17 October 2012

Claire Tomalin: Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (1987)

Initial research for Claire Tomalin's biography of Katherine Mansfield was postponed partly because of Jeffrey Meyer's and Antony Alper's books in 1978 and 1980 respectively. Tomalin describes Alpers's biography as 'epic', representing (he believes) a generally misunderstood genius, and Meyers's as 'more cynical', showing a darker Mansfield. She feels that certain aspects of her life have not been dealt with sufficiently, 'in particular the chain of events leading from her first foray into sexual freedom in 1908, and the various long-term results of her association with Floryan Sobieniowski in 1909.' She investigates Mansfield's medical history and Sobieniowski's blackmail of her.

Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp (1888–1923) was born in Wellington, New Zealand the daughter of banker Harold Beauchamp, who became wealthy shortly after her birth and, like her mother Annie, was born in Australia. Family legend has it that Katherine wanted to become a writer on finding out about her father's cousin Elizabeth von Arnim's novel Elizabeth and Her German Garden.

Katherine was the outsider in an otherwise more or less conventional family, although (something she didn't know) the rebellious or transgressive gene seems to have existed in Harold's first cousin Fred, who had at least five unmarried children by a Māori.

On leaving New Zealand to settle permanently in England, Mansfield was entering a society that was changing, becoming more democratic, less male-dominated, with freer sexual habits, a country breaking away from the constraints of the Victorian ethos which had dominated for several decades. In a chapter titled 'London 1908: New Women', Tomalin writes about four women – Virginia Stephen (later Woolf, of course), Ottoline Morrell, Dorothy Brett, and Frieda Weekley, all of whom rebelled against their backgrounds: all of whom came to know and love Mansfield, who had also broken free – from the colonial shackles she'd left at the other end of the world, one to which she would never return.

This compelling book, then, shows a woman eager to embrace different forms of liberation, as Mansfield indeed did, although her story is no exhilarating read, describing a (then) forbidden love followed by pregnancy and miscarriage, sexually transmitted disease followed by a disastrous operation, suffering and illness, an essential relationship that it was essential to keep escaping from, more suffering and illness, and early death. In between, Mansfield never managed to complete a novel but left a number of fine short stories. And she was the inspiration behind a number of fictional characters, of which these are a few examples:

Lawrence's depiction of Ursula Brangwen's distinctly lesbian relationship with the older Winifred Inger in the 'Shame' chapter of The Rainbow seems in part an imagining of Mansfield and her friend Edith Bendall; in Women in Love too, Lawrence based Ursula's sister Gudrun on Mansfield; J. R. Orage satirized her as 'Moira Foisacre' in a series in New Age; the uneasy colonial Louis in Woolf's The Waves has an Australian banker father like Mansfield; and she was posthumously satirized by Aldous Huxley in Those Barren Leaves.

I can't say I'm convinced that Sobianiowski's blackmail of Mansfield was on account of her 'plagiarizing' Chekhov's 'Spat' khochetsia' (translated as 'Sleepy' by Constance Garnett in 1927), and although her 'The-Child-Who-Was-Tired' may well have a similar basic story outline to Chekhov's it is far from being anything like a copy. But Tomalin goes out of her way to put her case for this tenuous blackmail construction, as well as including an Appendix containing several pages from the TLS letters pages for 1951, where several academics argue about the short story.

A few minor grouses:

Unlike Katherine's maternal grandfather Joseph Dyer, or her maternal grandmother Margaret Isabella Mansfield, or her paternal grandmother Elizabeth, nowhere in the text itself, only in the Index, is Katherine's paternal grandfather's name Arthur mentioned, although he is present in several sentences.

I find Tomalin is too eager to psychologize: for instance, regarding a photo of Mansfield aged about nine, the author sees 'a rebellious and inquisitive glimmer' in her eyes, whereas I, especially when bearing in mind the long exposures necessary at the time, merely see a suggestion of boredom.

And a 'Māori kit', as C. K. Stead points out in Kin of Place (originally published in the November 1987 issue of the London Review of Books as a review of Tomalin's biography), is not, as Tomalin seemed to think, something that Mansfield wore to show off in England, but is simply a basket.
My links to Katherine Mansfield's Birthplace and the place of her death are below:
Katherine Mansfield in Wellington, New Zealand

Katherine Mansfield and Gurdjieff in Avon, France

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