Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Miracle of happiness

‘The only adorable thing I can imagine is for my Grandmother to put me to bed and bring me a bowl of hot bread and milk, and, standing with her hands folded, the left thumb over the right, say in her adorable voice: ‘There darling, isn’t that nice?’ Oh, what a miracle of happiness that would be.’ This is part of the earliest extant diary entry - written one hundred years ago, or was it? - by the much-feted New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfied who died of TB aged only 34.

Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1888, but when only 15 went to study at Queen’s College, London. After returning to New Zealand in 1906, she took up the cello, but her father, a banker, refused to allow her to turn professional. Instead, she studied typing and bookkeeping at Wellington Technical College. A friend of the family eventually persuaded Kathleen’s father to allow her an allowance of £100 a year, so she could return to London.

There, in 1908, she embarked on a Bohemian lifestyle, and a relationship with Garnett Trowell, a musician. When that broke down, despite her being pregnant, she married George Brown more than 10 years her senior. After resuming with Garnett for a short while, her mother arrived from New Zealand and sent her to Germany, where she suffered a miscarriage. Mansfield’s time in Bavaria was to have a significant effect on her literary outlook, partly because she was introduced to the works of Anton Chekhov, and partly because her experiences there formed the foundation of her first published collection of stories, In a German Pension, a work that brought her much literary attention.

On returning to London in 1910, she devoted herself to writing short stories, contributing to The New Age, and publications such as Rhythm/The Blue Review edited by John Middleton Murry. She also began a relationship with Murry, one that would go through many ups and downs, some of them caused by Mansfield’s affairs, the death of her brother in 1915, and illness (she was diagnosed with TB in 1917). They married in 1918, but separated weeks after the wedding, before getting back together again the following year.

That year - 1919 - Murry became editor of Athenaeum, a prestigious weekly journal, for which Mansfield would contribute many reviews. Mansfield also became more prolific with her fiction in the last years of her life, writing many short stories. According to Wikipedia’s biography, Miss Brill, the bittersweet story of a fragile woman living an ephemeral life of observation and simple pleasures in Paris, established Mansfield as one of the preeminent writers of the Modernist period. The title story from that 1920 collection, Bliss, was also praised. And her subsequent collection, The Garden Party, published in 1922, received widespread critical acclaim. However, Mansfield’s TB was also taking hold, and in October 1922 she moved to Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France, seeking a cure, but died the following January. New Zealand Edge has more biographical information.

After her death, in 1927, Murry edited his wife’s diary (as well as many other manuscripts), and a collection of extracts were published - as Journal Of Katherine Mansfield - by Constable in London and Alfred A Knopf in New York. This compilation has since been reprinted many times, and has contributed hugely to a romantic view of Mansfield. Murry, for example, in his introduction says this: ‘[There is] a peculiar quality of her work I can only describe as a kind of purity. It is as though the glass through which she looked upon life were crystal-clear. And this quality of her work corresponds to a quality in her life. Katherine Mansfield was natural and spontaneous as was no other human being I have ever met. She seemed to adjust herself to life as a flower adjusts itself to the earth and to the sun. She suffered greatly, she delighted greatly; but her suffering and her delight were never partial, they filled the whole of her.’

But see Hermione Lee’s review for The Guardian of the most recent republishing (by Persephone) of Murry’s original version. She says: ‘this reissued Journal is a historical document which requires wary reading. Murry’s proprietary introduction plays up his part in his wife’s writing (“I believed in it, published it ... and printed it with my own hands”) and presents her as a creature of simple spontaneity (“She seemed to adjust herself to life as a flower adjusts itself to the earth and to the sun”). Any check of his extracts against the complete journals shows up his protectiveness of her - and of himself. A long, dramatic account of her journey to the French front in February 1915, for instance, bafflingly omits the reason for her going, to see her lover Francis Carco - their sensually described love-making, of course, all cut out. The Murrys’ stormy, intense friendship with the Lawrences is played down and chastened here (unlike in Mansfield’s brutally and brilliantly explicit letters about them) . . .

But although the Journal is a compromised document, it is still very well worth having this reprint. After so many versions of her, we probably no longer think of Mansfield as a “terribly sensitive mind” (her own phrase, picked up by Virginia Woolf in her ambivalent review of the Journal, reprinted here). She may seem to us now no longer Murry’s romantic, solitary, tragic heroine, but more sexually reckless and socially excitable, temperamentally damaged by illness, and as malicious and chilling as she could be appealing and vulnerable. But for all Murry’s tidying up, her startling, vivid, intimate voice still comes pouring off these pages.’

According to Murry’s introduction to the 1927 version of the Journal, ‘Mansfield ruthlessly destroyed all record of the time between her return from New Zealand to England in 1909, and 1914’, except for the following fragment. This, therefore, is the first of Mansfield’s extant diary entries. As edited by Murry, it appears Mansfield has provided the month, ‘June’, but that Murry himself gives the year by saying this fragment ‘belongs to 1910, to that stay in Bavaria . . .’ and by inserting ‘1910’ in square brackets at the start of the fragment. All the biographical information I can find, though, seems to point to ‘that stay in Bavaria’ as being in 19o9!

‘June [1910]
It is at last over, this wearisome day, and dusk is beginning to sift in among the branches of the drenched chestnut tree. I think I must have caught cold in my beautiful exultant walk yesterday, for to-day I am ill. I began to work but could not. Fancy wearing two pairs of stockings and two coats and a hot-water bottle in June, and shivering . . . I think it is the pain that makes me shiver and feel dizzy. To be alone all day, in a house whose every sound seems foreign to you, and to feel a terrible confusion in your body which affects you mentally, suddenly pictures for you detestable incidents, revolting personalities, which you only shake off to find recurring again as the pain seems to grow worse again. Alas! I shall not walk with bare feet in wild woods again. Not until I have grown accustomed to the climate . . .

The only adorable thing I can imagine is for my Grandmother to put me to bed and bring me a bowl of hot bread and milk, and, standing with her hands folded, the left thumb over the right, say in her adorable voice: ‘There darling, isn’t that nice?’ Oh, what a miracle of happiness that would be. To wake later to find her turning down the bedclothes to see if my feet were cold, and wrapping them up in a little pink singlet, softer than cat’s fur. . . Alas!

Sunday morning
Yet another Sunday. . . It is raining again to-day - just a steady persistent rain that seems to drift one from one morning to the other. When I had finished writing I went down to supper, drank a little soup, and the old Doctor next me suddenly said: ‘Please go to bed now,’ and I went like a lamb and drank some hot milk. It was a night of agony. When I felt morning was at last come, I lighted a candle, looked at the watch, and found it was just a quarter to twelve! Now I know what it is to fight a drug. Veronal was on the table by my bed. Oblivion - deep sleep - think of it! But I didn’t take any. Now I am up and dressed. . .’

See The Diary Junction for links to some extracts available online.

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