The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield

By Jan Pilditch | Go to book overview

II
Towards Assessment

Edward Wagenknecht, "Katherine Mansfield"

I

She came and went, Katherine Mansfield, across the horizon of our contemporary letters; before we had quite accustomed ourselves to the thought that she belonged to us, she was gone. There was ever something a little uncanny about her, for all her thrilling human warmth. Where did she get her wisdom--this girl--her almost Shakespearean subtlety, her terrifying power to read bare the human soul? Certainly not from her contemporaries, in England at any rate. She is not even remotely like any of them, and it was the foremost among them-- Galsworthy, Wells, De La Mare--who hurried to bear wondering testimony to her power.

She died in 1923, in the first flush of her fame. Yet nothing could be more fatuous than to treat Katherine Mansfield, as a type of unfulfilment. It is true, she came to the end of her life feeling that all the stories she had written were vain. "There is not one," she said, "that I dare show to God." In conversation with her friend Mr. A.R. Orage, she explained both her dissatisfaction with her past achievements and her plans for the future. "I've been a selective camera, and . . . my slices of life have been partial, misleading, and a little malicious. Further, they have had no other purpose than to record my attitude which in itself stood in need of change if it was to become active instead of passive." By way of remedy she planned: "To widen first the scope of my camera, and then to employ it for a conscious purpose--that of representing life . . . as it appears to another and different attitude, a creative attitude."

For the purpose of this paper I confess myself unable fully to accept this judgment of Katherine Mansfield's upon herself. What those different stories would have been like we cannot tell nor to what new heights they might have carried her, any more than we can tell what Keats might have done had he gone on into his fifties instead of being carried off as he was at twenty-six. But what Keatsdid do is beyond disputing, and it is on this basis that he lives in literature. So Katherine Mansfield, judged only by the books she left us, remains a great artist, one of the finest stylists in the long record of English prose. To many of us

-19-

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