Thanks so much for your response yesterday, everyone, that was really interesting – and lovely to have comments from new people. I have to check these things sometimes – doing an English degree tends to make one a bit blinkered, in terms of which authors are well-known and which aren’t. I usually ask Colin – he knows rather more about literature than most, but isn’t as obsessed, and he assured me that nobody at his office would have heard of Katherine Mansfield. I knew the literary-blog-reading-and-writing world would be rather more keyed up, but wasn’t sure where our Kath featured on the scale of things. So, whilst more or less all of you have heard of Katherine Mansfield, she remains an untapped mine for many – and so I shall put her into my ongoing list of 50 Books You Must Read etc. etc….
Katherine Mansfield only wrote for a few years, in the 1910s and ’20s. She was on the outskirts of the Bloomsbury Group, in an ambivalent friendship with Virginia Woolf. Born in New Zealand, her stories are set in both NZ and England, but also often an indeterminate mixture of the two. I wrote about Claire Tomalin’s biography of KM a couple of years ago, if you’re interested… but onto her writing.
Though you can read anything by KM – I recommend buying her collections as they were published, especially The Garden Party and Bliss, as well as various others – the Selected Stories is an excellent place to start. Plus Oxford University Press just sent me their latest World’s Classics edition of it, and it’s rather beautiful – as well as including nearly all of my favourite stories. But – and this might be make or break in terms of appreciating KM – don’t start at the beginning. This Selected Stories, perhaps unsurprisingly, lists her stories chronologically. KM’s writing got better and better, most of her best work appearing in the two years before she died, age 34, of TB. Who knows what she’d have gone onto achieve had she lived – or perhaps it was facing her death which drew such genius out of her?
If you do get this collection, which I’d encourage – or indeed any collection – then start with something from The Garden Party. ‘The Garden Party’, for example. Other favourites from around this period include ‘Miss Brill’; ‘Bliss’; ‘The Daughters of the Colonel’; ‘Her First Ball’; ‘A Cup of Tea’. All of these are included in the OUP selection. Others prefer her longer stories, ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’, but I think her craft and talent are shown best in the short, short stories.
What is it that makes KM so very, very good? It is this ability to demonstrate so much in such short works – to capture entire lives in mere sentences. Even if you don’t usually like short stories, I can’t imagine anybody not appreciating these. They manage to show everyday events, which at the same time completely turn people’s lives upside down. They are about people dealing with grief, or change, or power shifts, or the strange. ‘The Garden Party’ is all about class, on one level, but also a girl’s first encounter with death. And her writing – it is absolutely sublime. Virginia Woolf said ‘I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I was ever jealous of.’ It transports you to another world when you’re reading it – everything delicate and observant without being cloying or obtrusive. A quiet modernist, her stories owe as much to Chekhov as to any later writers.
I don’t want to give away the plots of these stories, because quite often only one significant event happens, and it is the stunning crux of the story. Like ‘Bliss’ – incredible story – to give away the ending would be treason! But when the pivots take place, they are not sensational – they are life, and KM’s talent is in sensitively showing how people respond to events which are externally almost insignificant, but of huge personal enormity. And, because it’s impossible to judge a writing style without evidence, here’s a link to ‘The Garden Party’, and here is one to ‘Bliss’ (note the significance of the first word, in conjunction with the title). Do go and read them, slowly, and see if you wouldn’t like to read more. I do hope you’ll give KM a try, if you haven’t before – and if you’ve not read her for years, why not get a copy and read one story a night for a few weeks? Just remember, contrary to everything we learnt in The Sound of Music, don’t start at the beginning, it’s not a very good place to start.