The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield
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 or cavalier presumption, she also expresses a quite undisguised concern and love for her friend, as when in an early letter to Murry she describes Baker as being “quite absolute” and “eternal” and capable of “careless, very intimate joy.” In expressing the wish that Baker were not so far away, Mansfield refers to her own need to be needed and cared for.
Mansfield’s relationship with others is equally interesting. Her brief affair with Francis Carco, whom she followed to a war zone where Carco was serving with...
(The entire section is 2,840 words.)