BOOKS OCTOBER 2, 2012
John Middleton Murry, in his preface to this collection of Mansfield miscellanea, promises a further substantial publication of unpublished letters, this year or next. The present volume—unfinished sketches, notes for stories, quotations from books read and fragments of direct personal analysis—adds little to the Mansfield canon. It stands, it is true, as another “book,” and we know that it was Katherine Mansfield's great wish to leave work of some bulk and substance. The new letters, on the other hand, will reinforce the major side of her writing. Because the two volumes of “Letters” and the “Journal” stand as firm wholes, it is now not a service to emphasize the unfinished side of her talent and personality.
For the great difference between Mansfield and the Chekhov she admired and in some ways resembled was that Chekhov had more time to develop; and he was forced, moreover, by the fact of his profession of doctor, to deal in the ordinary way with his surroundings. Mansfield, on the other hand, had only the world of childhood to back her up. Whatever rough sorts of reality she had known she repressed; or inducted, in her inimitable way, into her own regions. The everyday side of life to her was “too crude, too ugly.” It was not only childishness, but the neurotic's love of childishness which gave poignance to many of her effects. “She had the privilege,” wrote her French translator, “of living in a fairyland, in the midst of a strange little phantasmagoria of which she was at once the creator and the dupe; in a little universe of her own where familiar objects . . . took on unexpected roles.” And Francis Carco, in his reverent memoir, speaks of “her natural taste for the poetry of the rain, of the night, of absurd and dangerous lives . . . and false situations. . . . It amused her to frighten herself . . . to have fear and pain at the same time. . . . She was hurt by living in the midst of so much ugliness and corruption. . . . Mysteries of the [pure] heart of a child!”
It was this purity which makes her finest stories what they are. But childhood, prolonged, cannot remain a fairyland. It becomes a hell. This Mansfield came to know, and the greatness of her letters and journal are based on her efforts to escape this prison. It was her tragedy that she saw into her situation when it was too late to do anything about it which took time. The Gurdjieff offer to waken her “will” seemed to her the quick way out, and she chose it, without hesitation. She knew exactly what she wanted to find on the other side (see the entry in the “Journal” of October 10, 1922). Isolated passages in the present book testify to this perception and it is a pity that, broken away from a context, they sound snappish and petty. “Peace of mind? What is peace of mind?” she asked, early. Later she knew what it could be; and a younger generation took from her the phrase “a change of heart” and the sentence: “To be rooted in life, that's what I want.”
As an artist, it is clear that Mansfield was the forerunner, in English prose, of a new kind of sensibility which, up to our day, had only imperfect and broken expression in the prose of all literatures. She was nearer to Lawrence and Joyce in this than she knew or wished to admit (she disliked the cruder esthetic exploration in both Joyce and Lawrence, and thought sensibility artificial in Turgenev). This sensibility comes through, in a distorted form, in Lewis Carroll, and has always informed lyric poetry, folk song, proverbs, romantic comedy and isolated journals and collections of letters. To it nothing is numb; the sharpened heart and senses reflect all. “Ordinary human consciousness,” says Richards in his study of Coleridge, “may not, until recently, have had a form which could thus be represented. On one interpretation of the change, Katherine Mansfield [and others] have improved the descriptive technique of prose, have caught something always present which writers in the past could not (or did not wish to) catch; on another interpretation something new in the modes of perception has come into being for them to describe.”
From this point of view, anything Mansfield left becomes important. From another, it is more the still unpublished letters which will give us a wider knowledge of Mansfield's strength and value as an artist and a human being.