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A Modernist’s Modernist: On the Brilliance—and Influence—of Katherine Mansfield

“Thinking about Mansfield’s work makes me understand again how literature is never just a story.”

The Katherine Mansfield Memorial Garden is a peaceful, oblong-shaped park set in the midst of Thorndon, in Wellington, New Zealand. It is named after the city’s most famous daughter, the short story writer Katherine Mansfield, whose work is widely read in France and Europe but has been slow to capture the attention of British and American readers and critics.

That is set to change this year, as the centenary of Mansfield’s death this month marks the beginning of a flurry of publications and reviews honoring the author of a prose style that Virginia Woolf envied (“I was jealous of her writing,” she wrote after Mansfield’s death, “the only writing I have ever been jealous of”) and whose stories established a prototype for the kind of short fiction in English we now take for granted.

Terms such as “slice-of-life” and in medias res may well be said to have been applied by Mansfield first: “Her work will always move closely against the grain of her own experience, but she will shake it free from the conventional plot, from the usual expectations.” writes Vincent O’Sullivan, editor of The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield.

Her stories plunge the reader into their midst and off we go: “And after all the weather was ideal.” “The week after was one of the busiest weeks of their lives.” “In the afternoon the chairs came.” From their first lines, the reader is brought right inside the fictional worlds which simply seem to open up and change as time passes—a method that Mansfield herself described as “unfolding,” introducing to literature a kind of free indirect narrative that traces the actions and minds of characters with such detail and nuance and sensitivity that she may as well be writing in invisible ink. “What form is it? you ask,” she wrote in a letter to the painter Dorothy Brett about her long short story “Prelude,” first published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. “As far as I know it’s more or less my own invention.”

My mother loved the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, and she loved Thorndon.

Scholars and critics are in general agreement that Mansfield’s best work—“comparable with Proust’s breakthrough into the subconscious world,” said Frank O’Connor—are the so-called New Zealand stories: “so-called” for while they are set in places not actually named as Wellington or Days Bay, the small summer town across the harbor from that city, or Karori, a northern suburb that is the setting for “Prelude” and “The Dolls House,” they are nevertheless clearly drawing upon these places and others, a lansdcape and world Mansfield had been born into and grew up amongst.

She left New Zealand to pursue a life of writing alongside the Bloomsbury set—Lawrence and Joyce, the Woolfs and EM Forster and Bertrand Russell were her friends and readers—and never returned, though the country continued to work upon her imagination right up until the end of her short life. “I want for one moment to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World,” she wrote in her journal, returning over and over to her theme. “It must be mysterious, as though floating. It must take the breath.” She died from tuberculosis at the age of 34 in Fontainebleau, even in her last days writing to her father about “a turn towards home.” “If I began asking you questions about Wellington ways there would be no end to it,” she concludes.

Thorndon is the right place for the Memorial Garden, which is a stone’s throw from the house where Katherine Mansfield was born and grew up. Thorndon is where she went to school, took cello lessons, saw friends, and went to parties that were celebrated in stories such as “The Garden Party,” “The Singing Lesson,” and “A Birthday.” Thorndon was where she returned as a girl, after her first trip to London where her education was “finished” at Queen’s College in Harley Street, and from where she left again “for ever” as she said, just before she turned 20. “I am ashamed of young New Zealand,” she wrote in letters to London, “—oh the tedium vitae of 19 years!”

The Gardens are laid to grass, mostly, crisscrossed by small paths and with an enclosed area set to one side which has been planted with scented herbs and flowers for the blind; the names of which, marjoram and camomile and verbena, are formed in Braille along the stone wall and planters that shelter them. The fragrance these give off on a high summer’s day in Wellington would have been familiar to the writer who spent months of her adult life in the South of France, as well as in Italy and Switzerland, seeking a cure for the disease that had hounded her for most of her adult life.

At the other end of the Gardens is an avenue of cherry trees, giving the whole place a sense of scale beyond its actual dimensions, which comprise an area no longer or wider than a small city street. My parents were photographed on their wedding day standing under those trees; I have a black and white print of them together, my mother looking as though she is a figure on top of a marzipan iced wedding cake—her arms held out on either side of her bell-shaped skirt, her face tilted to the camera, and her little tiara with its veil set in place on her short helmet of shiny hair. My father beside her is tall and tentative in his dark suit, which seems to be the same shade of black as the trunks of the trees that fall in ranks behind him; he holds his new wife at her tiny waist as though he might protect her.

“I was jealous of her writing,” Woolf wrote after Mansfield’s death, “the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”

My mother loved the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, and she loved Thorndon. It is one of the oldest urban areas in New Zealand and full of (as Mansfield and my mother might have said) “charm.” The houses and buildings reflect their colonial past: planned and designed to follow the layout and architecture of streets and terraces “back home,” as people in New Zealand used to refer to Britain as late as the 70s, when I was growing up there. There are rows of workers cottages as well as the kind of detached two- and three-story mansions set in large gardens that you might see in London or Edinburgh, as well as family homes and shops and businesses with stained glass windows and heavy front doors.

My mother knew a great deal about colonial style, the lacy delicate trelliswork that decorated verandas and porches, the wide front steps and railings leading to hallways laid with kauri, a New Zealand redwood, and about the furniture, domestic wares, and paintings these houses had once contained. She collected “antiques,” as items no more than 100 years old were called in New Zealand then, and went to restoration and upholstery classes so that she could learn to restore the chairs and tables she collected, fit them out in the fabrics and finishes of their age.

Like Mansfield, whose stories contain the scenes and drawing room chatter of an Edwardian London even when located elsewhere, or who ascribes to her European settings a new-world sensibility that cuts through old-world class registers and niceties, my mother spent a great deal of her time thinking about what it was to imagine a somewhere else while being caught up in the reality of the present. Both liked to hold together the idea that one might simultaneously be here, and also, in some way, there.

So it was that Wellington, the capital city of a colonial outpost located in the Pacific Ocean, was imagined as part and parcel of an older place, of a Scotland or England; the country somehow part of Europe too. For Mansfield, the South of France would always remind her of Days Bay; for my mother, Days Bay was the South of France. They weren’t the only people to do this when I was growing up there.

A lot of us thought that way—going to schools with houses named after Scottish castles, dancing to the pipes at ceilidhs and Caledonian balls, singing “God Save the Queen” at sports days and in the cinema. It was no wonder that the here and the there might become merged in our minds. My sister and I used to imagine that over the bush-covered hills in the distance from our house were the avenues and streets of New York. It was just a case of making the journey over the Orongorongo ranges.

For my mother, Thorndon represented that “here and there” world completely. She was married in St Paul’s, where Mansfield went to church as a child, a white-painted wooden cathedral a five-minute walk from the Gardens where she was photographed. She sent my sister and me to a girls’ school that was around the corner from Mansfield’s birthplace and backed onto another street where her family had moved, just a block away from where Mansfield herself had been educated.

Does death fasten an imaginative idea more firmly to the mind, I wonder? I think in my case it might.

The Gardens were across the road from my sixth-form building, and as senior girls we were allowed to have periods off to go study and read there in the summer term. I remember precisely the feeling of hitching up our blue linen summer uniform dresses, socks rolled down and bare legs stretched out in the sun; tubes of Coppertone and baby oil being fished out of PE satchels while preparing for exams in Advanced Level English Lit; going through stories by Katherine Mansfield that were set just down the road and yet also seemed to be full of London and France. Art and life, life and art. The here and the there.

My mother would have loved the way both realities conjoined, the story and the experience, the fictions and the facts; how both seemed to be versions of each other in the Memorial Gardens that year. By the time exams came round and I was writing essays on “Bliss” and “Sun and Moon” and “The Voyage” that she’d read to me as a child, she’d been dead for nearly a year and I thought I was used to her absence. Her way of interpreting the world, though—that had stayed with me. The stories, after all, were still there.

Does death fasten an imaginative idea more firmly to the mind, I wonder? I think in my case it might. For try as I have over the years, I can’t help shift this notion of here and there thinking. It’s part of how I see a place, experience it, remember it, even. When my mother used to read aloud to me a Mansfield story set in a French Jardins Publiques, which seems to draw upon the Wellington Botanical Gardens, also in Thorndon, about a quarter mile from the much smaller Memorial Gardens, I can’t help but retain the impression that both real and invented parks are indeed one and the same. To arrive, as a child, at the big iron gates at the entrance of these and to make my way down the wide path with flowerbeds on either side to the rotunda was to follow Miss Brill to her seat to listen to the band play in the story named after her and to go where Mansfield herself had walked before her.

Reading about a place can be to feel as though one knows it, in the same way that to be in the place can remind us of its fictional counterparts. I remember my first time in New York, going through Central Park at dusk while the buildings lit up behind the winter trees: the exact color of that twilight; the lights coming on in apartments and offices; the view through the taxi window. How I seemed to be as much in a novel set in New York as I was in the backseat of a yellow cab. There are lots of places in the world that bring this sort of two-way vision.

Mansfield’s Thorndon is as real in her stories as it is also a part of the world I know so well. I walk down Tinakori Road, Thorndon’s main shopping street that still retains its 19th-century outlines despite the motorway that rushes alongside, and I might be a character in a section of “Juliet,” a very early draft of a story that might have become a novel. I might be in step with Mansfield herself as she and her brother in “The Wind Blows” “zigzag” down the path to the Pohutukawa tree that once stood at the water’s edge but is now on the reclaimed land where the bus stopped to take me home sometimes after school. In the photo of my parents on their wedding day, my mother’s hand rests on my father’s dark sleeve just as Leila imagines “the bolster on which her hand rested felt like the sleeve of an unknown young man’s dress suit” in “Her First Ball.” I wonder if my mother thought the same as she laid her hand there, all those years ago. I wonder who she was, that bride, that woman—and will never really know.

Yet reading about Katherine Mansfield helps me get just a little closer to my mother, her mind and imagination. Thinking about Mansfield’s work makes me understand again how literature is never just a story, a narrative, an event on the page to be read aloud to a child or silently to oneself alone. It is also an experience, caught up with the here and now along with memory and the past. For where were we when we read this novel or that one? Who were we talking with when we discovered this poet’s work or another’s set of short stories? Details of personal history are caught up and captured in the texts and pages and screens before us, and they become part of the story, part of who we are. Like the shadows cast upon the lawns and gardens of Mansfield’s stories, reminding us, as her stories always do, that presence and absence go together.

This January, the month of Mansfield’s death, is the August of Paris and New York in the southern hemisphere. Businesses close, schools are off, city streets are deserted, everyone is at the beach or away. Katherine Mansfield wrote her story “At the Bay” to capture exactly that feeling of time off—a family’s escape to its summer cottage, or “bach” as it is called in New Zealand—a story “full of sand and seaweed and dresses hanging over verandahs and sandshoes on windowsills,” a fiction based on family holidays that went on to influence Woolf’s famous novel To the Lighthouse.

Reading about Katherine Mansfield helps me get just a little closer to my mother, her mind and imagination.

When Mansfield died Woolf wrote in her diary, “At that one feels—what? A shock of relief? —a rival the less! Then confusion at feeling so little—then, gradually, blankness & disappointment; then a depression I could not rouse myself from all that day. When I began to write, it seemed to me there was no point in writing. Katherine won’t read it.”

In February and March—the beginning of the academic year in New Zealand—the schools will open up again and the girls in blue uniforms will return to my old College in Thorndon; they’ll lounge in the Memorial Gardens just as we used to do. Another year ahead, what will it bring? For Katherine Mansfield, this was always an exciting time, even in the depths of a northern hemisphere winter. Towards the end of 1922, she’d joined the esoteric Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau-Avon in an attempt to understand herself, bring all the scattered “bits” of herself together and make peace with her illness.

The last diary entries describe her final acts of “here and there” thinking, as she put the small realities of her restricted life into a sort of dictionary she was creating. As O’Sullivan writes in his introduction to the last volume of The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, “There is no detail so poignant and so simply indicative of the life she was attempting to remake, as the list of Russian words and phrases she was trying to learn: “I was late because my fire did not burn. The sky was blue as in summer…The trees still have apples. Apple…”

The word, the Russian equivalent—the fact and the kind of fiction that is also the fact of language, the imaginative gesture of Mansfield’s writing, turning one thing into another, seems—it really does seem in these last moments as I am reading them—to save her. “When I pass the apple stalls,” she had written to her friend Dorothy Brett back in 1917, “I cannot help stopping and staring until I feel that I, myself, am changing into an apple too—and that at any moment I may produce an apple, miraculously, out of my own being like the conjurer produces an egg,” a process, she finishes, “of becoming…so thrilling that I can hardy breathe.”

Like all writers who have left something behind them—a place or a person, a country, a home—the counterfeit, the version on the page, can become the real. I guess my mother, unknowingly, taught me that, but I don’t know that the idea would have stayed with me as powerfully and as long if she had not been taught it first by a writer she loved.

Kirsty Gunn
Kirsty Gunn
Kirsty Gunn is the author of My Katherine Mansfeld Project and is currently completing a collection of short stories. Her Selected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, edited with Delia da Sousa Correa, will be published by Oxford University Press next year.





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