What Elise Wrote-Katherine Mansfield

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Kathleen Mansfield Murry (14 October 1888 – 9 January 1923) was a prominent New Zealand modernist short story writer who was born and brought up in colonial New Zealand and wrote under the pen name of Katherine Mansfield. At 19, Mansfield left New Zealand and settled in the United Kingdom, where she became a friend of modernist writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In 1917 she was diagnosed with extrapulmonary tuberculosis, which led to her death at the age of 34.

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Katherine seated, book in hand, in a deck chair in France.

The mind I love must have wild places, a tangled orchard where dark damsons drop in the heavy grass, an overgrown little wood, the chance of a snake or two, a pool that nobody’s fathomed the depth of, and paths threaded with flowers planted by the mind.

I have read Katherine Mansfield since I was ten years old and discovered, on the verandah of my grandmother’s house, a trunk filled with discarded books one of which was The Garden-Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield.

My favourite short story in the collection is At the Bay. I loved it then and I reread it several times a year. At the Bay was written in 1922 and first published in the London Mercury in January 1922, and later reprinted in The Garden Party and Other Stories. The text is written in modernist mode, with no set structure, and many shifts in the narrative.

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf considered themselves friends. Virginia claimed that Katherine’s writing was the only prose that made her jealous. She was hurt by Katherine’s damning review of her second novel. Yet they exchanged gifts of Belgian cigarettes, loaves of bread, coffee beans and columbine plants. They sent each other letters and discussed their work over tea.

It was their shared literary endeavours that drew them together. And after spending a weekend together, Katherine remarked that it was ‘very curious and thrilling that we should both, quite apart from each other, be after so very nearly the same thing’.

Although their friendship was relatively brief – from 1917 until Katherine’s death in 1923 – its effect on their work was profound. During this time, she produced most of her celebrated stories (one of which Virginia published), and Virginia forged her trademark stream of conciousness style.

The two women recognised each other’s literary prowess: Virginia wrote that Katherine’s was the only prose to have made her jealous.

Make it a rule of life never to regret and never to look back. Regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can’t build on it; it’s only good for wallowing in.

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Katherine Mansfield wearing an Arabian shawl.Photo taken  by Ida Baker, East Sussex, England, 1910.

Excerpt:  At the Bay

Linda Burnell lounged in a steamer chair under the manuka tree in the front yard of the bungalow. She sat and contemplated the life of the flowers that fell from the tree. She thought of how beautifully intricate they were and how easy it was to disregard them as simply something that should be kept off the lawn. “Who takes the trouble – or the joy- to make all these things that are wasted….”. She thought it uncanny.

On the lawn beside her, situated between two pillows, was the baby. He was asleep and Linda had the bungalow all to herself. She wished she had time to look and truly appreciate each flower but she knew Life would come along and interrupt her day. It always did and there was no escape.

Years before she was married she remembered sitting on the veranda with her father. They had been very close. He always said they would run away one day, just the two of them but then Stanley Burnell walked by, slowly and solemnly, his ginger hair aglow. Her father teased her and called Stanley her beau. At the time Linda couldn’t have imagined being married especially to someone like Stanley Burnell but married they were. She loved him, most of the time.

She didn’t love the Stanley everyone else saw. Her Stanley was timid, he said is prayers in earnest and believed in others with his whole heart and was never disloyal but she so rarely saw her Stanley anymore. She only had glimpses of him every so often. Usually he was in the thick of whatever daily drama was taking place and she spent all of her time calming him down, listening to his side of the story, and rescuing him from himself. “And what was left of her was spent in the dread of having children”.

It was her greatest grudge against life. She knew it was a woman’s lot to birth children, to carry them for months and then bring them whole into the world but afterward she found that she did not love her children in the way that she should. The burden of too many births had weakened her and she had nothing left to give the girls. Thankfully her mother had taken the boy and as far as Linda was concerned, she could have him.

Linda was so indifferent about the new baby–she had hardly ever held him in her arms. Glancing down she was surprised to see the boy was awake. His dark-blue eyes were fixed on her and he suddenly smiled, his dimples showing. His happy smile called out to his mother for love, and she found herself returning the smile. She sat down on the grass beside him.

She said that she didn’t like babies and if he knew what she was thinking about him he would stop smiling but the boy only turned his head and squinted his eyes. Linda was astonished by the baby’s confidence, his demand of her love that she felt something inside of her shift, making room, and a tear slide down her face. “Hello my funny” she said but the boy had already forgotten about his mother. His eyes were fixated on the tree’s falling flowers, and he shot his hand out to grab one.

Katherine Mansfield is one of my favourite writers.

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Have a great week, reading and writing and dreaming,

Elise

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