Journal of Katherine Mansfield
Katherine Mansfield (Katherine Middleton Murry, née Kathleen Beauchamp) was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on October 14, 1888. She was the third daughter of a family of five. The Beauchamps had been in Australia and New Zealand for three generations. The greater part of her early childhood was spent in a small township called Karori, a few miles from Wellington, where the village school was the only school, and where she shared what education there was with the milk boy and the washerwoman's daughters (see “The Doll's House”). She has left it on record that she had her first story accepted at the age of nine—I remember her saying that it appeared in a magazine called The Lone Hand—and that, at the same age, she gained the first prize for English composition at the village school, the subject being “A Sea Voyage”.
At the age of thirteen she was sent to be educated in England, at Queen's College, Harley Street, where she remained till eighteen. There she edited the college magazine. Like other young people of her generation, she found the beginning of intellectual freedom through an admiration of Oscar Wilde and the English “decadents”, but, at this time, her main interests shifted over from literature to music. She became a devotee of the violoncello, and a fine executant.
She returned to New Zealand much against her will, and spent the next two years of her life in fairly constant rebellion against what she then page viii considered the narrowness and provincialism of a remote colonial city. Inevitably, London appeared to her as the living centre of all artistic and intellectual life. A family of musicians in Wellington, whom she know intimately, and who had been a kind of oasis for her in what seemed to her an intellectual desert, left New Zealand for London. At their departure she was in despair. She went on a rough camping expedition through the New Zealand bush. On her return she persuaded her parents to allow her to return to London on a small allowance.
Shortly afterwards, she finally abandoned music for literature. She submitted manuscripts to editors in vain, and, in her effort to make ends meet, she had varied and exacting experiences in minor parts in travelling opera companies and the like, until the quality of her writing was recognised by the editor of The New Age. From 1909 to 1911 she was a fairly constant contributor to that paper. A series of stories she wrote for The New Age, based upon her experiences while convalescent in Germany after an illness, was collected and published in 1911, under the title In a German Pension. This book was immediately recognised. It passed quickly into three editions, when its sale was disastrously interrupted by the sudden bankruptcy of her publisher. For In a German Pension she received £15 in advance of royalties, of which, of course, there were none.
In December 1911 I met her at the house of the late W. L. George, the novelist. I was, at that time, an Oxford undergraduate, editing together with Michael Sadleir a youthful page ix literary magazine called Rhythm. Katherine Mansfield began to write stories regularly for this. Her first story, “The Woman at the Store”, caused a minor sensation. Rhythm, which became for its last three numbers The Blue Review, lasted for about a year longer, during most of which Katherine Mansfield and I edited it together. Most of the stories she contributed to it, sometimes two a month, have been republished in Something Childish, and other Stories.
When The Blue Review died, in July 1913, Katherine Mansfield had no place to write in. The beautiful story, Something Childish but very Natural, which she wrote in Paris in December 1913, was refused by every editor to whom she submitted it. No home could be found for any one of her stories till the winter of 1915, when she and D. H. Lawrence and I produced three numbers of a little magazine called The Signature, written wholly by ourselves. The Signature died within two months, and again Katherine Mansfield had nowhere to write, until I became editor of The Athenæum in 1919. In the four years between 1915 and 1919, three stories of hers were published by English periodicals, all in 1918. “Bliss” in The English Review, and “Pictures” and “The Man Without a Temperament” in Art and Letters. In 1917, however, Prelude had been published as a little blue-paper book by the Hogarth Press, and in 1918 Je ne parle pas français was printed for private circulation by my brother and myself.
Prelude marks the beginning of the final phase in Katherine Mansfield's development. The war had come as a profound spiritual shock to her, as it did page x to many less gifted writers of her generation. For a long period the chaos into which her thoughts and ideals and purposes had been flung remained unresolved. Then slowly her mind began to turn back towards her early childhood as a life which had existed apart from, and uncontaminated by, the mechanical civilisation which had produced the war. The crucial moment was when, in 1915, her dearly loved younger brother arrived in England to serve as an officer. Her meeting with him formed, as it were, a point round which her changed attitude could crystallise. They talked over their early childhood for hours on end, and Katherine Mansfield resolved to dedicate herself to recreating life as she had lived and felt it in New Zealand. Her brother's death a month later confirmed her in her purpose, and shortly afterwards she left England for Bandol in the south of France, and began to work on a long story of her childhood days called The Aloe, which was published in a different and shortened form as Prelude.
On its appearance as a blue-paper volume Prelude was completely ignored. Most of the newspapers to which it was sent did not review it at all. The two which did saw nothing particular in it. But Katherine Mansfield had her moment of triumph when she heard that the local printer who set up the book had exclaimed on reading the MS., “My! but these kids are real!” It was characteristic of her that she preferred the praise of simple, “unliterary” people to that of the cultured and the critics; and this characteristic became still more marked later on, when, after the publication of Bliss, she began to page xi receive many letters from simple people who loved her work, and, above all, the child Kezia who appeared in it. She felt she had a responsibility to these people. To them she must tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. This preoccupation with truth, in what she told and in herself to be worthy to tell it, became the devouring passion of her last years. She turned away from modern literature: so little of contemporary work seemed to her to be “true.” “The writers are not humble,” she used to say; they were not serving the great purpose which literature exists to serve.
In the meantime Prelude was hardly more than a succès d'estime, if indeed it was that. Not until it appeared as the first story in Bliss was its unique and exquisitely original quality truly appreciated.
But in December 1917, just after she had finished revising the MS. of Prelude for the printer, Katherine Mansfield had a serious attack of pleurisy. The gloom and depression and sunlessness of a London now completely under the shadow of the war had a profound effect on one whose childhood had been spent in a gentler air. She pined for the sun; she was confident that she had only to revisit her beloved Bandol in the south of France to be well again. Accordingly she left England at the beginning of January 1918. But travelling conditions in France in the last year of the war were such that the hardships she suffered on the journey (which she had to undertake alone) made her illness worse, and to her dismay, Bandol itself was utterly changed; it also had been wasted by the war. No sooner had she page xii reached the place, ill and alone, than she passionately desired to return to England. Tragic ill-fortune dogged her efforts to return. The authorities delayed for weeks before granting their permission; and on the very day she arrived in Paris, weak and by this time very seriously ill, the long-range bombardment of Paris began, and all civilian traffic between England and France was suspended. The hardships of her journey in France turned her pleurisy into consumption.
She went to Looe in Cornwall for the summer of 1918, and returned to a new house in Hampstead for the winter. In the spring of 1919 I became editor of The Athenæum, and she began to write weekly criticisms of novels under the initials K.M., which then began to be famous, and a little later began to write a story each month for the paper. Then, for the first time, the publishers began to ask her to collect her stories, and at the beginning of 1920 Bliss, for which she received £40 in advance, appeared.
Before it appeared, she had been driven from England once more by her illness. She spent the winter of 1919–1920 in Ospedaletti and Mentone, where she learned of the success of her book. She returned to Hampstead for the summer, and in September left once more for Mentone. From Mentone she went, in May 1921, to Montana in Switzerland.
In the autumn of 1921 she completed The Garden Party, and Other Stories, which was published in the spring of 1922, while she was in Paris, whither she had gone for a special treatment in February. The appearance of The Garden page xiii Party finally established her as the most remarkable short-story writer of her generation in England.
But now in 1922 writing had become for her an almost impossible struggle, not only against disease, but against an inward conviction that some work of inward purification had to be accomplished before she could go forward, before she would be worthy to express the complete truth which in her imagination she apprehended. The Canary, the last complete story she wrote, was completed in July 1922. In the October following she deliberately abandoned writing for the time and went into retirement at Fontainebleau, where she died suddenly and unexpectedly on the night of January 9, 1923.
It is difficult for me to attempt a critical valuation of Katherine Mansfield's work. For years I was involved in it. I believed in it, published it, and for one brief moment even printed it with my own hands. And now, and always, it is and will be impossible for me to be wholly detached from it. I can only say that her work seems to me to be of a finer and purer kind than that of her contemporaries. It is more spontaneous, more vivid, more delicate and more beautiful. Katherine Mansfield responded more completely to life than any writer I have known, and the effect of that more complete response is in her work.
Her affinities are rather with the English poets than the English prose-writers. There is no English prose-writer to whom she can be related.1 page xiv The revolution which she made in the art of short story in England was altogether personal. Many writers have attempted to carry on her work; not one has come within a measurable distance of success. Her secret died with her. And of the many critics who have tried to define the quality in her work which makes it so inimitable, every one has been compelled to give up the attempt in despair. It is noticeable, however, that the most whole-hearted admiration her work has received comes pre-eminently from the most distinguished short-story writers we have in England—H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Walter de la Mare, H. M. Tomlinson, Stacy Aumonier, Barry Pain, Ethel Colburn Mayne. These practitioners of the art, with one voice, salute her as hors concours, though they find it as difficult as any critic to say wherein her superiority consists. And perhaps a more remarkable fact is that her stories have met with an unusual popular success. For all her art, perhaps more truly because her art was of a peculiarly instinctive kind, Katherine Mansfield's stories are read and loved by innumerable simple people, who find in her characters a living reality which is rare in the literature they read. And it may be that the simplest criticism of her work is page xv the truest; and that the most adequate judgment upon her writing is that of the printer whom I have quoted: “But these kids are real!”
It is, however, impossible for one who knew her intimately, who (in a sense) worked with her during the greater part of her career as a writer, who copied and punctuated and criticised her stories as they were written, to be silent on one element in her nature which, it seems to me, was essential to a peculiar quality of her work. This peculiar quality of her work I can only describe as a kind of purity. It is as though the glass through which she looked upon life were crystal-clear. And this quality of her work corresponds to a quality in her life. Katherine Mansfield was natural and spontaneous as was no other human being I have ever met. She seemed to adjust herself to life as a flower adjusts itself to the earth and to the sun. She suffered greatly, she delighted greatly: but her suffering and her delight were never partial, they filled the whole of her. She was utterly generous, utterly courageous; when she gave herself, to life, to love, to some spirit of truth which she served, she gave royally. She loved life—with all its beauty and its pain; she accepted life completely, and she had the right to accept it, for she had endured in herself all the suffering which life can lavish upon a single soul.
The brief biographical sketch printed above was written for the information of the many people who have asked me for particulars of Katherine Mansfield's life. It is printed here to serve as a page break background to the Journal and the two volumes of letters now in preparation. As for the Journal itself, a few words of introduction are necessary.
At various times in her life Katherine Mansfield entertained the plan of writing for publication “a kind of minute note-book” (see the entry of January 22, 1916). Three separate attempts to carry the plan into execution can be traced in her manuscripts, and once she got so far as to tell me to arrange with a publisher for its publication. The notes for this “note-book” would have been rewritten from entries in her Journal. In a few cases, as in May 1919, the original Journal entry and the note exist side by side.
The remaining material of which the Journal is composed is of various kinds—brief (and sometimes difficult) notes for stories, fragments of diaries, unposted letters, comments and confessions scattered through her manuscripts. To these I have added a minimum of necessary words of explanation.
Save for a single entry the Journal begins in 1914. The “huge complaining diaries” of which Katherine Mansfield speaks (February 16, 1916) were all destroyed. She was ruthless with her own past, and I have little doubt that what has survived is almost wholly that which, for one reason or another, she wished to survive.
John Middleton Murry.
1 There is a certain resemblance between Katherine Mansfield's stories and those of Anton Tchehov. But this resemblance is often exaggerated by critics, who seem to believe that Katherine Mansfield learned her art from Tchehov. That is a singularly superficial view of the relation, which was one of kindred temperaments. In fact, Katherine Mansfield's technique is very different from Tchehov's. She admired and understood Tchehov's work as few English writers have done; she had (as her Journal shows) a deep personal affection for the man, whom, of course, she never knew. But her method was wholly her own and her development would have been precisely the same had Tchehov never existed.