Art That Contains Us: The World Seen Through Katherine Mansfield’s Eyes
By Stuart Mitchner
Her eye as a writer is both darting and then fixed. Nothing escapes her.
—Colm Tóibín on Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)
Several times a day I look out the living room window to see the activity around the bird feeders. It’s become a ritual, even when the only sign of bird life is the slight swaying of the Edwardian feeder. This morning I was seeing the finches and woodpeckers darting to and from that ornate object through someone else’s eyes, having just finished Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude,” a long story drawn from her childhood in New Zealand. At Labyrinth Books later the same day I bought The Garden Party and Other Stories (Ecco 2016) where Colm Tóibín’s preface, with its reference to Mansfield’s “eye as a writer,” underscores what happened at the window.
In a letter from May 1921, a year and a half before she died of TB and related illnesses, Mansfield observes that the writers “we read as we read Shakespeare are part of our daily lives,” that it doesn’t seem at all strange to be thinking about Othello at breakfast or to be wondering about poetry in the bath: “It’s all part of a whole. Just as that vineyard below me is the vineyard of the song of Solomon — and that beautiful sound as the men hoe between the vines is almost part of my body — goes on in me. I shall never be the same as I was before I heard it, just as I’ll never be the same as I was before I read the death of Cleopatra. One has willingly given oneself to all these things — one is the result of them all.”
I didn’t need the marginal exclamation points in my mother’s copies of Mansfield’s journals and letters to know how passionately she’d have identified with that passage. Besides Ann’s copycat habit of using “shall” in her own letters, and the sense of writerly companionship she found in her New Zealand soulmate, she’d “been there.” Not only did she feel what Mansfield felt when she said the sound of men hoeing in a vineyard was almost part of her body, she’d have expressed it in the same terms and probably taken it to rhapsodic extremes. I knew from experience. I’d grown up in the same house with someone who took Chekhov to bed with her every night, along with her namesake Anna Karenina, and the expurgated American paperback edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And if she wasn’t reading, she was typing madly away in her tiny study next to my father’s much larger one, inspired by Mansfield’s example, the journal her bedside bible.
“A Dangerous Woman”
The Poetry Trail off Rosedale Road might have been made to order from Mansfield’s idea about writers being part of our daily lives. She’d have revelled in a landscape where the words of poets are posted along the path amid butterflies, bluejays, storybook sycamores, and fields of goldenrod, downy puffs of milkweed, the sensory wonder of it all softly rustling and breathing in the breeze-blown haze of autumn. I can think of no other writer except perhaps her sometime friend D.H. Lawrence who could come near capturing the beauty of the Poetry Trail on an ideal October day. While Lawrence would be more likely to take instant, active possession of the scene, Mansfield’s patient craftsmanship gives you the impression that you’re seeing the natural world as it is, your senses sharpened and focused, not least your susceptibility to color, movement, and sound.
As Tóibín’s preface to The Garden Party suggests, “Nothing escapes her.” Yet this is the same person described on the back of the book as “a dangerous woman” (T.S. Eliot), “the brassy little shopgirl of literature who made herself into a great writer” (Frank O’Connor) and who produced the only writing Virginia Woolf had “ever been jealous of.”
One of the most frequently quoted remarks about Mansfield is Woolf’s admission of jealousy. After searching online for the source of that apparent compliment, I found it in Panthea Reid’s biography. Making note of the week-long gap in Woolf’s journal following Mansfield’s death on January 9, 1923, Reid quotes the passage in full:
“One feels — what? A shock of relief? — a rival the less! Then confusion at feeling so little — then gradually, blankness & disappointment; then a depression which I could not rouse myself from all that day. When I began to write, it seemed to me there was no point in writing. Katherine won’t read it. Katherine’s my rival no longer…. And I was jealous of her writing — the only writing I have ever been jealous of. This made it harder to write to her & I saw in it, perhaps from jealousy, all the qualities I disliked in her.”
The stress on jealousy suggests that the passing of a rival whom Woolf admired, disliked, and envied may have helped clear the way, in effect, for her to write the novels that would make her famous, Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). According to Reid, even as Woolf claimed that Mansfield was “an unpleasant but forcible and utterly unscrupulous character,” she “felt guilty about such remarks,” confessing in another letter that “one of the concealed worms of my life has been a sister’s jealousy — of a sister I mean, and to feed this I have invented such a myth about her that I scarcely know one from tother.”
Further evidence of Woolf’s conflicted feelings is that she chose Mansfield’s “Prelude” to be among the first books published at the Hogarth Press, something that, as Reid notes, “threatened to rekindle their rivalry by making Virginia the handmaiden to Katherine’s art.” Still conflicted, speaking as if there were a sort of extrasensory current running between herself and Mansfield, Virginia regretted her pleasure in hearing Katherine “underrated,” because “a woman caring as I care for writing is rare enough I suppose to give the queerest sense of echo coming back to me from her mind the second after I’ve spoken.”
A Birthday Walk
Writing in her journal on October 16, 1921, Mansfield reports finishing “The Garden Party” on her birthday, October 14. On the same day 98 years later, as my wife and I are walking beside Lake Carnegie, I keep thinking of the story whose first sentence is all around us: “And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a — ,” not a garden party, not us, we’re having a beautifully imperfect walk in the woods by the lake, with a doe grazing on the path and a great blue heron perched like a statue of itself on the shore. How typical of the vagaries of the reading life that I’ve always passed over Mansfield’s most famous story due to the dull, unpromising title. Now I’m doing my best not to bore my wife by going on about how great it is.
Reading the world through Mansfield’s eyes, I can’t help relating the story’s dynamic to what’s going on in refugee camps, at the southern border, in the abandonment of the Kurds by their American protectors on the offhand command of a rich autocrat who refuses to see past his own shadow to “the Other.” Laura Sheridan, the main character in “The Garden Party,” is all too aware of the painful contrast between her comfortable, complacent family’s preparations for a magnificent event in the house on the hill and the poor family in mourning for the young man in the shabby cottages below who had the misfortune to die in an accident on the same morning. Laura’s family has invited a band to play and because she thinks music would be offensive within earshot of a widow and her five children, Laura wants the party postponed, only to be chastised by an imperious mother who refers to the cottages below as “those poky little holes” and the people who live there as “creatures.”
In the passage I was seeing the news of the day through, the little cottages are “the greatest possible eyesore” and have “no right to be in that neighbourhood at all.” The “little mean dwellings” are “painted a chocolate brown,” with nothing in “the garden patches but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans.” The “very smoke coming out of their chimneys” is “poverty-stricken.” When Laura and her siblings were little, “they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But once she’s “grown up,” Laura and her brother Laurie sometimes walk through, coming out “with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.”
Sent down to the cottages by her self-importantly sympathetic mother with a basket of leftovers from the party, Laura feels uncomfortable in her elegant lace party frock and her big hat with its velvet streamer. Although she plans to drop off the basket and escape, she has the instincts of a writer (“One must go everywhere, see everything”) and allows herself to be shown the body. Instead of seeing something sordid, she sees “a young man given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane.”
“All is well,” the message Laura reads into “that sleeping face,” is echoed by the last three words of Mansfield’s journal. As the story ends, however, Laura stammers, “‘Isn’t life — isn’t life — ’ But what life was she couldn’t explain.”
It makes crazy sense in this all-is-not-well world that Tuesday’s New York Times should employ one of its most literary headlines (“Syrian Forces Rush Into the U.S. Void”) on the same front page with a characteristically brooding photograph of the eminent humanist Harold Bloom (1930-2019), “Champion of the West in Literature’s Pantheon.”
In Bloom’s The Invention of the Human, he says Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us,” his “art so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us.”