Academic journal article Antipodes

Victims and Victimizers in the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys

Academic journal article Antipodes

Victims and Victimizers in the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys

Article excerpt

VIRGINIA WOOLF AND KATHERINE MANSFIELD WERE FRIENDS AND LITERARY RIVALS whose common artistic concerns have been the subject of more than one book-length study (Sellei; Smith). Although Jean Rhys's biography parallels Mansfield's far more closely than Woolf s does, their works have only occasionally been compared (see Wolfe; Howells; Mellown). Yet a comparison of Mansfield's and Rhys's shared experiences, and of how those experiences affected their fiction, reveals a hitherto unexamined aspect of their artistic development: how their representations of victimizers and victims reflect an ongoing struggle to reconcile an intense and personal sense of grievance with basic imperatives of modernist aesthetics. Their parallel struggles illuminate one of the cross pressures that plagued women writers of the modernist period.

James McFarlane suggests that modernist writers aim to create "a kind of meta-language in which things kept apart by conventional language are brought together within a new universe of discourse which allows workaday contraries to have at one and the same time a separate and a shared identity" (89). In treating issues of cruelty and exploitation, then, the modernist writer should ideally demonstrate that, despite their apparent opposition, an underlying sameness unites victim and victimizer. A writer who sides passionately with victims of injustice risks lapsing into the mode of Victorian moralizing that modernists sought to escape.

It is not therefore surprising that many modernist writers present themselves as detached, impartial observers of a volatile world. As Malcolm Bradbury puts it, the modernist writer "becomes a member of a wandering, culturally inquisitive group," and even when dealing with his own homeland "perceives from the distance of an expatriate perspective of aesthetic internationalism" (101). In attempting to achieve such a stance, modernist writers prefer implicit suggestion to explicit assertion. Their fictions are often structured around patterns of imagery and significant juxtapositions. According to Mansfield, the modernist writer doesn't tell her readers anything "bang out" (Letters 393).

Critics argue that Mansfield's and Rhys's work does indeed illustrate these aspects of the modernist aesthetic. "Mansfield's method," notes Clare Hanson, "was always one of extreme indirection and obliquity" (301). Carine Mardorossian suggests that "form and imaginative intervention were foremost on [Rhys's] mind, so much so that even her autobiography Smile, Please exemplifies the kind of highly structured and modernist piece of writing we associate with fiction" (134). Yet an examination of the ways in which Mansfield and Rhys represent victimization in their fiction suggests that neither found it easy to unite victim and victimizer conceptually or to describe them with suitably modernist detachment or indirection. The reasons for this are to be found in the authors' remarkably similar experiences of rejection, marginalization, discrimination, and suffering, which placed their passionate resentment at odds with the aesthetic they espoused. In Mansfield's case, passion won out; in Rhys's case, modernist aesthetics ultimately gained the victory.

Let us consider the biographies of the two writers. They were born only two years apart: Mansfield in 1888 in New Zealand and Rhys in 1890 in Dominica. Both were sent to school in England and had disastrous early experiences of sexuality. Mansfield embarked at nineteen on a love affair with a young friend and soon found herself pregnant. Sent to Germany to have the baby in secret, she suffered a miscarriage. Taking a second lover, she contracted gonorrhea, which became a chronic, crippling illness. It lowered her resistance, and this led to tuberculosis, which killed her at thirty-four. Mansfield wrote dozens of stories about illness and death. Rhys at eighteen was seduced by a wealthy man whose kept mistress she became. When he broke off the relationship, her pregnancy was ended by "what was then called an illegal operation" (Smile 118). …

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