Introduction to In A German Pension
Victoria University February 2004
Katherine Mansfield is arguably New Zealand’s most famous writer. Born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand on 14 October 1888, she lived in England and Europe from 1908 and died of tuberculosis at Avon-Fontainebleau, France, on 9 January 1923. Although she was a prolific critic and letter writer, it was for short fiction that she has earned her reputation as one of the foremost Modernist writers. In a German Pension, her first book of short stories, was published in 1911.
A Background to In a German Pension
Although the broad details of the period when Mansfield wrote the stories of In a German Pension are well established, there are nevertheless some marked discrepancies between her main biographers, Antony Alpers and Jeffrey Meyers, over some aspects. A useful starting point is Mansfield’s arrival in London in 1908 and the resumption of her acquaintance with the Trowell family, whom she had known in Wellington. She had carried on a correspondence with one of their sons, Tom, for several years, but within a short space of time Mansfield had fallen in love with his twin brother, Garnet. He was a violinist in a travelling opera company, and they began an ardent correspondence when he went on tour. Mansfield moved into the Trowell house in November 1908, but she left in January after a row with Garnet’s parents over her relationship with their son. The next month she met George Bowden, a teacher of speech and singing, and they married in a registry office on 2 March 1909. Mansfield had instigated both the relationship and marriage, but she left him on their wedding night. From there she went to live with Garnet while he was on tour; after a month they separated, and Mansfield discovered not long after that she was pregnant.
Meanwhile Mansfield’s mother, Annie Beauchamp, had become concerned enough about her daughter to sail from New Zealand, arriving in London on 27 May. Alpers claims that she did not know of the baby during her visit, but came to end Mansfield’s friendship with Ida Baker, which had horrified her with its suggestion of lesbianism. Beauchamp took Mansfield to the Bavarian spa of Bad Wörishofen because “the most widely recommended cure for girls with Kathleen’s difficult complaint was a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise. She was sent there to be hosed.” (96) Meyers on the other hand describes Beauchamp arriving in London to find Mansfield
destitute and pregnant.(48) He argues that Beauchamp was unable to restore the situation to any appearance of respectability and consequently,
she decided to conceal the scandal by taking her daughter to a convent in Germany and leaving her there.(49) At the spa, Mansfield was initially booked by her mother into the Hotel Kreuzer, but moved in mid-June to the cheaper Villa Pension Müller. It was this that provided the inspiration for many of the stories of In a German Pension. Mansfield miscarried during the summer after sustaining an injury from lifting a heavy trunk. Also while in Bad Worishofen she met Floryan Sobienowski, a Pole who introduced her to the work of various European writers including Stanislaw Wyspianski.
Back in London at the end of 1909, Mansfield made a second attempt of her marriage to Bowden. This was unsuccessful, but while she shared his flat for several weeks she showed him some of her writings from Bavaria. He recommended she show them to A.R. Orage, editor of the weekly review New Age. He was impressed, and published a series of her stories in the magazine as “Pension Sketches” during 1910. Charles Granville, another contributor to New Age, was the driving force behind publishers Stephen Swift & Co. The company was known for its entrepreneurial support of promising new authors, and Mansfield was paid a £15 advance for her ten “Pension Sketches” and two further stories. In a German Pension was published by Stephen Swift just prior to Christmas 1911, and ran to three editions before the bankruptcy of the publishers meant Mansfield ceased to gain any further royalties.
The Stories of In a German Pension
In a German Pension makes an intriguing comparison to Mansfield’s later work. The stories display characteristics of the later, “mature” fiction yet they offer nothing to the reader hoping to find in them the inscription of an emergent New Zealand identity. The characters and contexts of the stories are in fact entirely European, set firmly in the cultural and political environment of pre-World War I Europe. This is most evident in the contrasts between the Germans and the English. The German characters are gross and corporeal, constantly eating, perspiring and discussing their ailments. As “Germans at Meat” demonstrates, this renders them both banal — “This morning I took a half bath. Then this afternoon I must take a knee bath and an arm bath … then I do my exercises for an hour, and my work is over” (13) — and menacing: “He fixed his cold blue eyes upon me with an expression which suggested a thousand premeditated invasions.” (10) By contrast, many of the stories feature a young female English narrator who is reserved and fastidious. She is a sardonic commentator on German foibles and foolishness:
“Oh!” cried Elsa rapturously… “how I know that! You know ever since Fritz and I have been engaged, I share the desire to give to everybody, to share everything!”
“How extremely dangerous,” said I.
(“The Advanced Lady”, 94)
Yet while she shocks her German acquaintances with her disregard for ‘traditional values’, she is nevertheless a vulnerable figure.
This vulnerability also points to another concern of the stories, which is developed further in her later fiction. That is their criticism of gender relations and the ambivalence, contradictions and power imbalances inherent in conforming to social norms. In “Frau Fischer”, the narrator appals Frau Fischer by stating, “But I consider child-bearing the most ignominious of all professions” (31). The Germans are very enthusiastic about families — “Germany … is the home of the Family” (“Germans at Meat”, 11) — yet the stories portray a mixture of attraction and repulsion felt by women towards men. In “At Lehmann’s”, Sabina runs from the embrace of the Young Man when she hears “a frightful, tearing shriek” (60) as Frau Lehmann gives birth; in “The Swing of the Pendulum”, Viola considers prostitution out of economic necessity but narrowly escapes being sexually assaulted: “I won’t kiss you. I won’t. Stop doing that! Ugh! you're like a dog — you ought to find lovers round lamp-posts — you beast — you fiend!” (108) A prototype of her later characters, Stanley and Linda Burnell, is also found in “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding”, where the titular character comes to question the personal cost of her marriage: “Now they had five babies and twice as much money; but—” (39) The final scene, in which the Brechenmachers go to bed, is strongly reminiscent of Stanley’s sexual eagerness and Linda’s corresponding fear: “She lay down on the bed and put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in.” (40)
Two further stories are worthy of particular mention, “The Child-Who-Was-Tired” and “A Birthday”. The former story describes a child’s experience of a brutal domestic environment, and is of interest for its similarities to Chekhov’s story “Spat Kochetsia”, first published in English as “Sleepyhead” in 1903. The influence of Chekhov on Mansfield has long been the subject of critical debate, and the divergent attitudes of Alpers and Meyers to this story are instructive: to the former it
prov[ed] that its author had now made contact with her supposed ‘master,’ [but] at the same time proved her imaginative freedom from his influence(112), while to the latter it is an act of
virtual plagiarism(50). The second story is of interest because of its close similarities to Mansfield’s later fiction set in the New Zealand of her childhood. The central character, Andreas Binzer, is another prototype of Stanley Burnell in his exaggerated self-pity, while his wife Anna resembles Linda in her suffering caused by child-bearing. It is the setting, however, that is most noteworthy for its strong suggestion of colonial Wellington:
A tremendous gust of wind sprang upon the house, seized it, shook it, dropped only to grip the more tightly. The waves swelled up along the breakwater and were whipped with broken foam. Over the white sky flew tattered streamers of grey cloud. (72)
The passage is distinctive, not only for the evocation of setting, but also for the way the wind and house are employed as symbols to evoke character. Binzer’s sexual demands are apparent in the wild, unfettered wind that “sprang … seized … shook … to grip the more tightly” the house, a vulnerable domestic domain that in turn suggests Anna. It is the power of such images and the skill with which they are used that conveys the strongest connection between In a German Pension and Mansfield’s later work.
A useful point of departure for assessing the literary criticism on Mansfield is the entry on her in John Thomson’s “Bibliography” for The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, ed. Terry Sturm. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2 ed., 1998, pp. 737–865.
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
New Zealand Book Council
New Zealand Edge: New Zealand Heroes
LEARN: New Zealand Literature File
The Brain of Katherine Mansfield
Hypertext version of Bill Manhire’s story “The Brain of Katherine Mansfield” (1988) with illustrations by Gregory O’Brien. Hosted by Brown University. Also includes links to other sites concerned with New Zealand literature.
The Katherine Mansfield Paintings
Online images of a series of oil paintings originally commissioned by UK publisher The Folio Society to illustrate a book of short stories by Katherine Mansfield. The paintings are by Susan Wilson, a New Zealand artist based in London. Hosted by New Zealand art gallery, Jonathan Grant Galleries.