The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield

By Jan Pilditch | Go to book overview

Introduction

In July 1908, Katherine Mansfield left New Zealand for the second time. She was nineteen-years-old and, convinced that she could make her way in the world as a writer, she exchanged the security and comfort of her Wellington middle class home and family for the difficult, some might say treacherous, society of London. The act presaged a restlessness that persisted throughout her life. Her pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage during her first months of freedom, her two marriages, her ambiguous sexuality, and her endless movement characterised a life spent garnering experience. Her most significant friend, Ida Baker, known as LM, remained with her throughout her life, but there was a wide and changeable circle of acquaintance which included most of the major literary figures of the day. She, and her second husband John Middleton Murry, the writer, editor, and critic, numbered among their friends T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, and Lady Ottoline Morrell, to name but a few. It was one of the most innovative and exciting intellectual and literary circles of the day, but there was also loneliness and the death of her only brother in 1915, when she was already suffering from tubercolosis, and possibly gonorrhea, and her final years which were spent searching Europe for relief. Mansfield died in January 1923, at the Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, Fontainebleau-Avon.

Mansfield had begun to publish professionally before leaving Wellington. At first the substance and treatment of her early work was questioned by the Australian editor of the Melbourne based Native Companion, Brady, to whom she sent it, because he thought it too sophisticated to be the writing of a girl of eighteen. He wondered whether Frank Morton, a more established New Zealand writer, was 'putting one over'. Later, he was to note, he regarded Katherine Mansfield as the literary find of his distinguished editorial career. In London the critics, with reservations, were no less interested. In The New Age ( Dec. 21, 1911), an anonymous review of her first collection of short stories, possibly written by Beatrice Hastings, describes the qualities of some of her stories as those "definitely belonging to the make-up of one of the most promising of young writers". (p.188) In the years following this review Mansfield published poems, critical pieces, and Prelude in 1918. Three further volumes of short stories followed, Je ne parle par francais was published in 1920, as was Bliss and Other Stories, the latter was also published in America by Knopf in January 1921. Malcolm Cowley thought it one of those books which it is very hard to forget, despite having reservations about the subject matter. Mansfield, he observed in the Dial ( Sept. 1921), had "got hold of a new and necessary form"

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