Sunday, June 13, 2021

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life I

I'm halfway through this biography by Claire Tomalin. I think that Mansfield, who was born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in New Zealand, was one of the best writers of her generation, but, with her premature death in 1923 at the age of thirty-four, she never lived up to her potential. Because I am not finding the details of her life particularly interesting, I am looking more at the literary culture and the arts in England during the period, which coincides with the Belle Époque in France. As you might expect, the arts at the time were far better developed in France, but I am rounding out my knowledge of the English side and have been reading about D.H. Lawrence, Ottoline Morrell, Bloomsbury and Bertrand Russell for some time. The broad context for this period is the immense wealth that existed in Europe just before World War I.

Mansfield's parents were nouveaux riches whose parents had moved to New Zealand from Australia, and her father was a successful banker. She was the third of four daughters and also had a younger brother. Compared to her siblings she was independent and rebellious, and I don't think that her mother liked her much. Because of the prestige associated with sending family members to England, the three eldest girls went to London from 1903 to 1906 to study. At the time, Mansfield was considering becoming a cellist or a writer. She met her lifelong friend, Ida Baker, who, despite being of lower intelligence, remained extremely loyal. When the sisters returned to Wellington, Mansfield longed to return to England, and her father allowed her to move there with a small allowance in 1908.

I've read as far as 1914, and it is difficult to see Mansfield's behavior as anything other than disastrous. Within months of arriving in England, she had an affair with Garnet Carrington Trowell, a young musician who worked for a traveling opera company. She became pregnant by Trowell in late 1908, and, since his family disapproved of her, they didn't marry, and she somehow wound up marrying George Bowden, an older Cambridge music scholar whom she hardly knew; she left him on their wedding night before the marriage could be consummated. Mansfield's mother came from New Zealand and took her to Germany, where, apparently, she had a miscarriage. She remained in Germany until 1910 and met Floryan Sobienowski, a Polish translator, who exposed her to Chekov and other writers, and probably infected her with gonorrhea.

Upon her return to England, she had health problems due to the gonorrhea, but made considerable headway in starting a writing career. First she wrote for The New Age, and then for Rhythm, which was edited by John Middleton Murry, who was then an Oxford undergraduate. Rhythm was shut down due to financial problems and was briefly followed by The Blue Review, which also failed. Mansfield and Murry attempted to live in a cottage in the country for her health, but they soon ran out of money and returned to the city. During this period, they met D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley, who were living together while she hadn't yet divorced her husband. Mansfield and Murry had a lot in common with Lawrence and Frieda, since they were poor and interested in writing. While Murry ended up graduating from Oxford and came from a humble background, he was not in the same league as Lawrence or Mansfield as a writer. Mansfield subsequently became a model for Gudrun Brangwen in Women in Love. Although that is not my favorite Lawrence novel (Sons and Lovers), this is an indication of the closeness of the relationship with Lawrence. Mansfield came from a privileged background and didn't even know how to cook, but at the time she was no different from most struggling artists.

According to Tomalin, Mansfield typically took control of her relationships with men, though, at heart, she preferred women and may primarily have been a lesbian. I'm not entirely clear on this currently, but it seems that Mansfield was calculating, at least in the sense of being able to manipulate men who were interested in sex. So far, there hasn't really been enough information provided to sort this out conclusively, and the situation is complicated by the fact that Mansfield is still in the "follies of youth" stage of her life. She has made one bad choice after another, and you can therefore only grant her limited credit for her successes. In her defense, I would say that the self-centeredness of her parents, who took no real interest in her outcome as their offspring, must take some of the blame. They ignored her during a time in her life when they knew that she was likely to make mistakes.

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