Katherine Mansfield’s stories, suffused with pathos and beauty, can (and should) be read and reread. She was not drawn to the explicitly mystical until the end of her short life when she became a disciple of Gurdjieff, but a kind of spiritual intensity shines throughout her work. Despite poverty, misery and illness, she found endless delight in what we might call the ordinary mysteries. With an unerring cinematic eye, she observes the sea “and the high foam, how it was suspended in the air before it fell ... What is it that happens in that moment of suspension? It is timeless. In that moment ... the whole life of the soul is contained”. Ordinary moments, or even the interstices between moments, are charged for Mansfield with something radiant and necessary, which her genius transmutes into stories of great emotional and – yes – spiritual power.
In her excellent book, Claire Harman selects 10 stories by Mansfield and examines each in two sections (The Story) followed by depictions of the author’s inner and outer worlds at the time of writing (The Life). This method enables us to voyage into Mansfield’s life as it was lived, as she developed and grew, with an immediacy that Mansfield would have approved of, since that was her purpose as a writer: “I shall tell everything, even of how the laundry basket squeaked.”
Harman is sensitive to the ambiguities and contradictions in Mansfield’s life. Perhaps foremost among these is her daring sensuality, which found expression in stories such as the sordid yet strangely beautiful Je ne parle pas francais and Prelude, in which Linda Burnell recoils inwardly from her husband’s lovemaking: “she had always hated things that rush at her ...” Harman marvels “at Mansfield’s boldness, writing so frankly about ... a couple in bed ...” Mansfield was indeed bold, and brave. A New Zealander in England, a woman in a man’s world, burning up with consumption while the need to write a new kind of story also burned within her, she found even her illness a privilege, for it attached her all the more urgently to life. Who cannot admire such generosity? Bravo to Harman for her insightful and well-written study of such an extraordinary art and life.
Elizabeth Wassell is a writer and critic