C.K. Stead

Katherine Mansfield was born in 1888, Sylvia Ashton-Warner in 1908 and Janet Frame in 1924 – three New Zealand women each of whom has achieved some measure of literary fame or reputation outside the country in which she was born. They have in common that they have worked uneasily in (and always breaking out of) the fictional mode. The fictions of all three are forms of autobiography while autobiography tends towards fiction. It is the self they are struggling always to define, or to create, and the self is founded on fact but not exclusively composed of it.

All three gain and lose by being New Zealanders. Mansfield escaped from the colony, as it was then, only to live and die severed from her true subject-matter, too often dressing it up in middle-class clothes, smoothing its colonial rough edges for her English readers, first and foremost of whom were the Blooms-buries who thought her vulgar. Janet Frame suffered early in life the New Zealand repression in its medical form whereby (as she puts it in her latest novel) ‘dis-ease is classed as disease,’ and she has since lived as a recluse in New Zealand, with frequent travel abroad. Ashton-Warner lived all her working life until the age of 60 in New Zealand, often in her fiction speaking through the persona of a foreigner (Anna Vorontosov in Spinster, Germaine de Beauvais in Incense to Idols), As a writer, she did not receive her due in New Zealand, and after the death of her husband she spent most of a decade abroad (a good deal of it as a teacher in North American universities) chanting over to herself with satisfaction: ‘I’m no longer in New Zealand.’

What these writers gained from being New Zealanders, I think, was the same in each case – the lack of any profoundly etched social identity, so that the raw, untrammelled, human personality and intelligence is over-layed with very little and breaks out easily into abundant self-expression. They are not hidebound by forms and decorums and literary convention. In the writing of each at its best there is clarity of vision, an uncommitted intelligence, a capacity for both passion and detachment: and the detachment is never far removed from a sense of comedy which is a form of revolt against all prevailing pieties. Anna Vorontosov in Spinster, visited by the senior Schools Inspector who brings with him two distinguished academic visitors, records:

he ... introduces me to the others; Mr This and Mr That. They’re both modestly dressed men ... Indeed the smaller of the two might well have been some roadman who had just helped the larger out of a drain

– which is very close to the note of Katherine Mansfield’s comic deflations of the masculine order, such as the occasion when she feels faint at an exhibition of Naval photographs in 1918 and is assisted by ‘two Waacs and a Wren’:

They asked me ... whether I had lost anybody in the Navy – as though it were nothing but a kind of gigantic salt-water laundry.

Mansfield and Ashton-Warner have a histrionic quality which the more retiring Frame lacks. They are both chameleons, ventriloquists, with a perfect car for the speech of others, and the ability to cast themselves into a role. Both were troubled from time to time by this habit of role-playing, though it was part of their fiction, and Ashton-Warner fairly early sorted out for herself what was essential and inessential to it:

After that concentrated think I feel a good bit better, I’m finished playing a role. Now I’m me. There’s an incredible tendency in this last shaking year to imitate those I admire. God Almighty, I saw it! Patterning myself on other people ... where would I get and what would I be? A carbon copy of other people? I’m determined to stay how I am and be damned.

That was written (in Myself) when she was 34, the age at which Mansfield died.

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