Mrs Bowdenhood

C.K. Stead

  • Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin
    Viking, 292 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 670 81392 3

Katherine Mansfield, unlucky in life, has been lucky in death. Where some figures sink under successive waves of literary fashion, she remains buoyant. One Mansfield vanishes but another takes its place. If you measure simply by the fictional product you might conclude she has had more than her fair share of attention. If you take, not the work, but the writer, then the attention seems entirely justified. Three major books on her to appear in the past decade have all been biographies – one by an American, one by a New Zealander, and now one by an Englishwoman. In all of them she appears not only as a writer of some importance in the development of modern fiction, but also as a presence in and influence upon the lives and work of a number of major figures, most notably D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.

In her foreword, Tomalin (who refers to Mansfield throughout as Katherine) points out that she is ‘of the same sex as my subject. It may be nonsense to believe that this gives me any advantage over a male biographer. Yet I can’t help feeling that any woman who fights her way through life on two fronts – taking a traditional female role, but also seeking male privileges – may have a special sympathy for such a pioneer as Katherine, and find some of her actions and attitudes less baffling than even the most understanding of men.’ I’m not disposed to quarrel with this: but I’m interested in an element of conflict, or contradiction, I think I detect between Tomalin, ‘the woman who fights her way through life on two fronts’ dealing with Mansfield, and Tomalin the feminist. She would say they are the same. But whereas the subject of this book, if she could read it, would respond to and be grateful for the parts which spring from Tomalin’s sympathy with the woman who wanted to work, and marry, and have children, I feel quite sure she would be distressed and angered to discover herself casually described as ‘sexually ambiguous, with a husband, a wife and lovers of both sexes’. Inevitably Tomalin’s publishers seize on this flamboyant description for their press release, while improving it by changing ‘a husband’ to ‘two husbands’.

What I’m saying is that Tomalin, so sensible, careful, accurate and intelligent in most of what she has to say, is inclined, in the area of sexuality, to slip into the clichés and trigger-words of the feminist movement. She’s not alone in this. Rather, she’s letting the times do her thinking for her. Just as it was once fashionable to present Mansfield as some kind of otherworldly, pure, mystical person, it’s now fashionable to present her as ‘bisexual’; and though the new view might be marginally nearer the truth than the old one, both are wrong.

The principal, and almost the sole, ground for the ‘bisexual’ Mansfield is a journal written when she was 18, in which she described a beach holiday spent with Edith Bendall, a Wellington artist then aged 27.

Last night I spent in her arms – and tonight I hate her – which, being interpreted, means that I adore her: that I cannot lie in my bed and not feel the magic of her body: which means that sex seems as nothing to me. I feel more powerfully all those so-called sexual impulses with her than I have with any man ... Gone are all the recollections of Caesar and Adonis [two young men she had recently been in love with]: gone the terrible banality of my life. Nothing remains but the shelter of her arms.

A page or so later she writes:

O Oscar! am I peculiarly susceptible to sexual impulse? I must be, I suppose – but I rejoice. Now, each time I see her [I want her] to put her arms round me and hold me against her. I think she wanted to too; but she is afraid and custom hedges her in, I feel.

In the next journal entry she is once again in love with Caesar and bored with Edith.

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[*] The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Vol. II, 1918-1919, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan with Margaret Scott (Oxford, 365 pp., £17.50, 5 February, 0 19 812614 X).