World Literature

Katherine Mansfield

 

BORN: 1888, Wellington, New Zealand

DIED: 1923, Fontainebleau, France

NATIONALITY: New Zealander

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

‘‘Bliss’’ (1920)

‘‘Miss Brill’’ (1920)

‘‘The Garden Party’’ (1922)

 

Overview

Katherine Mansfield is a central figure in the development of the modern short story. An early practitioner of stream-of-consciousness narration, she applied this technique to create stories based on the illumination of character rather than the contrivances of plot. Her works consider such universal concerns as family and love relationships and the everyday experiences of childhood and are noted for their distinctive wit, psychological sharpness, and perceptive characterizations. Mansfield is one of the few authors to attain prominence exclusively for short stories, and her works remain among the most widely read in world literature.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Enamored of England. Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp was born October 14, 1888, to Harold Beauchamp, a merchant and banker, and Annie Burnell (Dyer) Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand, and attended school in England in her early teens. She returned home after completing her education, but at nineteen she persuaded her parents to allow her to return to England.

Biographers believe that Mansfield either arrived in London pregnant as the result of a shipboard romance or that she became pregnant after her arrival as the result of an affair with a man she had known in New Zealand. She quickly married George Bowden, a young musician, and left him the next day for a German spa, where she miscarried, alone.

Burgeoning Career. Mansfield returned to England following a period of recuperation, during which she wrote the short stories comprising her first collection, In a German Pension (1911). These stories focus on themes relating to sexual relationships, female subjugation, and childbearing.

Determined to pursue a literary career, between 1911 and 1915 Mansfield published short stories and book reviews in magazines. in 1912 she met editor and critic John Middleton Murry and was soon sharing the editorship of two magazines with him. The two began living together and married in 1918, after her first husband consented to a divorce.

Bliss and The Garden Party. In 1915 Mansfield was reunited in London with her only brother, Leslie Heron Beauchamp, shortly before he was killed in a military training accident. His visit is believed to have reinforced Mansfield’s resolve to incorporate material drawn from her New Zealand background into her fiction. The collections Bliss, and Other Stories (1920) and The Garden Party, and Other Stories (1922)—the last that Mansfield edited and oversaw in production—contain ‘‘Bliss,’’ ‘‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel,’’ ‘‘Je Ne Parle Pas Fra- n^ais,’’ and ‘‘Miss Brill,’’ which are considered among the finest short stories in the English language. The success of these volumes established Mansfield as a major talent comparable to such contemporaries as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Early End. At the end of 1918, Mansfield learned that what she had regarded as ‘‘rheumatism’’ was a longstanding sexually transmitted infection that damaged her fertility and had seriously affected her heart. She was further weakened by tuberculosis in the early 1920s. Nonetheless, she worked almost continuously, writing until the last few months of her life, when she undertook a faith cure in France. She died of a lung hemorrhage resulting from tuberculosis on January 9, 1923, at the age of thirty-four.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Mansfield's famous contemporaries include:

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930): Lawrence was an English writer and friend of Mansfield, who examined human sexuality in his novels. He was well-known for Sons and Lovers and Women in Love.

Dorothy Lawrence (1869-1964): Lawrence was an English reporter who posed as a man to become a soldier in World War I. She was discovered by the British and was made to promise not to write about her experiences for fear that other women would follow.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954): Matisse was a French sculptor, painter, and printmaker. He was a leading figure in modern art, famous for his fluid lines and use of vibrant color.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918): Owen was a British soldier and leading poet of World War I. He was well-known for his graphic and realistic, rather than patriotic, poems about the war.

 

Works in Literary Context

Class Consciousness. Many of Mansfield’s stories deal with the concerns of the upper class, as well as the chasm that exists between the upper and lower classes. This is shown most clearly in ‘‘The Garden Party,’’ where the main character—whose most important responsibility is planning a party for her family’s wealthy acquaintances—has a wrenching encounter with a lower-class neighbor whose husband has just died. The gap between the classes is also evident in ‘‘A Cup of Tea,’’ in which a wealthy woman brings a poor beggar girl back to her opulent home. The wealthy woman, who appears to have everything, becomes despondent when her husband comments on the poor girl’s beauty, but fails to say the same for his wife. As illustrated in these stories, Mansfield acknowledges the vain preoccupations of the upper classes, but also shows that money alone does not provide happiness or fulfillment.

Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf had a significant influence on each other, although Mansfield objected to many of the Bloomsbury Group’s ideas. Mansfield developed from Woolf a capacity to describe moments of intense perception, ‘‘that condition of standing outside of things, yet being more intensely in them.’’ No other writers of the time could match Mansfield’s or Woolf’s capacity to convey the simultaneity of multiple and searching human perceptions.

Mansfield, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov. Mansfield held deep literary debts to Russian writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov. Her connection to Dostoyevsky focuses on his recognitions of consciousness and his extraordinary capacity to depict the agonies of the human soul. But, Mansfield felt that Chekhov knew as well as Dostoyevsky the agonies of consciousness, and he retained a capacity to respond to the outside world; he acknowledged a need to write and live simultaneously with one’s recognitions. She began translating his letters, including one she said was vital to her view of her own art, in which Chekhov asserted that ‘‘what the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question.’’ The irresolvable suspension of human emotion between self and otherness adds to the recognition of irremediable class distinctions, a social concern in one of Mansfield’s most deeply Chekhovian stories.

 

Works in Critical Context

Mansfield’s fiction has been increasingly respected throughout the years, and the quality of her thought and writing praised as further material has been posthumously published. Although reminiscences, particularly those of John Middleton Murry, the husband who survived her, have sometimes tended to sanctify her, healthy reactions against sanctity have questioned the viewpoints of Murry and others. The variety and brevity of her fiction, its accessibility as well as its length, have enabled Mansfield to reach an expanding audience throughout the century.

The Garden Party and Other Stories. Jan Pilditch writes: ‘‘Katherine Mansfield published The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922, the same year that [Anglo- American poet] T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land, and [Irish writer] James Joyce published Ulysses. Mansfield’s collection similarly represents the mature progress of her artistry. It contains some of her finest work, and illustrates the artistic usefulness of her New Zealand background.... Mansfield, no less than James Joyce, demonstrates a preoccupation with the growth of an artistic sensibility.’’ And Don Kleine writes: ‘‘’The Garden Party’ is generally, and with justice, regarded as one of the most nearly flawless short stories in the language.’’ Elizabeth Bowen writes: ‘‘We owe to [Mansfield] the prosperity of the ‘free’ story: she untrammeled it from conventions and, still more, gained for it a prestige till then unthought of. How much ground Katherine Mansfield broke for her successors may not be realized. Her imagination kindled unlikely matter; she was to alter for good and all our idea of what goes to make a story.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Katherine Mansfield's short stories are driven by their characters rather than by an external plot. They are more about the interior life than specific events. Here are some other works that deal with this theme:

The Cherry Orchard (1904), a play by Anton Chekhov. Members of an aristocratic family return to their estate before it is auctioned off to pay their mortgage; caught in inertia, they are unable to save their home.

On Golden Pond (1981), a film directed by Mark Rydell. This movie follows the relationships between an elderly couple, their daughter, her fiance, and his son as they reunite over the course of a summer.

Runaway (2004), short stories by Alice Munro. Three of these spare stories, reminiscent of Chekhov, focus on different stages of one woman's life; they all examine various facets of love and betrayal.

To the Lighthouse (1927), a novel by Virginia Woolf. This meditative story of a family's visit to the Scottish Isle of Sky is told by the interior thoughts of the characters and has minimal dialogue.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), short stories by Raymond Carver. The minimalist tales in this collection focus on small epiphanies in ordinary people's lives that lead to a change in their outlook.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Katherine Mansfield wrote about the difference between one’s inner and outer worlds. When have you felt like what’s going on inside you is not what other people see? Think about one specific instance. Was there a revealing detail that people should have noticed that indicated how you truly felt?

2. After her death, Mansfield’s husband tried to present a specific view of her. Do you think that is understandable or dishonest?

3. Do you think short stories can reveal as much about a character as a whole novel can?

4. Mansfield’s stories are fairly short, and their language is simple. Usually, we think of great literature as having complicated language and being difficult to read. Think about two musicians or artists you like, one with outwardly simpler work than the other. Write an essay comparing and contrasting their two approaches. Do you feel that one is stronger than the other? Be sure to use specific examples.

5. Many of Mansfield’s stories use the past to establish a connection with the present and immediate. Read Galway Kinnell’s poem ‘‘Pulling a Nail.’’ Write an essay analyzing what the connection is between the past and present in this poem, using specific examples. Compare this poem to a work by Mansfield.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Viking, 1980.

Boddy, Gillian. Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Bowen, Elizabeth. ‘‘Katherine Mansfield.’’ In Discussions of the Short Story. New York: D. C. Heath and Company, 1963.

Burgan, Mary. Illness, Gender, and Writing: The Case of Katherine Mansfield. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Daiches, David. ‘‘The Art of Katherine Mansfield.’’ In New Literary Values: Studies in Modern Literature. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1968.

Dunbar, Pamela. Radical Mansfield: Double Disclosure in the Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Kaplan, Sydney Janet. Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Magalaner, Marvin. The Fiction of Katherine Mansfield. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Pilditch, Jan. ‘‘The Garden Party: Overview.’’ In Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Detroit: St. James Press.

Periodicals

Bowen, Elizabeth. ‘‘A Living Writer.’’ Cornhill Magazine 1010 (Winter 1956-1957): 121-34.

Cowley, Malcolm. ‘‘The Author of ‘Bliss.’’’ Dial 73 (August 22, 1922): 230-232.

Kleine, Don W. ‘‘’The Garden Party’: A Portrait of the Artist.’’ Criticism 5 (Fall 1963): 360-371.

O’Sullivan, Vincent. ‘‘The Magnetic Chain: Notes and Approaches to K. M.’’ Landfall: The New Zealand Quarterly 114 (June 1975): 95-131.

Schneider, Elisabeth. ‘‘Katherine Mansfield and Chekhov.’’ Modern Language Notes 50 (June 1935): 394-96.

Web sites

Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society Inc. Katherine Mansfield Birthplace. Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://www.katherinemansfield.com