Form and Content

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The Stories of Katherine Mansfield, edited by Antony Alpers, is the most authoritative and probably the most complete of the collections of Mansfield’s short stories made since her death in 1923. Mansfield is regarded as one of the greatest female authors of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Not only can she be said, along with James Joyce, to have created the modern short story, but almost all of her stories have women as central characters and focus on women’s lives and concerns.

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Of the approximately 120 stories that Mansfield left complete or unfinished when she died, this edition prints 85. This number includes the 42 stories that Mansfield published in book form and a representative selection of her other stories. They are divided into thirteen sections, arranged chronologically according to the time they were written. At the end of the volume, Alpers supplies a “Commentary” on each story, telling when it was written and published, as well as supplying essential background information. The “Commentary” also notes stories not printed in this selection.

The thirteen sections of The Stories of Katherine Mansfield show the great range of Mansfield’s stories and allow the reader to follow her development closely. The first two sections contain stories that she wrote as a girl in New Zealand and as a young woman attending Queen’s College in London. A number of these youthful stories contain hints of the themes and settings of her later work. The next section contains bitter stories set in Germany, based on her life during a short stay in that country in 1910 and influenced by the stories of Anton Chekhov. The next five sections show the products of her apprenticeship in London and Paris between 1911 and 1917. During these years, she experimented with many styles and forms, such as parodies, satires, and dialogues.

The last five sections in this collection contain Mansfield’s mature work, the stories that she wrote in London and on the Continent between 1917 and her death in 1923. These are the stories for which she is remembered and by which her place in literary history is judged. Some stories are set in London and some in the French and Swiss towns and cities where Mansfield sought relief from tuberculosis; a great many (and probably the best) are based on childhood memories of New Zealand life. The ways in which Mansfield tells these stories are also varied. Some, such as “The Fly,” are short and pointed. Some, such as “The Garden Party,” are longer, richly evocative, and conventional in form. Two, “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” are brilliant experiments in telling a complex story by a series of vignettes.

Context

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Biographies of Katherine Mansfield show that she was one of the courageous women who, during the opening decades of the twentieth century, attempted to live a free and unconventional life. She left her home in New Zealand as soon as she could. She was probably bisexual. She lived unconventionally and dedicated her life to art. She paid a heavy price, however, both emotionally and physically. Her emotional life was stormy, and a sexually transmitted disease so weakened her that she developed the tuberculosis that caused her early death.

Yet she may be regarded as one of the greatest writers of her day. Not only was she a leader in creating the modern short story (and thereby one of the most important modernist writers), but many of her stories are regarded as among the finest examples of that genre as well. Mansfield’s achievements as an artist were recognized in her own lifetime and had a great impact on many later women writers, in particular Elizabeth Bowen and Katherine Anne Porter. Moreover, she was one of the most important artists of her day to write about women’s concerns from a woman’s point of view. Although the stories treat men with understanding, they focus on an impressive range of female characters. They show young girls and adolescents beginning to experience life’s joys and injustices; women yearning for, yet fearing, love; wives estranged from or coming to love their husbands; mothers loving their children, or feeling indifferent to them; and elderly women patiently looking on and waiting for death.

Bibliography

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Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Press, 1982. A standard biography by the editor of The Stories of Katherine Mansfield. Alpers’ sensible, balanced, and detailed revised work draws on years of research and on interviews with people who knew Mansfield and who commented on his earlier biography. Includes notes, illustrations, an index, a detailed chronology, and a good bibliography.

Boddy, Gillian. Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer. Ringwood, Australia: Penguin Books, 1988. An introduction to Mansfield’s life and work. This volume is noteworthy for its many photographs and reproductions of documents. Includes the texts of some stories.

Hankin, C. A. Katherine Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. Hankin calls Mansfield’s fiction “confessional” and connects many stories to biographical sources. Her analyses of characters and symbols in the major stories are subtle and detailed.

Kaplan, Sydney Janet. Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. A feminist perspective. Although Kaplan examines Mansfield as a major modernist writer, she argues persuasively throughout that hers is a recognizably feminist brand of modernism and that Mansfield should be regarded as important a feminist as Virginia Woolf.

Kirkpatrick, B. J. A Bibliography of Katherine Mansfield. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989. The complete bibliography of Mansfield’s published writings, their various editions in foreign languages, reports of her speech, music, and manuscripts. The volume also lists works about Mansfield, from television productions to ballets.

Nathan, Rhoda B., ed. Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. Good essays, including the editor on Mansfield’s methods and three treatments of “Bliss.” David Daiches sets Mansfield’s poetic way of “telling truth” in the English tradition.

Tomalin, Claire. Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. A very readable biography. Though it lacks critical comments, this book describes the medical consequences of Mansfield’s sexual freedom.

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