Katherine Mansfield’s letters and journals, much like her fiction, read as wonderful, fragmentary little vignettes of life, which find and exult the extraordinary in the everyday. Mansfield is both funny and profound, at times dazzling with her sharp wit as she reviews books and relates (what I suppose could now be called) Bloomsbury gossip, and at other moments, sometimes within the same entry, she is dark and troubled, as she comes to terms with the difficulties of living and dying, struggling with her extrapulmonary tuberculosis, and crippling bouts of self-doubt and depression.
Her portrait of the novelist D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, in a journal entry entitled ‘Remembrances’, is particularly vivid and touching:
‘Always, when I see foxgloves, I think of the Lawrences.
Again I pass in front of their cottage and in the window – between the daffodil curtains with the green spots – there are the great, sumptuous blooms.
“And how beautiful they are against the whitewash!” cry the Lawrences.
As is their custom, when they love anything they make a sort of Festa. With foxgloves everywhere. And then they sit in the middle of them, like blissful prisoners, dining in an encampment of Indian Braves’.
Their mutual love of nature is something that seems to connect Mansfield with Lawrence, in both their friendship and writing. In her journal she writes that his presence makes her feel ‘green’, and proclaims that she is ‘more like L[awrence] than anybody […] unthinkably alike, in fact.’ Mansfield also remarks in a letter to the painter Dorothy Brett:
‘I Loved him. He was just his old merry, rich self, laughing, describing things, giving you pictures, full of enthusiasm and joy in a future where we all become ‘Vagabonds’ – we simply did not talk about people. We kept to things like nuts and cowslips and fires in the woods and his black self was not. Oh there is something so loveable about him and his eagerness for life – that is what one loves so.’
This ‘black self’ of Lawrence’s, is the stubborn, hostile, violent side of his character. Mansfield notes that, whilst she and her husband J. M. Murry were staying with him and Frieda in Cornwall, he had ‘gone a little out of his mind […] if he is contradicted about anything’ or if anyone says ‘anything which isn’t quite “safe”’, he flies off in one of these rages, and ‘whatever your disagreement is about he says it is because you have gone wrong in your sex and belong to an obscene spirit’. Being with Lawrence in these moods, Mansfield writes, was ‘like sitting on a railway station with Lawrence’s temper like a big black engine puffing and snorting’. However, Mansfield blames these rages, which often turned violent, largely on the antagonistic presence of Frieda (who she found trying at best). She recounts an instance in which, sparked by a disagreement over Shelley’s ‘Ode to a Skylark’, Lawrence ‘beat her – he beat her to death – her head and face and breast and pulled out her hair’. ‘I don’t know which disgusts me worse’, she writes, ‘when they are very loving and playing with each other or when they are roaring at each other and he is pulling out Frieda’s hair’.
This ‘black self’ which Mansfield links with imagery of industry, of coal and smoke, is something that often crops up in Lawrence’s fiction; Mansfield herself reads a play of his and finds it ‘black with miners’. But the ‘eagerness for life’ and his ‘joy in a future’ in which we all become ‘Vagabonds’ that Mansfield enjoys and so aptly describes, is also apparent in his writing. Particularly in Women in Love, a novel inspired by the events of this summer in Cornwall, and in which Mansfield is taken as inspiration for the icy, self-destructive character of Gudrun.
Lawrence’s influence seems to spill over into other letters and journal entries of the same period. Three days after Armistice Day, she wrote in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrel on the 13th of November 1918:
‘I opened the window and it really did seem – just in those first few moments that a wonderful change happened – not in human creatures hearts – no – but in the air, there seemed just for a breath of time – a silence, like the silence that comes after the last drop of rain has fallen – you know?
It was so wonderful – and I saw that in our garden a lilac bush had believed the South wind and was covered in buds –‘
But this optimism doesn’t extend to humanity. Mansfield, noting the ‘drunks passing the house on Monday night, singing the good old pre-war drunken rubbish’ made her feel ‘cold with horror’, fearing a continuation of the attitudes of which the First World War was a result, rather than a new beginning. She wishes that nations and individuals would ‘fly at each other, kiss and cry and share everything.’ She wonders why ‘people hide and withdraw and suspect’, feeling, like Lawrence (in a sentence which could almost be from Women in Love), that it is because of a ‘lack of heart: a sort of blight on them which will not let them ever to come to full flower.’
The letters also capture well her relationship with Virginia Woolf, close friend and chief literary rival, whose short story, Night and Day, Mansfield reviewed for her husband’s literary magazine Athenaeum in November 1919. In a letter to Murry, she admits that she ‘didn’t like it […] My private opinion is that it is a lie on the soul. The war never has been: that is what the message is’. As artists, she declares, ‘we are traitors if we feel otherwise: we have to take into account and find new expressions, new moulds for thoughts and feelings’, something which she believes Woolf has failed to do: a cardinal sin for the modernist writer.
Taking this as an opportunity to distance herself from the Bloomsbury group, Mansfield confesses she inwardly ‘despises’ them as a ‘set of cowards’, finding their ‘intellectual snobbery’, which Woolf’s Night and Day ‘reeks’ of, ‘long and tâhsõme’. She berates Woolf for being old fashioned and out of touch, comparing Night and Day to Jane Austen, and stipulates that ‘What has been stands, but Jane Austen could not write Northanger Abbey now – or if she did, I’d have none of her.’
This review did not go unnoticed by Woolf. As she wrote in her diaries:
‘Katherine Mansfield wrote a review which irritated me – I thought I saw spite in it. A decorous elderly dullard she describes me; Jane Austen up to date. Leonard [Woolf’s husband] supposes that she let her wish for my failure have its way with her pen. But what I perceive in all this is that praise hardly warms; blame stings far more keenly; and both are somehow at arms length.’
Mansfield however, almost immediately regretted what she had written, noting that ‘my review of Virginia haunts me’, feeling she may have ‘missed it’, and calling herself a ‘cursed little creature’. Between October 1919 and January 1920 Mansfield was holed up in a villa near the French-Italian border, suffering badly from her illness. She became lonely and frustrated, her moods tempestuous, and so these harsh reviews, written during this period, may be in part attributed to her illness. Mansfield wrote later to Murry that ‘it is my illness which has made me so bad-tempered at times. Alas! one can’t fight without getting battle stained, and alas! there have been so many occasions when I’ve never had time to wash away the stains or renew myself […] You must forget these melancholy things, my own precious darling.’
It is clear in the Letters and Journals, that life was a constant fight for Mansfield:
‘In the middle of the night I decided I couldn’t stand – not another day – not another hour – but I have decided that so often – In France and in Looe, and have stood it. “So that proves,” as they would say, “it was a false alarm”. It doesn’t. Each time I have decided that, I’ve died again. Talk about a pussy’s nine lives: I must have 900. […] I walk up and down, look at the bed, look at the writing table, look in the glass and am frightened of that girl with burning eyes, think “Will my candle last until it’s light?”’ Though at this stage, recovered from a bout of physical illness, Mansfield is still anxious, and clearly terrified by the ‘idea that one must die, and may be going to die…’ adding that ‘I really have suffered such AGONIES from loneliness and illness combined that I’ll never be quite whole again …’
The struggle to live and the struggle to write, often seem entwined for Mansfield – the creative process both immensely difficult, and her only source of pleasure:
‘I pose myself, yet once more my eternal question. What is it that makes the moment of delivery so difficult for me? If I were to sit down – now – and just write out, plain, some of the stories – all written, all ready, in my mind ‘twould take me days. There are so many of them. I sit and think them out, and if I overcome my lassitude and do take the pen they ought (they are so word perfect) to write themselves […] And don’t I want to write them? Lord! Lord! It’s my only desire – my one happy issue. And only yesterday I was thinking – even in my present state of health is a great gain. It makes things so rich, so important, so longed for … changes one’s focus.’
However, in January 1923 Mansfield finally lost the battle with her illness, dying aged 34. Her life and career, short as they were, left behind a wealth of literature to influence countless generations after her, and if anything, her story serves as a reminder to those who falter and doubt, of the preciousness of time, and of their potential to make a lasting impression.
Woolf gives a heartfelt eulogy, in a diary entry just after her death:
‘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 more […] Did she care for me? Sometimes she would say so – would kiss me – would look at me as if (is this sentiment?) her eyes would like always to be faithful. She would promise never to forget. That was what she said at the end of our last talk […] I was jealous of her writing – the only writing I have ever been jealous of […] Probably we had something in common which I shall never find in anyone else’.
Jack Thurland, 2nd Year English Literature.
Katherine Mansfield, The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield: A Selection, ed., C. K. Stead, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977).
Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: Selected Diaries, ed., Anne Olivier Bell, (London: Random House, 2008).