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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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