Bogey’s Clean Sweep

Michael Holroyd

  • The Life of Katherine Mansfield by Antony Alpers
    Cape, 466 pp, £9.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 224 01625 3

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.

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[*] Oxford, 107pp., £7.75, 24 January, 0 19 558033 8.