After 100 years, this fearless writer finds new fans
Katherine Mansfield, queen of short stories, had a short life — she died of tuberculosis at 34 — but she put a lot into it. She moved to London and Europe from her birthplace in New Zealand and became friends with the Bloomsbury group. Virginia Woolf confessed that she was jealous of her prose.
Her love life was turbulent: she married twice (the first marriage lasted only a few hours) and twice left her second husband, the critic John Middleton Murry, and she had affairs with both men and women. She suffered a terrible punishment for her wild colonial girl adventures. At 20, she became pregnant, miscarried, and then contracted gonorrhea from a Polish lover who had blackmailed her. The disease rendered her infertile.
Her stories, however, often dealt with conventional families and were full of carefully chosen domestic details, to the point that many critics underestimated her, including Murry, who published her work after her death but promoted an image of her as just a woman writing for women.
Mansfield was often the harshest critic of her own work. She was tired of her “little stories like caged birds.” Despite being a prolific writer, she felt she hadn’t worked hard enough: “Look at all the stories that wait and wait right on the cusp. Why don’t I let her in?” And she craved a perfection she knew she would never achieve.
Well, no writing is perfect, but reading her story again recently is The dollhouse, I am convinced that it is as perfect as a short story can be. Everything is there, clear and accessible but not obvious, in a small space. It’s moving, even tragic, but it ends on a surprising note of hope.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of her death and we see an ongoing reappraisal of her work, which began in the 1980s, fueled by feminism and a desire to free her from colonial bias against a writer from “a small country with no history”. to free “. My 1988 edition Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writerby Kiwi colleague Gillian Boddy, describes this interest as “Mansfield mania”.
There have been numerous biographies, most notably Claire Tomalin’s 1987 book Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. Her character was complex and not always sympathetic. Boddy summarizes her as “sometimes cruel, tough and intolerant, sometimes warm, loving and generous, and most of all defiantly alive”.
Now a new generation of Mansfield fans are celebrating her as an author for today’s readers. For the centenary there is a book All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything by Claire Harman, who takes a close look at 10 key stories and uses each one to explore different events and themes in the author’s life and work.