Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Journals

Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Journals are exquisite. These fragments capture her love of her native New Zealand, the ups and downs of her marriage to the critic John Middleton Murry, the exhaustion of train journeys in France during the First World War, and trying to write while she was ill (she had tuberculosis). 

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine and her husband, John Middleton Murry. were close friends of D. H. Lawrence, but Katherine disliked his wife, Frieda, a German woman who, unaware of Katherine’s annoyance, sought Katherine’s company.  Katherine was fastidious and private; Frieda blowsy and confiding. I give Frieda credit for trying to be friends with Katherine!
In the following journal entry, Katherine reacts to Frieda and Lawrence.

January 10, 2015. Windy and dark.  In the morning, Frieda suddenly.  She had had a row with Lawrence.  She tired me to death.  At night we went to the Lawrences’, leaving her here.  It was a warm night with big drops of rain falling.  I didn’t mind the going, but the coming back was rather awful….  L. was nice, very nice, sitting with a piece of string in his hand, on true sex.

Katherine was hyper-critical and had a sharp tongue: at one point she became so bored by Lawrence’s rants on sexual philosophy that she suggested he name his cottage Phallus.

Katherine was a voracious reader.   In a letter to Murry she fulminates:  “…I find the Oxford Book of English Verse is very poor.  I turned over pages and pages and pages.  But except for Shakespeare and Marvell and just a handful of others it seems to be a mass of falsity.”  (N.B. I think I have this same edition – mine is edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch.)

Katherine loathes E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the great urban sprawl novel about the problems of moving house and inter-class sex.  But Katherine is unmoved. 

She writes, “E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming up the teapot…. And I can never be certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella.  All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.”

Katherine and Murry remained close, though she was unfaithful to him. I enjoyed her passage about their reading poetry together. Murry adored Hardy’s poem to Swinburne, but Katherine admits, “I, an inferior being, was a little troubled by the picture of Sappho and Swinburne meeting en plein mer (if one can say such a thing) and he begging her to tell him where his manuscript was.  It seemed such a watery rendezvous.”

 As I read this volume, edited by C. K. Stead, I understood why Lawrence modeled his character Gudrun on Katherine.  Gudrun in Women in Love is an artist, aloof, brilliant, whimsical, with a touch of cruelty – an exaggerated version of Katherine, the woman who resisted Rupert/Lawrence’s sexual philosophy.

Where We’re Coming from: Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Short Stories & Dismayed by Too Much News

I have gone through phases where I read only  Katherine Mansfield, and phases where I find her unreadable.

On a third reading of Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories (1920), I once again admired her spare, elegant style. With grace and sharp wit, she  pays homage to Chekhov’s stories and plays, and her detailed descriptions  of nature and interiors of houses are beautiful and revealing. 

Mansfield (1888-1923) grew up in New Zealand, later lived in London, and also traveled widely and lived in Europe. She married John Middleton Murry, a critic and editor, and socialized with D. H. Lawrence (who portrayed her as Gudrun in Women in Love), Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and the Bloomsbury group.  She died  of tuberculosis in 1923.

She is often compared to Virginia Woolf, her great rival and sometime friend.  I have never understood the comparison.   Mansfield’s realistic stories are wryly understated and lyrical, while Woolf’s prose is brilliantly poetic and often experimental.   

Mansfield is particularly astute at describing women and the parties they give.  In “Bliss,” Bertha Young, a 30-year-old wife and mother, is inexplicably excited before a dinner party. “…she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, or throw something in the air….”   She walks around the house checking details:  she has bought a big cluster of purple grapes that matches the dining-room carpet; and a bowl of vivid colorful fruit makes her ecstatic.  As she dresses for the party, she looks forward to the arrival of her mysterious new friend, Miss Fulton, to whom she is very attracted. Her husband grumbles about Miss Fulton, saying she will put on weight like “all blondes.”  Bertha shows Miss Fulton the garden and feels utterly appreciated.  But a scene at the end of the party shocks her out of bliss.

I am also a fan of “Pictures,” in which Mansfield describes the life of a middle-aged woman who is fallin into poverty.  Miss Ada Moss, a contralto singer with no work, lies in bed in her room in Bloomsbury, craving a big breakfast she cannot afford.  Her landlady comes into the room and threatens to evict her if she doesn’t pay the rent.  Ada isn’t overly-worried, but shea spends the day going from bar to bar, and theater to film studio, trying to find work as an actresss, snubbed because she is middle-aged.  Finally, she sits down for a cup of coffee.  If she is to live, she  must do something.  This story reminds me  of Storm Jameson’s excellent novella “A Day Off,” about another down-and-out middle-aged woman.

I also loved “Revelations,” in which a wealthy self-indulgent woman spends the morning in bed with a headache .  She feels indignant that no one recognizes her pain, and that her husband invites her to lunch when she is suffering.  Finally, she takes a cab to her hairdresser’s where she often goes when she feels blue.  But everyone is silent at the salon, and she doesn’t get the attention she wanted.  Her  inability to deal with real problems underscores her shallowness.

I do love the stories, and doubtless will reread the others later this summer.  


TOO MUCH NEWS. I can only keep up with one tragedy at a time.

Although the pandemic is still very real, the newspapers have moved on to the George Floyd protests. I worry not only about the racist police brutality, but also about the spread of the virus in crowds.  

On one particularly horrible night of TV news, three reporters, speaking on Zoom or Skype, were fervently condemning one of Trump’s tweets.

I burst out laughing.  “Three grown-up white men on Skype, criticizing Twitter:  do they ever wonder how they reached this point of unreality?”

I had to turn the TV off because I was hysterical.

The unreal is more real than the real these days.  Twitter isn’t real, is it?  How can anyone take it seriously?

We’re living in a novel by John Brunner or Philip K. Dick.

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