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.