The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield

By Jan Pilditch | Go to book overview
1
Virginia Woolf, The Waves ( 1931).
2
New Statesman and Nation, 2 February 1946.

Susan Gubar, from "The Birth of the Artist as Heroine: (Re)production, the Künstlerroman Tradition, and the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield"

The startling centrality of childbearing in the Künstlerromane of women represents a response to the hegemonic texts and contexts of our culture that either appropriate the birth metaphor to legitimize the "brain children" of men or, even more destructively, inscribe female creativity in the womb to insult women whose productions then smack of the mere repetition of reproduction, its involuntary physicality. 1 For the woman writer who seeks to uncover not only the fiction of male motherhood, but also the factious biological metaphor, the Künstlerroman conventions fashioned by male writers are insufficient. 2 Although it may seem audacious to focus here on the stories of Katherine Mansfield, a writer who never wrote a novel about a professional artist, such a choice highlights the reason why women's unique contributions to this tradition may be considered a critique of the genre constituting an anti-tradition of their own. If "women writers do not imagine women characters with even the autonomy they themselves have achieved," as Carolyn Heilbrun persuasively argues, 3 they cannot write in a genre that plots the continuous process by which a male artist progresses towards the transcendence necessary to create art. Certainly nineteenth-century women novelists exploit the artist-character to explain why women cannot sculpt or paint or write. Yet, in the modernist period women did produce recognizable Künstlerromane. To understand how they shaped the conventions of this genre to their own purposes, we need to analyze the shift in perspective that salvaged uniquely female images of creativity. As Mary Burgan has already demonstrated, the stories of Katherine Mansfield reveal how one woman artist overcomes her revulsion against generativity. 4 By coming to terms with the centrality of birth without mystifying it, by reconciling her writing with her rearing, Mansfield calls into question the identification of artistry with autonomy.

Precisely because her stories redefine creativity, they provide a model for understanding how feminist modernists accommodated their own freedom to the immanence and discontinuity that traditionally have characterized female culture, without portraying themselves as tokens or aberrations, alone of all their sex. Specifically, Mansfield claimed to write out of two "kick-offs": what she calls a "cry against corruption," or a deep sense of hopelessness, and "real joy," a blissful state when everything seems to open before her eyes "like a flower." 5 Her early stories, cries against corruption, reiterate the painful contradictions of production and reproduction in late nineteenth-century fiction by writers like Rebecca Harding Davis, Olive Schreiner, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward. It is

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