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Picture of Katherine Mansfield

January 9, 2005
Katherine Mansfield   (1888 - 1923)
Katherine Mansfield: "Risk Anything!"
by Steve King

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On this day in 1923 Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis. She was just thirty-four, and her most famous collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories, had just come out the previous year. Literary historians regard 1922 as "the annus mirabilis of modern literature," and most list The Garden Party among the other ground-breaking books of that year -- Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses. Even given such company, the Oxford Companion to English Literature (2000, edited by Margaret Drabble) describes Mansfield as a "symbol of liberation, innovation and unconventionality. Her life was new, her manners and dress were new, her art was new." The art may have got newer still: two weeks before she died, Mansfield herself scoffed at "my little stories like birds bred in cages." But she did not get even the next two decades that Woolf and Joyce got, so it is hard to say what modern fame Mansfield might have found, as it is hard to say anything with certainty about her shifting, unsettled personality.

This did not stop her famous contemporaries from making many immoderate pronouncements. Some of these reflect jealousy, or just snobbish sniggering at "the brassy little shopgirl of literature who made herself into a great writer," as Frank O'Connor later put it. Eliot described her as "one of the most persistent and thickskinned toadies and one of the vulgarest women." Woolf maintained a degree of genuine friendship, but she too could turn up her nose: "She stinks like a--well civet cat that had taken to street walking. In truth, I'm a little shocked by her commonness at first sight; lines so hard and cheap." Woolf and her friends enjoyed the same relaxed attitude towards sex and relationships as Mansfield, but they did so with Bloomsbury manners, connections and money. Certainly the turnover was high among Mansfield's men and women, as was the price paid -- her first marriage lasted a day, gonorrhea gave her permanent poor health and a stillborn child. And her highly-praised journals and letters (the modern editions, not the earlier ones tidied up by her second husband, John Middleton Murry, in order to make a legend and a profit) reveal much shabby behavior. But she was young, no more ambitious than the others, and a long way from New Zealand -- and she could not conduct her literary experiments upon her own printing press.

D. H. Lawrence, another outsider, was an important friend and ally for a time. But he was difficult in his own way, and Mansfield said she got tired of fighting "the immense german Christmas pudding" that was his wife: "With all the appetite in the world one cannot eat one's way through Frieda to find him." Then Lawrence also turned away, and as his style was not behind-the-back gossip, Mansfield got "one of the most terrible letters ever written" (Martin Seymour-Smith, in his Guide to Modern World Literature): "You are a loathsome reptile--I hope you will die." This was early in 1920, over a year after Mansfield had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Some speculate that she got the disease from Lawrence; certainly his letter expressed his anger at her for giving in to what was killing them both: "You revolt me stewing in your consumption...."

It was in a desperate effort to stop stewing that, near the end of 1922, Mansfield went to France to join Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Many warned her that she would find cranks and charlatans rather than any cure, but she had a disregard for anything but her own imperatives. "Risk! Risk anything!" she urged herself on Oct. 14, 1922 -- her last birthday, two days before entering Gurdjieff's Institute. She gardened, and drank goat's milk, and spent hours on a balcony that enabled her to breathe in cow's breath. Her last letters express a belief that, whatever physical help they brought, these last efforts helped with her lifelong feeling of "chaos within."

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Related authors:  Anton Chekhov, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf
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