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.

Mansfield had come back to New Zealand after three years’ London schooling at Queen’s College, Harley Street, full of advanced ideas about art and society. She had read Wilde and was imitating him in her journal – hence the invocation ‘O Oscar!’ Bisexuality, or anyway the idea of it, was a part of the pose. But when Edith Bendall, who married, bore a child and lived to 107, remembered her relations with Mansfield she simply denied anything passionate or out of the ordinary, and said that Mansfield, whom she found charming and delightful, but who, she said, used people for her own purposes, must have chosen to misunderstand her maternal and protective embraces.

Tomalin is sceptical of these denials, as she is of those of Mansfield’s ‘wife’, the ever-devoted Ida Baker whom Mansfield referred to variously as ‘Jones’, ‘the Mountain’ and ‘the slave’, whom she said often she hated and once said she thought of shooting with her revolver, and whom she would not allow to touch her. This modern ‘we know better’ tone in dealing with the elderly survivors seems to me the part of Tomalin’s book that is less than satisfactory. Either we are all bisexual, in which case the designation means nothing, or elderly women know as well as young ones do whether their relationships with other women were or were not sexual. And when Tomalin writes that ‘none of Mansfield’s sexual relations with men appears to have given her happiness or satisfaction,’ I wonder what this means exactly. If ‘satisfaction’ means pleasure in sex, how could it possibly be known? Mansfield never made any such declaration; and if she didn’t enjoy sex with men she was surprisingly consistent, until ill-health restrained her, in going after it. Even Tomalin’s description of John Middleton Murry’s role in Mansfield’s life as ‘crucial and largely unfortunate’ seems to me glib. Is it right to ignore, as Tomalin does, that farewell letter in which Mansfield wrote: ‘I think no two lovers ever walked the earth more joyfully – in spite of all’?

The ‘affair’ with Edie Bendall seems to have been much more in the mind than of the body. And, more important, it almost certainly preceded Mansfield’s first full heterosexual experience. Once her sexual orientation is established there is, as far as I know, not a single deviation from it. It is true that she gave her first husband, George Bowden, the impression that she was a lesbian. But she did this in order to escape from him, since she had married him only because she was pregnant by someone who could neither marry nor support her. Once she had achieved Mrs Bowdenhood it was not to a woman’s arms she escaped but to the lover who had made her pregnant. Yet this incident, too, is allowed to hover as evidence of ‘bisexuality’.

Meanwhile Mansfield’s mother, having heard of her daughter’s marriage, was steaming from New Zealand to London – a voyage of six weeks. She met Bowden and was probably told of the ‘lesbianism’. Ida Baker was named. But Baker could hardly be blamed for a pregnancy – something Bowden knew nothing of. Mansfield was packed off to Worishofen in Bavaria to have the embarrassment discreetly. There she miscarried, began writing the German Pension stories which became her first book, and had an affair with a Polish writer, Floryan Sobieniowski, from whom she contracted gonorrhoea and who, much later, blackmailed £40 from her for the return of letters which, she told her second husband, she would pay ‘any money’ to have back. Tomalin’s claim to be writing a biography which is new and distinct from those that have gone before rests largely on what she makes of this relationship – or rather of its consequences.

She makes two points – one medical, one literary. The medical point I accept entirely. For the twelve or so years that were left to her Mansfield’s life becomes increasingly one that can’t be described separately from her medical condition; and all the proliferating horrors of that condition, including susceptibility to the tuberculosis which killed her, sprang, Tomalin demonstrates, from the venereal infection made worse by an operation for the removal of an infected fallopian tube, an operation which would have had the effect of spreading the infection further through the body.

Recently I had for review Volume II of the projected five-volume Mansfield Collected Letters.[*] What struck me on this reading of those letters was that Mansfield seems an invalid long before tuberculosis gets a hold. Her body is racked with aches which strike different bones and joints at different times. Walking becomes difficult. She suffers what she calls ‘heart attacks’. Menstruation (referred to as Aunt Martha) is irregular, sometimes absent, sometimes profuse. Add to that the increasing burning sensation in her left lung, and long exhausting fits of coughing, which heralded the onset of tuberculosis, and the picture is grim indeed. Only Tomalin’s account makes sense of it.

I’m less persuaded by Tomalin’s other argument, which is that Mansfield feared Sobieniowski because he had been the first to introduce her to the work of Chekhov and knew that her story ‘The Child-Who-Was-Tired’, published in In a German Pension, was virtually plagiarised from the Russian writer. Tomalin sees this as the reason why Mansfield would not have her first book republished, even when lucrative offers were made; and why she would pay £40 to get her letters back from Sobieniowski. She also supposes that this plagiarism must have been kept secret from Mansfield’s second husband, John Middleton Murry.

I accept that the story must have become an embarrassment: but it could have been deleted from any reprint. Letters from that period of Mansfield’s life were bound to be embarrassing. And if they contained secrets to be kept from Murry, why did she write to him, after he had got them back from the Pole: ‘As to the letters, they are yours. I’d like them destroyed as they are, but that’s for you to say, darling’? Tomalin doesn’t quote this passage. What doesn’t seem to have occurred to her is that the letters, which don’t survive, might have contained references to the medical consequences of the affair with Sobieniowski.

Mansfield spent half her life in New Zealand. Tomalin gives one tenth of her book to those years, and there is nothing to suggest she has ever visited New Zealand. She makes mistakes that might easily have been avoided. For example, when the young Mansfield, touring remote parts of the North Island, buys ‘a Maori kit’, Tomalin explains that this is ‘a version of traditional Maori costume’. But a Maori kit is a basket of woven flax (the Maori word is kete). Later we have Mansfield wearing her ‘kit’ in London. It is easy to defend Tomalin’s emphasis. Mansfield’s adult and literary life is her subject and that was lived mostly in London and Europe. On the other hand, she always saw herself as an outsider – ‘the little colonial’; and a large proportion of her most highly regarded stories are set in New Zealand. I have sometimes confronted this problem by asking myself: is she a New Zealand writer at all? If the answer is yes, it may be more than anything because she is not any other kind of writer. She has no regional or metropolitan attachment, nor class allegiance, nor dialect, to place her among British writers. Yet the New Zealandness is hard to pin down. It has been laid over, concealed – deliberately. This is an essential aspect of Mansfield which I think Tomalin doesn’t appreciate: but it has been neglected by other biographers as well.

Mansfield first met Murry after he had accepted her story ‘The Woman at the Store’ for his literary magazine, Rhythm. Tomalin describes the story, rightly, as ‘striking ... her first deliberate portrayal of her native country, a vivid and almost sinister evocation of the atmosphere of the sparsely inhabited wilderness, the poverty and ignorance of the people settled there, the “savage spirit” of the place’. This story combines a harsh regional realism with Mansfield’s principal theme, the woman as victim, whether of men, biology or fate. It is an extraordinary story because it reveals at its end that the woman is a murderer without in the least diminishing one’s pity for her or one’s sense that she is the victim. Two other stories written at the same time (about 1911) also deal with New Zealand in a harsh realist manner that foreshadows a whole line of New Zealand fiction in the Thirties and Forties.

But that was a manner Mansfield herself abandoned. When, after some years of experimentation, she returned to her New Zealand subject, the relations of men and women remained. The study of Stanley and Linda Burnell in ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’ is more precise, sensitive, subtle and comprehensive than most fiction writers could manage in ten times the space. But where is New Zealand? It is there as background, a faint wash. The ‘savage spirit’ of the place, which in the earlier story ‘walked abroad’ after sundown and ‘sneered at what it saw’, has been put down – and I’m sure this was deliberate. When the contents of a collection of stories were being discussed in 1920 Mansfield wrote to Murry, ‘I couldn’t have “The Woman at the Store” reprinted’ – she didn’t say why. A few months later, reviewing Jane Mander’s The Story of a New Zealand River for the Athenaeum, she quotes a passage in which Mander refers to several trees by their Maori names (the only names they possess) and asks: ‘What picture can that possibly convey to an English reader? What emotion can it produce?’

‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’ avoid what she had evidently come to see as a problem by neutralising the background. Not only that, they civilise the colony. They are rather genteel, middle-class stories. Their lesser characters – Alice, the servant girl, and Mrs Stubbs, for example – belong more to the comic underplots of 19th-century English fiction than to a New Zealand reality. Elizabeth Bowen, commenting on the New Zealand stories of the kind Mansfield suppressed, says: ‘their flavour and vigour raise a question – could she have made a regional writer? Did she, by leaving her own country, deprive herself of a range of associations, of inborn knowledge, of vocabulary?’ Tomalin’s book offers nothing that would help to answer those important questions.

There are 600 million users of the English language, and every writer in English is a regional writer. No one expects an English novelist to write in an explanatory way such that a reader on the continent of Africa who has never seen an oak, or a rose, will understand what it looks like; and the reverse expectation, that the African writer should somehow explain himself to a Londoner, is equally asking for artificiality, a kind of falsity that will get into the tone of the prose. ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’ are wonderful portrayals of their small cast of central characters: but there are passages of literary archness (like the opening description of the dog, the shepherd and the cat in ‘At the Bay’) which seem designed to put an English middle-class reader at ease. They seem to say: ‘Relax. You’re not on foreign soil. This is fictionland.’ There is a parallel, I think, in Mansfield’s letters to Ottoline Morrell, which are often so brilliant, but in which so much of the real Mansfield is either concealed or disguised. Virginia Woolf complained of Mansfield’s perfume. Her writing is often perfumed too. Tomalin’s subtitle is ‘A Secret Life’. There’s a sense in which New Zealand became part of the secret.

Another element of falsity springs from her extreme physical and emotional suffering. It causes her to revolt against her own skill at dead-pan comic-satiric representation. She wants to teach herself to be what is called today ‘a caring person’. Again one sees the true Mansfield most clearly in early stories – which is not to say they are her best. In a German Pension, published before she was twenty, is immature work. But the pure talent is there; and there is something clean and surgical about its wit. She sees so clearly and represents so exactly – human folly can be relied on to do the rest.

Every way she turned she was baulked. She chose freedom from the narrowness of a colonial society, but lost a large part of her real subject-matter. She chose sexual and emotional freedom and as a consequence, Tomalin shows, was locked into a progression of illnesses which killed her at the age of 34. Denied a full life, she tried to replace it with a kind of mysticism which was really alien to her brave, bold, questing and worldly temperament. Although the finished products are few and slight, they are important; and the records of her effort to be a major writer are copious. She remains one of the most brilliant and extraordinary of modern women.

[*] 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).