Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller
Reviewed by Dr Sarah Sandley.
The publication of a major new biography of Katherine Mansfield, more than 20 years after Claire Tomalin's Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, is especially significant because, in the intervening years, new material has become available: not just letters and journal entries, but also previously unseen material from the family of Mansfield's husband, John Middleton Murry. The result is a recast of the writer's life, from her marriages to her miscarriage and the question of her sexual health.
This new biography intersperses present tense chapters about Mansfield with a past-tense account of 34 years of Murry's life after her death, during which his determination to make a saint of Mansfield wreaked havoc on the lives of those around him.
The present tense sections allow the reader to live and breathe with Mansfield in an imaginative proximity. We see how she faced and mastered her fears through tremendous anguish: as a young woman she was left by her mother in Bavaria, where at six months' pregnant she had a stillbirth; she suffered an agonising death from TB and was betrayed by her husband while terminally ill.
Mansfield was renowned for her wit and brio.
This is a woman who claimed to have fallen out of love with the father of the child she later miscarried because of the inelegant way he ate an egg.
This is a woman who, in the Cafe Royal overhearing disloyal acolytes of her erstwhile friend DH Lawrence mocking his new book of poems, asked if she could look at the volume, then stood up bearing it aloft and strode from the cafe straight into a cab.
And who penned the following put-down to Princess Elizabeth Bibesco, who was seducing her husband:
"I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world.
You are very young. Won't you ask your husband to explain to you the impossibility of such a situation.
Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and I simply hate having to teach them manners.".