Book Review: Katherine Mansfield The Story-Teller

By C.K. Stead

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Katherine Mansfield The Story-Teller by Kathleen Jones
Penguin/Viking, $65

Kathleen Jones presents Mansfiend's life, with its wide swings between hope and despair, principally in her own words. Photo / Supplied
Kathleen Jones presents Mansfiend's life, with its wide swings between hope and despair, principally in her own words. Photo / Supplied

This is the first full biography written since the publication of the two-volume edition of Mansfield's Notebooks (2002), transcribed by Margaret Scott, and the final (fifth) volume in 2008 of her Collected Letters, edited by Scott and Vincent O'Sullivan.

It also draws on all the previous scholarly work, including especially biographers Anthony Alpers and Claire Tomalin, and further back the work of Ruth Mantz, Mansfield's friend Ida Baker, and her husband and first editor, John Middleton Murry. A huge amount of the work had been done, but much of it was scattered. What was needed was diligence in pulling it all together, and Kathleen Jones has been diligent.

She has a problem, however. Like every Mansfield scholar, she faces the question of what to do about Murry, and Murry's subsequent families who lived, in one way or another, in Mansfield's shadow and with her ghost. Four of these (Murry himself, his son Colin and daughter Katherine to his second wife, and his fourth wife Mary) all wrote personal memoirs.

Colin and Katherine suffered life-long consequences of being, so to speak, inheritors of the Mansfield legend, or the Mansfield curse. So, no doubt, did the two children of Murry's third marriage; but one of these died young and the other has remained silent. Murry's second marriage, to Violet le Maistre, who modelled herself on Mansfield, wrote similar short stories and died young of tuberculosis, is like a bad dream. His third marriage, to an extremely jealous, angry and violent woman, Betty Cockbayne, was a nightmare. After all of that the fourth marriage had to be idyllic, if only because it was peaceful; and that - idyllic - is how he and Mary both represented it.

This, then, is the scope of the present book's material - not only the 34 years from Mansfield's birth until her death in 1923, but (with strange mathematical symmetry) a further 34 until Murry's death in 1957. It is, therefore, quite wrongly named. Insofar as its subject is Mansfield, it is about her not only as "story-teller" but as ghost. It is about a figure who meant no harm to those who came after, but who was sufficiently a force to be an occasional blessing and a frequent curse in their lives.

Murry she made prosperous but left him obsessed. She also made him publicly conspicuous. Without her in his life it's likely he would have been quickly forgotten, and the records he kept of his own life forgotten too. As the beneficiary and promoter of her literary remains, however, he has been exposed in all his ghastly well-meaning duplicity, weakness, woolly idealism and self-deception.

How to organise all this material in one book? If it had been arranged chronologically a good third of the book would have happened after Mansfield's death and the post-mortem tail might have seemed to be the life of the dog. The tail at the very least would have had the long last word. The method Jones uses to avoid this is odd, and not, I think, completely successful. The Mansfield story, the one which many of us, to some greater or lesser degree, know, is told in the present tense, while the Murry (and Murry family) story is told as a series of past-tense interludes in the gaps between sections of the main story.

I suppose the intention of the present tense narrative is to represent it as somehow the foreground, the principal story, more vivid and immediate than the Murry story, which is background.

At times the continuous present tense creates verbal difficulties, even for an experienced writer such as Jones undoubtedly is; and the chronological leaps produce strange unintended effects - so that, for example, Murry's death in 1957 comes before the account of Mansfield's final moments in 1923.

There are details which scholars will quarrel over. Jones decides that the diagnosis of gonorrhoea, which Tomalin made so much of, is wrong and that the symptoms which were taken to indicate it can all be explained by TB. Her dating of one or two items is contentious. She follows fashion in making too much of Mansfield's teenage devotion to Wilde with its consequent girl-crush raptures in her notebooks. But the Mansfield story is all there, and for the most part it is well-told, vivid in representing her life, with its wide swings between hope and despair, principally in her own words.

Giving Murry such a large part in the story, however, has the effect of making it all seem grimier than it need have been. As I read the book I felt that Mansfield's heroism and literary brilliance were being needlessly tarnished by association.

C.K. Stead is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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