Thursday, June 24, 2021

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life II

The second half of the book centers on Mansfield's development of her literary career and the increasing burden of her health conditions. Her short stories were immediately recognized as being of high quality, and she and Murry both attempted to engineer their future literary successes. That involved getting to know Ottoline Morrell and attending events at Garsington, her home outside Oxford. Through this connection with Bloomsbury artists and writers, they came to know Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Virginia took great interest in Mansfield and liked to talk shop with her, because she noticed that her writing lacked Mansfield's vitality and immediacy.

Mansfield was adventurous and traveled alone to Paris in 1914 during World War I. She had a brief affair with Francis Carco, a writer whom she knew through Rhythm. However, she was put off by his insouciance, and they never developed a relationship. Her relationship with Murry continued, and to me it seems to have been strategic for both of them. There was no sign of any real passion between them, and Murry seemed cold compared to Leonard Woolf, who was always doting on Virginia. In 1916, Mansfield, Murry, Lawrence and Frieda shared a house in Cornwall, but it only lasted for a few weeks. Lawrence and Frieda had ridiculous fights, one of which Mansfield chronicled. It is possible that during this period Mansfield caught her tuberculosis from Lawrence. Later that year, Mansfield met Bertrand Russell, who was then in the process of seeking a lover to replace Ottoline. By then, Tomalin thinks, Mansfield had lost interest in sexual escapades, and she never took Russell's bait. Judging from the experiences of Russell's second and third wives, Dora and Peter, that was a good decision. In any case, Russell was not a literary person and already had a reputation for self-centeredness. I wouldn't be surprised if Ottoline warned Mansfield.

It took some time for Mansfield and Murry to marry, because her husband, George Bowden, was away in the U.S., and she couldn't arrange a divorce. They finally married in 1918. After Mansfield developed tubercular symptoms, she typically spent part of the year in Europe, in the south of France or in Switzerland. Her friend, Ida, increasingly took care of her, and Murry was often away. He became the editor of the Athenaeum, a respected literary magazine, and thenceforth had a better income. Mansfield's stories also began to sell well. Thus, their financial situation improved toward the end of her life. One unpleasant episode occurred at this time. The translator, Floryan Sobieniowski, blackmailed her over letters that she had sent him, which probably showed that one of her early stories could be construed as plagiarized from a then-untranslated story by Chekhov. She paid him to get the letters back.  Mansfield died in Avon, France, at an institution operated by Gurdjieff, in 1923.

To sum up how her friends perceived her at the time, here is a description written by Leonard Woolf:

By nature, I think she was gay, cynical, amoral, ribald, witty. When we first knew her, she was extraordinarily amusing. I don't think anyone has ever made me laugh more than she did in those days. She would sit very upright on the edge of a chair or sofa and tell at immense length a kind of saga, of her experiences as an actress or of how and why Koteliansky howled like a dog in the room at the top of a building in Southampton Row. There was not the shadow of a gleam of a smile on her mask of a face, and the extraordinary funniness of the story was increased by the flashes of her astringent wit. I think that in some abstruse way Murry corrupted and perverted and destroyed Katherine both as a person and a writer. She was a very serious writer, but her gifts were those of an intense realist, with a superb sense of ironic humour and fundamental cynicism. She got enmeshed in the sticky sentimentality of Murry and wrote against the grain of her own nature. At the bottom of her mind she knew this, I think, and it enraged her. And that was why she was so often enraged against Murry. To see them together, particularly in their own house in Hampstead, made one acutely uncomfortable, for Katherine seemed to be always irritated with Murry ... Every now and then she would say sotto voce something bitter or biting.

I think this is a rather perceptive observation. Mansfield and Murry weren't really compatible as a couple, and their marriage may primarily have been a convenient vocational strategy for both of them. I don't think that there is any convincing evidence that Mansfield was a lesbian, though she may have had some bisexual tendencies (many women do). Woolf doesn't mention that she had a somewhat masculine mind, which may have put her at odds with Murry, who, comparatively speaking, was passive and inept.

On the whole, I found this biography interesting. However, Tomalin herself is a literary person, and the book is infused with tidbits that would appeal more to literary types than to general readers. These pertain to the wheedling and pretense that go with the establishment of successful literary careers. Certainly, after reading this, few would find the literary life appealing, particularly if they depended on it for their income. It's a pity that Mansfield didn't live another forty years.

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