The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield Analysis

Katherine Mansfield

The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

No one has yet published a book called “The Enigma of Katherine Mansfield,” yet that title encapsulates both the wonder of every reader of Mansfield’s letters, stories, reviews, and journal entries, and the mystery attached to the figure of Mansfield, who dropped one mask only when she had another prepared. Not often in the history of literature does one find a man amending, bowdlerizing, slanting facts as John Middleton Murry did to “protect” the reputation of Mansfield, though there are many examples of wives doing so to protect the reputation of men. O’Sullivan and Scott attempt to correct any false impressions left by Murry’s fiddling with the correspondence, but at the same time they recognize that, even restored to their original form, the letters reveal at best only what Mansfield desired her friends, acquaintances, and her lovers to know. For every person with whom she had a relationship, she developed a persona, and in every letter directed to friends, acquaintances, lovers, she consistently held to that persona. The letters, then, are themselves fictions, which, like her stories, only obliquely reveal their author. A reader must suspect that even the letters lost, or inadvertently or deliberately destroyed, would reveal little more. The hundreds of letters to Ida Baker, for example, Mansfield’s “LM,” her “Rhodesian Mountain,” the lifelong friend who cared for Mansfield through most of her short life, were destroyed by the author in 1918, after Baker made the mistake of offering them back to Mansfield, believing that they might serve as material for stories. Mansfield, Baker says, opened one or two, then exclaimed that they were rubbish and directed that they all be burned. Still, it is probable that if Mansfield had not directed their burning in 1918, Baker, unlike Murry, would have acted after Mansfield’s death in 1923 in consideration of her wishes. In her will, Mansfield requested that as few traces of herself be left as possible, and five months before her death she enjoined her husband to destroy her letters, to “make a clean sweep and leave all fair.” Murry did not do so; rather, a literary man himself, he began immediately to think of an edition of her letters, and he published in 1929 a carefully bowdlerized and edited two-volume work, The Letters of Katherine Mansfield. By the late 1940’s, Murry had come to realize the need for a fuller revelation, and he published in 1951 more complete texts of her letters to him, though he still felt the need to correct her spelling and punctuation and to omit references to names of people still alive and what he considered lapses in taste.

Whether the letters reveal much or little of Mansfield the person, their publication in their original form represents a major undertaking and a singular success. Holding the volume together with biographical briefs, O’Sullivan and Scott provide not only careful editing but also a succinct and intelligent introduction, a chronology of important dates, a bibliography, and a useful general index which allows a reader to trace particular references to people and events through the entire volume. References in the letters to Ida Baker, for example, begin in 1904 and continue intermittently throughout Mansfield’s life, but Baker is mentioned for the most part almost in passing; she seems a not so prominent but always present appendage. Though Mansfield often expresses irritation toward Baker...

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The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Volume II: 1918-1919 covers less than two years in Mansfield’s life, from January 1918 until September 1919; this period was characterized by isolation from John Middleton Murry, lyrical introspection, and, finally, tragic foreboding as her health continued to decline. Always driven by a powerful will, more finely controlled than her frail body already weakened by tuberculosis, she had hoped, early during her twenty-ninth year, that a few months of the Mediterranean climate would restore her well-being. Her doctor had urged upon her this vacation. When she left England on January 7, 1918, she did not know that tuberculosis was already established in her left lung, and she hoped to return home in the spring, when she planned to marry Murry. The couple had stayed at Bandol, France, for several months in 1917—a happy and artistically productive interlude—and Mansfield now supposed that her spirits would revive among the familiar scenes. Murry, assigned to intelligence duties at the War Office in London, could not join her, so letters were their means of communication. Because of World War I—always the war and the convulsions caused by that massive war effort—letters were often slow to arrive, with the effect that the lovers were separated by both space and time constraints. Finally, to complete their sense of isolation, they were often struggling with financial burdens that they concealed from each other.

Letters from this period in southern France—January to April, 1918—reflect Mansfield’s varying moods, from depression (January 11) to occasional elation (January 20). Signing her letters “Wig” or “your little wife Tig,” she poured out to Murry (“My own Bogey” or “My dear life” or “Dearest of all”) a passionate recital of her fears, dreams, and longings. Always independent, she urged Murry not to send her money, although her financial situation was often precarious. Instead, she usually tried to cheer him up with amusing gossip (January 24, 25), anecdotes of her domestic tasks (February 6), or literary chitchat (February 23). Curiously, her letters from this time rarely concern her own literary ambitions. Yet at Bandol she composed one of her finest stories, “Je ne parle pas français.” Darkening her vision of a life involved in love and art was the specter of approaching death. On February 19, she recorded in her notebook the onset of her first hemorrhage. She determined not to share the news with Murry: “I don’t want to be ill, I means [sic] ’seriously’ away from Jack. . . . How unbearable it would be to die, leave ’scraps,’ ’bits’ . . . nothing real finished.”

On March 21, Mansfield left the south of France, expecting to be in London shortly. She was detained in Paris, however, for the day after she arrived, the Germans began their bombardment of the city from positions in the Forest of Crèpy, near Laon. German aircraft also intensified bombardment, so that the city was virtually a besieged fortress. Foreigners were discouraged from travel. On March 23, Mansfield wrote to Murry of her distress; she had applied for police permission to leave the city but had to wait for instructions. By March 29, all civilian travel had apparently been halted. Along with the constant bombardment (April 6) and the delay in receiving letters, Mansfield...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Booklist. LXXXI, January 1, 1985, p. 613.

Booklist. LXXXIV, September 1, 1987, p. 21.

The Economist. CCXCIII, October 6, 1984, p. 95.

Listener. CXII, September 13, 1984, p. 23.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 2, 1984, p. 10.

Ms. XIII, November, 1984, p. 115.

New Statesman. CVIII, September 14, 1984, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, January 20, 1985, p. 12.

The Observer. February 8, 1987, p. 29.

The Spectator. CCLVIII, February 28, 1987, p. 31.

Times Literary Supplement. September 14, 1984, p. 1028.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 13, 1987, p. 156.