How the Laundry Basket Squeaked

Kirsty Gunn

  • The Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield: Vol I edited by Gerri Kimber and Vincent O’Sullivan
    Edinburgh, 551 pp, £85.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 7486 4274 8
  • The Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield: Vol II edited by Gerri Kimber and Vincent O’Sullivan
    Edinburgh, 541 pp, £85.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 7486 4275 5

Katherine Mansfield’s work is still largely unknown in this country. Her life flickered on the margins of British literary modernism, with friends among the Garsington and Bloomsbury set, but she was always the outsider, the traveller, always on the move. There’s nothing about Mansfield that’s institutional. She knew Woolf and Lawrence and the rest, published in the same avant-garde magazines, went to the same parties and talked about the same things, but the fact that her biography doesn’t sit comfortably alongside theirs, seems more insubstantial than theirs, is due as much as anything to her idiosyncratic form of writing, one with ‘no contact with the real world at all’, as Frank O’Connor disparagingly put it. Born in New Zealand, she spent all her time in London and Germany and France just getting by, struggling with lack of money and poor health, writing in beds and bedsits, out of suitcases and in overnight hotels and all the time imagining a kind of writing that didn’t yet exist. And where everyone else in the new modernist age had time to hone their manifestos and write their big books, hers ran out in a sanatorium in Fontainebleau, where she died in 1923 at the age of 34, with only a handful of short stories to leave behind.

What’s more, her art is by no means uniform. ‘Tear up and burn as much as possible,’ she said to her husband, John Middleton Murry, who, with his own publishing interests at heart and a sensibility that favoured a wife leaving a certain kind of literary legacy behind her, did nothing of the kind: so her output can sometimes look sketchy or inconsequential, sometimes fashionable and fey, with too many stories that have about them the brittle artificiality of work produced for a specific market or readership. Yet by the end of her life, ‘she knew quite well which her best work was, and whether it was written for money or for perceptive readers,’ as Antony Alpers put it in the biography he wrote in 1980 that would redress the image left by Murry, and give us a more complete picture of a writer driven from the outset by an aesthetic that made her much more than the copy-cat Chekhov or author of thin, breathless stories as many readers still think of her. As we see so clearly in this complete edition of her fiction, it’s when she puts aside the ‘plotty’ and ‘pretty-pretty’ written for money writing, as she called it, the scrabbling after being published for being published’s sake, when she leaves behind the idea of the London literary scene and returns in her mind ‘to the wells and springs of childhood’, as the New Zealand poet James Baxter put it, that her writing opens up.

Mansfield herself was clear about the distinction. Her notebooks and reviews return again and again to the split between fiction as art and as ‘entertainment’, the glory of the perhaps failed attempt as against the safe complacencies of technique. Of Somerset Maugham’s short story ‘Rain’, she wrote: ‘It’s too downright good a story … Too oily.’ ‘I was only thinking last night,’ she wrote in 1921 to Richard Murry, ‘people have hardly begun to write yet – now I mean prose … Aren’t they still cutting up sections rather than tackling the whole of a mind? … With all that one knows how much does one not know? … The unknown is far, far greater than the known.’ By giving us every draft and fragment in the order of their production – including schoolgirl jottings, ideas that never made it into print and the four recently discovered short stories that were the subject of press interest last year – the editors of the Edinburgh edition are able to show us, on the page, the craftswoman learning what she needs to learn in order to be published and become well known, and then learning from those lessons in order to forget them. So there are the stories here that she wrote specifically – for causes, for magazines, for money. And there are the others that slowly, piece by piece, in version after version, arrive at the full expression of her ambition, where Mansfield can be seen for who she is: one of our great modernists, the creator of a narrative form so familiar to us that we barely think of it as one at all.

Mansfield’s reputation, too long in this country languishing under the rubric of a literary culture that devalues the contingent and the domestic, has only recently been given serious academic treatment, with the formation, in 2008, of an international Katherine Mansfield Society, and a journal, Katherine Mansfield Studies, also published by Edinburgh University Press. There are now new editions of her work with revised introductions, and the collected fiction is due to be followed by fully annotated, scholarly editions of the poetry and critical writings, as well as the diaries. The editors of the collected fiction – series editor Gerri Kimber, who has written two books on Mansfield and originated the project, and Vincent O’Sullivan, who spent more than twenty years bringing out an edition of Mansfield’s letters – are unstinting in their attention to detail, dating and biography. Their efforts give us a picture of an artist discovering what it is she wants to do to be different from the rest, to find a story and a way of telling it that will be hers and hers alone: the slice of life, in medias res – the ‘moment of being’, as her friend, critic and publisher Virginia Woolf put it. This was the style Mansfield made her own. It’s there in stories like ‘Sun and Moon’ – written in 1918, seven years before Mrs Dalloway – and in ‘Prelude of 1917 and in ‘The Garden Party’ of 1921. ‘I was jealous of her writing – the only writing I have ever been jealous of,’ Woolf wrote in her diary after Mansfield’s death, with her own first experimental novel Jacob’s Room just published and her great work yet to come. ‘When I began to write, it seemed to me there was no point in writing. Katherine won’t read it.’

The two met in 1916 and began a friendship that was both rivalrous and supportive. ‘Miss Austen up-to-date,’ Mansfield wrote of Night and Day in 1919, ‘in the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill.’ Woolf described Mansfield as ‘hard and cheap’, the little colonial who was never quite going to arrive socially. Yet the way the two of them thought about fiction and its possibilities could be read off the same page: Woolf’s description of a story being like a row of lamps glowing quietly next to Mansfield’s idea of a novel as a ship at night, ‘strung about with lights’. Both were interested in the domestic, the familiar, both wrote about women and women together, both returned to their childhood summers for stories that are also returned to by their readers, over and over; for Mansfield it was ‘At the Bay’ in 1921, for Woolf To the Lighthouse six years later. Both were seeking a narrative that would ultimately find its expression in the lyric novel, ‘a merging into things’, as Mansfield referred to it, in a phrase Woolf recorded in her diary. And though theirs was a relationship fraught with the personal, as writers they could only gain from each other. ‘Once more as keenly as ever I feel a common certain understanding between us,’ Woolf wrote, ‘a queer sense of being “like”.’ Mansfield worked with Woolf on what was to become her longest piece of fiction, ‘Prelude, published on its own by Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1917 (‘It has the living power, the detached existence of a work of art,’ Woolf reported in her diary). And Woolf got inspiration about rhythm and sound from Mansfield (who was a practising musician and had planned to be a professional cellist before she became a writer), helping her to make the transition from the conservatively structured novel Night and Day to the great release into a new form that was Jacob’s Room. Neither of them was interested in telling – a story, a history. They wanted a narrative that was rather than was about. ‘We are both after so very nearly the same thing,’ Mansfield wrote after one of their meetings; ‘we fell into step,’ Woolf recorded, ‘and, as usual, talked as easily as though eight months were minutes’. ‘To no one else can I talk in the same disembodied way about writing,’ Mansfield wrote in her notebook. There is ‘the queerest sense of echo coming back to me from her mind the second after I’ve spoken’, Woolf noted in her turn.

Woolf went on, in her essays, diaries, letters and later work to make the ‘thing’ they were both after her signature. Mansfield had ‘Prelude in 1918, followed by ‘Bliss’ and Other Stories in 1920 and ‘The Garden Party’ and Other Stories in 1922 – and that was it. She’d long dismissed her first collection, In a German Pension, which had come out in 1911. She never wrote the novels she’d discussed with Woolf or sketched out in her notebooks. She never added, as she’d intended, a sequel to ‘Prelude or gathered together her many reviews and notes and ideas about art and literature. Yet there’d been time to rearrange storytelling’s priorities, making the shift from the convention of detailed, concrete description to something far more like impressionism, the aim being, as she once put it, ‘to push through the heavy door into little cafés and to watch the pattern people make among tables and bottles and glasses … To air oneself among these things.’ Her style creates the impression that there’s no distance at all between the story that is told and our experience of it. Take an opening line like ‘In the afternoon the chairs came,’ from ‘Sun and Moon’, about a dinner party and the children who observe it. So much is presumed here – to do with our relationship to the story, our position within it – that we could well know other things, too, things that happened, before ‘the chairs came.’ ‘And then the flowers came,’ Mansfield continues. ‘When you stared down from the balcony at the people carrying them the flower pots looked like funny awfully nice hats nodding up the path.’ Is it the form of address much used in New Zealand writing, both formal and informal, that does the trick here? The ‘you’ that implies both the intimate second person and something more cool, the Edwardian-sounding ‘one’? It is a very particular kind of storytelling voice, open enough to merge with the reader’s own, so that the fictional scenario is not owned by character or narrator but made available for all of us to enact. Not even ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,’ for another soirée seven years later, can compete in the transubstantiation of reader into participant that has been effected here, in Mansfield’s few opening lines. With ‘Sun and Moon’, we haven’t just been invited to the party, we’re hosting it ourselves.

‘But all must be told with a sense of mystery, a radiance, an afterglow,’ she wrote in her journal, of the style she was forming for ‘a kind of long elegy’ after her brother’s death in 1915. The elegy was what became ‘Prelude. It was based on, and complicated and developed, a story she’d already written, ‘The Aloe’, about her family life at home in Wellington. With Woolf as her editor and publisher, and even in part as her typesetter, she now turned it into a ravishing, dreamlike account of childhood, treacherousness and change. ‘Prelude tells the story of a family as they move from the town to the country, packing up one home and making another, letting us eavesdrop on the fantasies of the spinster aunt and the frustrations of a well-married wife. Much of it is seen from the children’s point of view, as idyllic surfaces give way to crazed depths thanks to the child’s persistent, insistent way of looking. How adults are, she seems to be saying. Look at them. How they arrange themselves in the world, monstrous and foreign and unknown:

‘Mother, what is it?’ asked Kezia.

Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.

‘That is an aloe, Kezia,’ said her mother.

‘Does it ever have any flowers?’

‘Yes, Kezia,’ and Linda smiled down at her, and half shut her eyes. ‘Once every hundred years.’

In a review of ‘The Garden Party’ and Other Stories, Rebecca West wrote that Mansfield’s ‘inventions’, as she oddly called them, had ‘lived so long in her mind that she knows all about them and can ransack them for the difficult, rare, essential points’. What Mansfield had learned how to ransack was her own lost past: her home and the place that was never to be returned to. It’s there in the Jardins Publiques of ‘Miss Brill’, in the drawing rooms and gardens of ‘The Garden Party’ and ‘Her First Ball’ and in ‘The Voyage’ and ‘The Doll’s House’: stories set in what may seem to be an anywhere, but for her belonged in the city she left when she was a girl, her birthplace with its dark hills and narrow streets, its wind and harbour, its glittering little sea. Here’s her family, the house she grew up in, the summer holidays she had: ‘Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began.’ That’s the beginning of ‘At the Bay’, written in 1922, a dreamy rendition of a summer’s day by the water, a family at ease but pressed up too against the certainties of decay and coming night. And those details – the house, the beach, the children and their games, the creep of the sun along the sand from early morning to noon to dusk – have been with her so long that she need only ransack them ‘for the difficult, rare, essential points’. ‘The death of Mansfield’s brother early in the war,’ the editors of these volumes write in their introduction, ‘is often read as the turning point where a good writer moves towards becoming something more’; though as they point out, ‘that devastating loss was part of the change but not all … Incandescent memories of Wellington were being quarried before Leslie’s death added its imperative.’ Still, in general, it’s in the stories collected here from after 1917 that we see how the change in content – that ransacked childhood – leads also to a change in form as she frees herself of convention, of all those lessons of storytelling she has set about learning, as her work comes to reflect more and more the mind’s seizing, sometimes apparently randomly, sometimes urgently, on the details of the remembered life. Anything may happen in this kind of story, or very little. It’s the telling itself – not plot, not development, not narrative arc – that provides the imperative. ‘I shall tell everything, even of how the laundry basket squeaked,’ she wrote in her journal. ‘I must play my part.’

That ‘everything’ describes the overall effect of The Collected Fiction. For it’s a stop and start business, this spending so much time at a writer’s side, over the course of the more than one thousand pages that make up these two volumes. Naturally, as must be expected from a project that begins with the writer at ten years of age in New Zealand who will struggle, over time, as a woman and outsider to British literary society, to establish her voice as being relevant and important, the stories are mixed. The first volume is heavy on first drafts and the weight of apprenticeship. The stories that were published around 1910 – ‘The Child-Who-Was-Tired’ and ‘The Festival of the Coronation’, ‘At the Club’ and ‘The Little Girl’ – have the artificial edge of the rhetorical about them, the sense that they were created for a readership, a certain kind of public life – in particular the biting satirical weekly the New Age, edited by the Fabian A.R. Orage. Some – like ‘Germans at Meat’ and ‘The Baron’, with their set scenes and cartoonish characters – are downright unpleasant in their stereotypical profiles of national character and display of racial prejudice, published ‘at the very moment when baiting the Germans chimed with British taste’, as the editors write of these ‘first satirical stories which she later so disliked’. Despite the market-driven motivations, the desire of this colonial arriviste from New Zealand to be right at the centre of artistic life, and to prove herself as literary and serious and well-read (see her earlier bowdlerised versions of Baudelaire and Wilde), the impression is of the seriousness of Mansfield’s ambition, of her willingness to take up one idea, try it, leave it, return and try again.

*

Thanks to helpful footnotes we see characters and situations arising in one story and taking on more substance and body in another. ‘In the Botanical Gardens’ from 1907 shows us the ‘sudden, restless movement … like the sound of weeping’ that will also resonate at the end of ‘Miss Brill’, a story from 1920 that might be set in the same gardens (now renamed the Jardins Publiques), with the same play of light and dark across the lawns and flowerbeds, and the same sudden moment: ‘She thought she heard something crying.’ The same wind that gathers in ‘A Birthday’ in 1911 agitates ‘The Wind Blows’ in 1920, filling both stories with the sense of a sea tossing at the periphery of the text, blinds at the windows snapping up and down as the light shifts. The breaking of china in ‘Juliette Delacour’ of 1908 – ‘the teapot fell to the ground’ – will also sound as the last note in ‘Prelude ten years later, when ‘for Kezia it had broken the moment it flew through the air,’ the same child seeming to witness both startling cracks. And in ‘The Tale of the Three’, written in 1906, we clearly see the stirrings of one of Mansfield’s best-known stories, ‘The Doll’s House’, in its opening sentence: ‘Vera, Margaret, Charlotte Mary and KM were cleaning out the doll’s house.’ The two pieces of writing match closely:

There were three dippers of water on the floor, three little pieces of real monkey brand and in their hands they held three little rags – of various degrees of dirtiness. They were being systematic thorough little souls and their cheeks were flaming, their hands aching with exertion.

‘It’s the chimleys,’ said KM, polishing these articles with tremendous verve. ‘All the dust seems to fly into them.’

‘On them,’ corrected CM in her careful cool little voice. ‘They haven’t got any regular insides you know.’

and:

The Burnell children could hardly walk to school fast enough the next morning. They burned to tell everybody, to describe, to – well – to boast about their doll’s house before the school-bell rang.

‘I’m to tell,’ said Isabel, ‘because I’m the eldest. And you two can join in after. But I’m to tell first.’

There was nothing to answer. Isabel was bossy, but she was always right, and Lottie and Kezia knew too well the powers that went with being eldest. They brushed through the thick buttercups at the road edge and said nothing.

The first is the 18-year-old Mansfield writing; in the second she’s 33.

The footnotes also give us all the bits and pieces of the life around the texts – information as particular and detailed as Mansfield’s own prose. At the end of ‘The Doll’s House’, the editors note, ‘the little lamp was an image that had fascinated KM for some years, while the Kelveys were based on an actual family,’ and they quote from Mansfield’s notebook: ‘Mr Kelvey was the scandal of the neighbourhood … Happily there were only two little Kelveys.’ There’s information on where she was at the time, who she was seeing, what she was thinking, bringing in snatches of letters and journal entries that mention everyone from Bertrand Russell to D.H. Lawrence, from Ottoline Morrell and Aldous Huxley to the painters Anne Estelle Rice and J.D. Fergusson, to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Dora Carrington. The footnotes also work with the stories themselves, as another kind of writing that speaks back to them, or from them. It’s the business of getting it right, of writing stories that are brand-new without having the clutter of a manifesto attached to them, that always most occupies her, and she’s hard on herself, relentlessly self-critical, from the outset: ‘This story seems to me to lack coherence and sharpness,’ she writes of the unpublished ‘Rose Eagle’, really no more than a draft, in 1913. ‘It’s like eating a bunch of grapes instead of caviar … I have a pretty bad habit of spreading myself at times, of overwriting and understating – it’s just carelessness.’ It’s through her ‘carelessness’, all the rewrites and the false starts, that Mansfield found her way. To keep practising was the lesson, and ‘practising’, as though playing the cello, was the word she herself used to describe the process of writing. ‘It’s a very queer thing how craft comes into writing,’ we read in the footnotes at the bottom of ‘Miss Brill’:

I mean down to the details … In ‘Miss Brill’ I chose not only the length of every sentence, but even the sound of every sentence – I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her – and to fit her on that day at that very moment. After I’d written it I read it aloud – numbers of times – just as one would play over a musical composition, trying to get it nearer and nearer to the expression of Miss Brill – until it fitted her. Don’t think I’m vain about the little sketch. It’s only the method I want to explain … If a thing has really come off it seems to me there mustn’t be one single word out of place or one word that could be taken out. That’s how I AIM at writing. It will take some time to get anywhere near there.