This reads like a parody of professorship.

‘Literary biography,’ he has written, ‘is an exercise in cutting up the artist to find out how he works.’ But if that is the case, you will be presented with the bits and pieces of a dead artist, not the resurrection of a living one. Antony Alpers is a painstaking and accurate worker: his book will be indispensable as a work of reference. But because he has decided to impersonate a professor, we are never allowed to forget that we are in a book. All too seldom does he allow Katherine to rip through adventures which, though she believed them to come from the novels of Dostoevsky, belong more to the world of Stephen Leacock. Nor does he seek to borrow that chameleon quality of Katherine’s which, in Keats’s words, ‘is constantly informing and filling another body’, and which is the ideal attribute for a biographer. Instead, whenever Professor Alpers gets in full control, he gives us a variation of Murry’s book-imprisoned writing – which ‘though drawn from a live emotion was written in a dead language’.

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