Katherine Mansfield 1888-1923
(Born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp) New Zealander short story writer, critic, and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of Mansfield's short fiction. See also The Garden Party Criticism and The Fly Criticism.
Mansfield is a central figure in the development of the modern short story. An early practitioner of stream-of-consciousness narration, she applied this technique to create stories based on the illumination of character rather than the development of plot. Her works, which treat such universal concerns as family and love relationships and the everyday experiences of childhood, are noted for their distinctive wit, psychological acuity, and perceptive characterization.
Mansfield was born into a prosperous family in Wellington, New Zealand, and attended school in England in her early teens. She returned home after completing her education but was thereafter dissatisfied with colonial life; at nineteen she persuaded her parents to allow her to return to England. She became pregnant shortly after leaving home and entered into a hasty marriage with George Bowden, a young musician, whom she left the next day. Her mother arranged for her removal to a German spa, where she miscarried. Mansfield returned to England after a period of recuperation, during which she wrote the short stories in her first collection, In a German Pension (1911). Between 1911 and 1915 Mansfield published short stories and book reviews in such magazines as Athenaeum, New Age, Open Window, and Rhythm. In 1912 she met editor and critic John Middleton Murry and was soon sharing the editorship of the Blue Review and Rhythm with him. The two began living together and married in 1918, when Bowden finally consented to a divorce. Never in vigorous health, Mansfield was severely weakened by tuberculosis in the early 1920s. Nonetheless, she worked almost continuously, writing until the last few months of her life. She died in 1923 at the age of thirty-four.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Offering satiric commentary on the attitudes and behavior of the German people, the stories of Mansfield's first collection, In a German Pension, focus on themes relating to sexual relationships, female subjugation, and childbearing. Critics have found that these stories—although less technically accomplished than Mansfield's later fiction—evince her characteristic wit and perception, in particular her effective portrayal of female psychology and the complexity of human emotion. Scholars have also noted the sense of estrangement and the intense desire for human connection inherent in these early works. Mansfield incorporated a wealth of material from her New Zealand childhood in her later stories, collected in Bliss (1921) and The Garden Party (1922). These volumes include her oft-discussed and highly regarded stories “Prelude,” “Bliss,” “Miss Brill,” “The Garden Party,” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” Considered among the finest short stories in the English language, these later works display some of Mansfield's most successful innovations with avant-garde narration, including the interior monologue, stream of consciousness, and shifting perspectives. They also demonstrate Mansfield's ability to extract beauty and vitality from mundane experience, showcase the poetic qualities of her prose, and illustrate her extensive use of symbolism and imagery. In addition to highlighting Mansfield's narrative technique in these tales, critics have focused on her representations of the intricate balances within family dynamics; her depictions of love relationships from both female and male points of view; and her portrayals of children, which are considered especially insightful.
Mansfield is one of the few authors to attain prominence exclusively for short stories, and her works remain among the most widely read in world literature. Early assessments of Mansfield were based largely on the romanticized image presented by Murry in extensively edited volumes of her private papers, as well as in reminiscences and critical commentary that he published after her death. This idealized representation of Mansfield, termed the “cult of Katherine,” is undergoing revision by modern biographers aided by new editions of her letters and journals. Recent critical studies of Mansfield's short fiction have provided feminist, socio-historical, and psychological interpretations. Critics have also explored stylistic aspects—such as her experimental literary techniques and poetic lyricism—and have investigated a myriad of influences on her life and work. Underlying themes of sexuality and homoeroticism have become another fertile topic of critical discussion. The success of Mansfield's writing established her as a major talent comparable to such contemporaries as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. A pioneer of the avant-garde in short fiction, Mansfield is credited with revolutionizing the short story form and creating a model for the modern short story in English.
In a German Pension 1911
Bliss, and Other Stories 1920
The Garden Party, and Other Stories 1922
The Doves' Nest, and Other Stories 1923
The Little Girl, and Other Stories 1924; also published as Something Childish, and Other Stories, 1924
The Aloe 1930
The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield 1937
Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield 1945
Undiscovered Country: The New Zealand Stories of Katherine Mansfield 1974
Selected Stories 2002
Poems (poetry) 1923
The Journal of Katherine Mansfield (journal) 1927
The Letters of Katherine Mansfield. 2 vols. (letters) 1928
Novels and Novelists (criticism) 1930
The Scrapbook of Katherine Mansfield (journal) 1939
Katherine Mansfield's Letters to John Middleton Murry, 1913-1922 (letters) 1951
The Urewera Notebook (journal) 1978
The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. 4 vols. (letters) 1984-96
The Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield (criticism) 1987
Poems of Katherine Mansfield (poetry)...
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SOURCE: Trotter, David. “Analysing Literary Prose: The Relevance of Relevance Theory.” Lingua 87 (1992): 11-27.
[In the following essay, Trotter discusses Relevance Theory, a version of pragmatics, as applied to Mansfield's “A Cup of Tea” and James Joyce's Ulysses.]
From Aristotle to Roland Barthes and beyond, literary criticism has been based on a code model of communication. It has been preoccupied with the encoding and decoding of messages: sometimes in the name of hermeneutics, sometimes in the name of semiology, sometimes in the name of radical scepticism. Although the problem of inference—of what readers do with the output of decoding—confronts it at every turn, it lacks an inferential model of communication, and has therefore been reduced, more often than not, to piety or sociology. During the 1970s, a surge of interest in literary language led critics to Chomsky and Saussure, but not to Grice (Grice 1975). To this day, literary theory has barely acknowledged the existence of pragmatics (though see the suggestive critique of Saussure in Fabb 1988). If Grice got it right, the theorists are in for a rude awakening.
Literary theorists have hardly paid any attention at all to Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986). This seems to me a mistake. Relevance Theory is not only the most elegant version of pragmatics currently...
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SOURCE: Boddy, Gillian. “From Notebook Draft to Published Story: ‘Late Spring’/‘This Flower.’” In Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield, edited by Rhoda B. Nathan, pp. 101-12. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993.
[In the following essay, Boddy traces the differences between “Late Spring” and the posthumously published story “This Flower.”]
When Virginia Woolf reviewed the first edition of The Journal of Katherine Mansfield in the New York Herald Tribune she wrote:
It is not the quality of her writing or the degree of her fame that interest us in her diary, but the spectacle of a mind. … We feel that we are watching a mind which is alone with itself, a mind which has so little thought of an audience that it will make use of a shorthand of its own … or, as the mind in its loneliness starts to do, divide into two and talk to itself. Katherine Mansfield about Katherine Mansfield.1
Lytton Strachey's reaction to the Journal was that it was, “quite shocking and incomprehensible. I see Murry lets out that it was written for publication—which no doubt explains a good deal. But why that foul-mouthed, virulent, brazen-faced broomstick of a creature should have got herself up as a pad of rose-scented cotton wool is beyond me.”2
Before discussing some of the...
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SOURCE: McFall, Gardner. “Poetry and Performance in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” In Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield, edited by Rhoda B. Nathan, pp. 140-50. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993.
[In the following essay, McFall contends that Mansfield's “concision, mobilization of imagery and rhythm, irony, ambiguity, and submerged lyric voice” necessitate that readers afford “Bliss” the attention usually reserved for poems.]
Oh, to be a writer, a real writer given up to it and to it alone! … There are moments when Dickens is possessed by this power of writing: he is carried away. That is bliss.
Katherine Mansfield, 1920 (Journal [Journal of Katherine Mansfield], 203)
“Bliss” exemplifies Mansfield's mature fiction shaped by her lyric impulse and her mastery of poetic tradition squaring with the circumstances of her life. Here, her concision, mobilization of imagery and rhythm, irony, ambiguity, and submerged lyric voice require that we read the story with the kind of close attention generally reserved for poems. In doing so, we can see in what respect Mansfield's fiction is poetic. We can also see how, under the pressure of Mansfield's illness and exile, it emerges as a site of revisionary performance, compensating for reality.
When Mansfield wrote “Bliss,” she...
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SOURCE: Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Fortifications of Desire: Reading the Second Story in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Narrative 2, no. 1 (January 1994): 41-52.
[In the following essay, Mortimer provides a reading of the “second story” found near the end of “Bliss.”]
When the heroine of Mansfield's well-known, extraordinary short story discovers her husband's infidelity less than a page before the end, a second story untold in the first but necessary to its meaning erupts into the narrative, to devastating effect. The devious second story construction leads, and often misleads, the reader, who interprets clues and applies general cultural competence to “re-tell” the once-submerged second story.1 Appealing to the reader's cooperation in its complex processes, the story subverts the reading subject, placing her in the position of the unknowing heroine.
“The truth is,” Katherine Mansfield wrote in her journal, “one can get only so much into a story; there is always a sacrifice. One has to leave out what one knows and longs to use. Why? I haven't any idea, but there it is. It's always a kind of race to get in as much as one can before it disappears” (cited in Kobler 112). Suggesting Hemingway's principle of the iceberg, this double-edged observations, both naive and devious, insinuates an interpretive strategy: it challenges the...
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SOURCE: Lee, David A. “Language and Perspective in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Prelude.’” In Twentieth-Century Fiction: From Text to Context, edited by Peter Verdonk and Jean Jacques Weber, pp. 113-25. London: Routledge, 1995.
[In the following essay, Lee explores “the role of language in the mediation of perspective in both the literal and metaphorical sense” as exemplified in Mansfield's story “Prelude.”]
The notion of ‘point of view’ or ‘perspective’ is one of the most frequently invoked concepts in stylistic analysis (Booth 1961). A distinction is often drawn between the point of view of the narrator and that of a character, for example, or between the perspective of one character and that of another. Writers themselves use the notion, sometimes structuring their work in such a way as to present their material from different viewpoints, sometimes interweaving different perceptions within a chapter, within a paragraph, within a sentence even. But what is ‘perspective’? The term is obviously derived from the field of visual perception. Are we then employing the term purely metaphorically when we refer to ‘perspective’ in literature?
I will take Katherine Mansfield's short story ‘Prelude’ (1918/1948) as the main focus for discussion of these questions. Let me start, however, with a brief illustration from another century of the importance of perspective...
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SOURCE: Lohafer, Susan. “Why the ‘Life of Ma Parker’ Is Not So Simple: Preclosure in Issue-bound Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 4 (fall 1996): 475-86.
[In the following essay, Lohafer recommends a “storiographical” approach to “Life of Ma Parker,” contending that a close analysis of this type reveals otherwise unappreciated complexity in the story.]
She's a widowed charwoman. Yesterday, her loving little grandson, the light of her dreary life, was buried. As servant, wife, and mother, she's the generic British working-class female at the turn of the century—cowed by drudgery and burdened by loss. Her husband, a baker, died of “white lung” disease, and those children who survived the high rate of infant mortality fell victim to other ills of the late-Victorian underclass: emigration, prostitution, poor health, worse luck. This is the “life” of Ma Parker, who comes to work after her grandson's burial, stunned by a grief she can barely stand. Her employer, a “literary gentleman” out of touch with humanity, hopes “the funeral was a—a—success.” What a day! What a life! If only there were someplace to go—certainly not a room of her own, but a corner, a stoop—where she could “be herself” and have, for the first time in her life, “a proper cry.” As the final line says, “There was nowhere” (Mansfield 490).
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SOURCE: Caserio, Robert L. “The Mansfield Moment.” Western Humanities Review 50, no. 4 (winter-spring 1997): 344-47.
[In the following essay, Caserio outlines the defining characteristics of Mansfield's short fiction and discusses her status among English modernist authors.]
Has the celebrated Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) lost a once formidable status among English modernists? In the past, her work was thought of as equal to Lawrence's and Woolf's (she was intimate with them in her brief life); and her writing sounds now like Lawrence's (as in “The Garden-Party”  and “The Doll's House” ), and now like Woolf's (as in “Prelude”  and “Psychology” ). Perhaps it is she who they sound like. Woolf owes much of the form and tone of her fiction about family life to Mansfield's stories about Mansfield's family—especially to “Prelude”; but the Woolf revival of the last thirty years has eclipsed the influence. Mansfield has decisive originality, in spite of crowding by her peers. And in spite of the fact—paradoxically—that she has been so widely imitated in the realm of the short story, her exclusive métier, that her uniqueness has been diluted by the effect of imitations. But the dilution of her originality is a victory too; it argues the dissemination of modernism, thanks to Mansfield's variety of it. It illustrates the way modernism has...
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SOURCE: Dunbar, Pamela. Preface to Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories, pp. ix-xv. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997.
[In the following excerpt, Dunbar considers various influences on Mansfield's short fiction and discusses her contribution to the modernist short story.]
In January 1921, just two years before she died, Katherine Mansfield wrote to a painter-friend: ‘I try and make family life so gorgeous—not hatred and linoleum—but warmth and hydrangeas.’1
Yet beneath the ‘hydrangeas’—the material prosperity, the emotional fulfilment, the sense of contentment conveyed by such well-known pieces as ‘Prelude’, ‘The Garden-Party’, or ‘The Doll's House’—there is a persistent sense of malaise; a preoccupation with alienation, with premature death, with sexual maladjustment; above all a disposition to challenge received assumptions about human relationships and the nature of individual identity.
Mansfield then is far from being the ‘safe’ writer the lyrical surfaces of her most famous stories proclaim her to be. She radically questioned all the most compelling myths of personal and public life—the romance of marriage, family happiness, child purity, the grandeur of the artist's task, the coherence and integrity (in both senses) of the individual self, the immutable...
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SOURCE: Winston, Janet. “Reading Influences: Homoeroticism and Mentoring in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Carnation’ and Virginia Woolf's ‘Moments of Being: “Slater's Pins Have No Points.”’” In Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, edited by Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer, pp. 57-77. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Winston explores the connection between Mansfield's “Carnation” and Virginia Woolf's “Moments of Being: ‘Slater's Pins Have No Points.’”]
On January 9, 1923, Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis, from which she had suffered for much of her young life. Yet, Mansfield continued to live on acutely in the minds of those who had known her and her work. Her literary friend and rival, Virginia Woolf, records in her diary how Mansfield haunted her imagination for years (Tomalin 204). For example, just one week after Mansfield's death, Woolf saw a vision of “Katherine putting on a white wreath, & leaving us, called away; made dignified, chosen” (D [The Diary of Virginia Woolf] 2: 226). Five and a half years later, Woolf recounts:
All last night I dreamt of Katherine Mansfield & wonder what dreams are; often evoke so much more emotion, than thinking does—almost as if she came back in person & was outside one, actively making one feel; instead of a figment called up &...
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SOURCE: Dilworth, Thomas. “Monkey Business: Darwin, Displacement, and Literary Form in Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss.’” Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 2 (spring 1998): 141-52.
[In the following essay, Dilworth views evolution as a central theme in “Bliss” and deems the story as “a wonderful aesthetic achievement.”]
For such a popular and much-anthologized work, Katherine Mansfield's “Bliss” has generated sparse criticism. The aspect of the story that chiefly makes it so popular has also diminished its critical reputation: its element of contrast and surprise. With climactic simplicity, the narrative contrasts the erotic happiness of the protagonist throughout the story with its deflation (largely implied) at the end, when she discovers that her husband is unfaithful. So simple and emphatic, this contrast—it is not much of a plot—has led many, including T. S. Eliot, to assume that there is little to the story apart from the powerful effect of its final surprise, a disillusionment more felt than susceptible to interpretation (35). Virginia Woolf thinks the story a shallow example of “superficial smartness,” based on a concept that is “poor, cheap, not the vision of an interesting mind” (1: 179).1 I want to demonstrate that they are wrong, that this story is a rich and protean work of art. Its parts and aspects resonate significantly on all four principal levels...
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SOURCE: Darrohn, Christine. “‘Blown to Bits!’: Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Garden-Party’ and the Great War.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 3 (fall 1998): 513-39.
[In the following essay, Darrohn contends that “The Garden Party” explores issues of class and gender as well as the devastating impact of World War I on Mansfield's generation.]
“Blown to bits!”
That is how Katherine Mansfield, still in shock just a few days after learning of her brother's death in the war, described him to a friend. Twenty-one-year-old Leslie “Chummie” Beauchamp had been stationed in France for less than a month when on 7 October 1915, as he was giving a hand grenade demonstration, a defective grenade blew up in his hand with a force so strong it killed both himself and his sergeant (Alpers 183). Mansfield's succinct description of her brother's death is brusque and colloquial but also literally true of uncountable soldiers who fought in the Great War. In her semiautobiographical novel We That Were Young, Irene Rathbone describes the wounded soldiers whom women in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) routinely tended: men with “limbs which shrapnel had torn about and swollen into abnormal shapes, from which yellow pus poured when the bandages were removed, which were caked with brown blood, and in whose gangrenous flesh loose bits of bone had to be sought for painfully with...
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SOURCE: D'Arcy, Chantal Cornut-Gentille. “Katherine Mansfield's ‘Bliss’: ‘The Rare Fiddle’ as Emblem of the Political and Sexual Alienation of Woman.” Papers on Language & Literature 35, no. 3 (summer 1999): 244-69.
[In the following essay, D'Arcy examines the political commentary and sexual politics found in “Bliss.”]
In the final part of To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, the amateur artist, is contemplating her painting and pondering on the elusive nature of mass and form:
Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron.
Such a “visionary” insight helps establish the basic shape and nature of Katherine Mansfield's1 short stories in that it immediately points to a certain “doubleness” in what, at first sight, could appear to be no more than dainty and sentimental little fictional pieces. In other words, the reference to Lily Briscoe's painting serves as a warning to readers not to allow themselves to be deluded by the delicately elusive surface of Mansfield's tales. On the contrary, they should be attentive to the implicit criticism which is engraved—sometimes, with the sharpness of...
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SOURCE: Norman, Colin. “Prufrock, Freud, and the Late Colonel's Daughters: New Light on the Genesis of a Mansfield Story.” English Studies in Canada 25 (1999): 19-37.
[In the following essay, Norman identifies T. S. Eliot's poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as an influence on Mansfield's“The Daughters of the Late Colonel.”]
Less than five months before her death in 1923, Katherine Mansfield wrote to Violet Schiff that Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is “by far by far and away the most interesting and the best modern poem” (Murry, Letters [The Letters of Katherine Mansfield] 2: 240). “Prufrock” had impressed her from the start: soon after its publication in 1917, she echoed it in her journal: “Is that all? Can that be all? That is not what I meant at all” (Murry, Journal [Journal of Katherine Mansfield] 124). In a letter to Virginia Woolf of May 1919, she assessed it shrewdly from a technical perspective and perhaps with a writer's assimilating eye: “Prufrock is, after all a short story” (O'Sullivan and Scott 2: 318). This remark could certainly serve as a preface to her own short story, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” which is in some respects the mirror image of “Prufrock,” from which it derives many of its basic conceptions. Furthermore, “Prufrock” may have inspired in “Daughters” a distinctive...
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SOURCE: Breuer, Horst. “K. Mansfield's ‘The Stranger’: Text, Subtext, Pretext.” English Studies 83, no. 5 (November 2002): 423-30.
[In the following essay, Breuer offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of “The Stranger” and investigates the literary source of the story's title.]
Katherine Mansfield's short story ‘The Stranger’ (written 1920, published 1921) is one of her finest narratives. It holds a delicate balance between psychological realism and social satire. It analyzes with consummate empathy and linguistic skill a significant marital configuration of early 20th century middle-class society. The protagonist and narrative focus is a husband of the possessive-and-demanding type who, at slight provocation, experiences an acute neurotic crisis and turns out to be precariously dependent on his wife's affection and care. The aim of the present paper is to attempt a multi-layered reading of the story, in terms of literary criticism as well as psychoanalytic interpretation, and to determine a probable literary source of its somewhat unlikely title.
Like many of Mansfield's best stories, ‘The Stranger’ is set in the milieu of well-to-do New Zealanders at the beginning of the 20th century. The main characters are John and Jane Hammond, who seem to belong to the best circles of the country (which appeared, of course, ridiculously provincial to many fashionable...
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SOURCE: Stafford, Jane, and Mark Williams. “Fashioned Intimacies: Maoriland and Colonial Modernity.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37, no. 1 (2002): 31-48.
[In the following essay, Stafford and Williams elucidate Mansfield's attitude toward her homeland of New Zealand and consider her place in the movement of literary nationalism known as Maoriland.]
In Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) Stephen Dedalus's friend, Davin, is tempted sexually by a peasant woman.1 He declines her offer, but is attracted by the strangeness of the encounter and the frankness of the invitation. Although an ardent nationalist and affectionately described by Stephen as a peasant, Davin finds the seductions of traditional Ireland resistible. To Stephen, the life of the peasantry is inscrutable and more than faintly repugnant. He fears the “red-rimmed horny eyes” of an ancient Irish-speaking peasant and feels he must struggle with him “all through this night till day come”.2 Yet pleasing images of peasant women he has seen from the college bus float through his mind.
In 1907 nineteen-year-old Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp went on a camping trip through the Urewera district and recorded in her diaries her impressions of Maori, whose distance from colonial bourgeois culture she found deeply attractive. She preferred the Maori of “the utter...
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Dunbar, Pamela. Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1997, 198 p.
Critical study of Mansfield's stories, with particular focus on lesser-known pieces. Includes the previously unpublished story “His Sisters' Keeper.”
Nathan, Cherney B., and Rhoda B. Nathan, eds. Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993, 236 p.
Collection of essays by New Zealand scholars, focusing on various aspects of Mansfield's career.
Robinson, Roger, ed. Katherine Mansfield: In from the Margin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994, 209 p.
Collection of essays from two international symposia on Mansfield and her work.
Woods, Joanna. “The Reception of Katherine Mansfield's Work in the Soviet Union.” New Zealand Slavonic Journal (1996): 95-148.
Traces the publication of, and critical reaction to, Mansfield's work in the Soviet Union.
Additional coverage of Mansfield's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; British Writers, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104,...
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