It should surprise no one that Virginia Woolf wrote to Katherine Mansfield of her writing “You seem to me to go so straightly and directly – all clear as glass – refined, spiritual…“, and that after Mansfield’s death at the age of thirty-four in 1923 Woolf wrote in her diary that Mansfield’s was “The only writing I have ever been jealous of.”
Mansfield’s writing is indeed worthy of attracting the invidious attention of a literary luminary of Woolf’s calibre. Mansfield originated and developed the style that is now referred to as ‘Modernist’ It was a complete and radical change from all that had gone before, and both she and Woolf broke away entirely from the heavily upholstered mannerisms of Edwardian writing to develop and refine a genre that indelibly shaped something that we recognise today in the heart and structure of the contemporary novel. It is difficult to even imagine that the lives of Woolf and Mansfield overlapped that of Henry James, (who died in 1916 and whom Woolf met as a child) when we compare the long-winded, top-heavy, unstable sentences of his prose with the light but mordant intensity of Woolf’s and Mansfield’s fictional touch. James’ solemn style is like walking through a labyrinth whereas Mansfield’s and Woolf’s are like chasing fireflies in a meadow.
Today we read novels without ever finding it unnatural that the narrative does not progress as a solid structure that is built from the foundations up. Our reading minds are now thoroughly accustomed to finding ourselves being informed moment-to-moment, as we follow a sequence of unfolding moments, and we unresistingly allow ourselves to absorb the deepening sense of what a story reveals in the fragments the writer chooses to deploy and employ. By these often subtle means is our perception itself altered, and the ordinary mundaneness of reality is quite swept away, such that we seem to be seeing the world through the perspective of strange and unaccustomed eyes.
Dorothy Richardson, whose story “Pointed Roofs” was published in 1915, was the first English writer to pioneer the then strange writing technique we now know so familiarly as ‘Stream of Consciousness’ but which Richardson
referred to as “Interior Monologues”. It is an enduring shame that Richardson, (who lived an unrelievedly impecunious life and died much the same way in 1957) never received her proper due for
the innovation that Woolf and Mansfied so famously exploited and perfected. In my view, Mansfield’s and Woolf’s finessed deployment of Richardson’s early invention, their brilliantly improvised non-linearity and their adamant refusal to tell rather than show, is a very female characteristic of female writerly perception. It is a perception that seizes upon the story as an artifact of intuited wholeness, and then presents it impressionistically to the reader in its carefully sorted out selection of constituent moments. Last but not least, it is quite blessedly free of the ponderous intrusions of male authorial voice.
Woolf, who was six years older, admired Mansfield’s “fierce” dedication, and when Hogarth Press was established, it was Mansfield’s work (“The Aloe”) they first solicited. Mansfield and Woolf first met around nineteen- seventeen, and on that occasion, the literary blue-blood Woolf looked askance at the colonial (New Zealander) Mansfield who was the daughter of a banker, and Woolf professed herself as being“A little shocked at her commonness at first sight. However, when this diminishes, she is so intelligent and inscrutable that she repays friendship.” Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, was to say of Mansfield, “By nature I think, she was gay, cynical, amoral, ribald, witty. When we first knew her, she was extraordinarily amusing. I don’t think anyone has ever made me laugh more than she did in those days”
And what a boon to the world this friendship of ardent rivals has been! It was a friendship of mutually high regard and admiration, each for the literary virtuosity of the other. If their association had not been attenuated by Mansfield’s ill-health (consumption), which necessitated her living in a milder climate, followed by her tragic and untimely death in 1923, the world might have seen the skills of both writers exploding in a shower of brilliant sparks to illuminate a literary form advanced to a degree we can now only imagine. It seems certain that Mansfield’s style of writing influenced Woolf’s most famous – and luminous – novels, beginning with Jacob’s Room in 1922 , Mrs. Dalloway 1925 and To the Lighthouse 1927.
Certainly the two spurred each other to develop and refine their art. Mansfield confessed to Woolf that “You are the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another.” She wrote to Woolf saying, ” My God I love to think of you, Virginia, as my friend. Don’t cry me an ardent creature or say, with your head a little on one side, smiling as though you knew some enchanting secret: ‘Well Katherine, we shall see’… But pray consider how rare it is to find some one with the same passion for writing that you have, who desires to be scrupulously truthful with you – and to give you the freedom of the city without any reserves at all.”
After Mansfield’s death in 1923, Woolf declared “I have a feeling that I shall think of her at intervals all through life.” Woolf also said rather ruefully that there was “no point in writing anymore…. Katherine won’t read it. Katherine’s my rival no longer.” And eight years later in 1931, Woolf was still dreaming of her. Somewhat earlier she had told her sister Vanessa Bell her (Woolf”s) “jealousy …. is only a film on the surface beneath which is nothing but pure generosity”.
“Bliss” published in 1920, is one among Mansfield’s most famous short-stories. It takes place over a very short space of time – the passage of a single evening – and is told from the perspective of a young woman. I sometimes wonder if Woolf may have not have got the idea of the compressed time-frame she used in Mrs. Dalloway from this story, as well as perhaps from Mansfield’s other enduring literary gem “The Garden Party,” both of which unfold between a morning and evening.
My guess about the enduring popularity of “Bliss” is not just that it represents a high-water-mark of modernist writing, nor that its young subject is a softly glowing little jewel displayed to her best advantage in a the perfect psychological setting, though both these facts are beyond dispute; my guess is that it is because, everyone who reads this story instantly recognises and vicariously experiences Mansfield’s detailed and highly accurate description of the giddily exhilarating experience we refer to as ‘falling in love’.
A poet like Robert Graves may write “Love is universal migraine/A bright stain on the vision/ Blotting out reason/… Listening for a knock,/Waiting for a sign/ For the touch of her fingers/ In a Darkened room/ For a searching look…. ” * But the whole charming process is just as susceptible to a somewhat more clinical analysis, an analysis that echoes perfectly and uncannily the details in “Bliss” of Bertha’s coup de foudre.
Some time around 1977, the psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term ‘limerence’ to refer to the highly particularised constellation of ‘symptoms’ associated with what we describe in the vernacular as falling in love. In 1979 she wrote and published a book based on her research entitled Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. The term ‘limerence’ is used to describe ‘an involuntary state of mind which seems to result from a romantic attraction to another person…. acute longing for reciprocation…. unsettling shyness in the limerent object’s presence…. intensified through adversity, obstacles, or distance…. acute sensitivity to any act, thought, or condition (in the limerant) that can be interpreted favorably…. a tendency to devise, fabricate, or invent reasonable explanations for why neutral actions are a sign of hidden passion in the limerent object….(having) a general intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background…. tending to emphasize what is admirable in the limerent object and to avoid any negative or problematic attributes….during the height of limerence (having) thoughts of the limerent object (that) are at once persistent, involuntary and intrusive…. (when) all events, associations, stimuli, and experiences return thoughts to the limerent object with unnerving consistency… a more intrusive thinking pattern… this thinking pattern is an expectant and often joyous period with the initial focusing on the limerent object’s admirable qualities… crystalisation…. (when), under appropriate conditions of hope and uncertainty, the limerence intensifies further….with evidence of reciprocation (real or imagined)… a state of extreme pleasure, even euphoria, is enjoyed. thoughts are mainly occupied with considering and reconsidering what is attractive in the limerent object, replaying whatever events may have thus far transpired with the limerent object, and appreciating personal qualities perceived as possibly having sparked interest in the limerent object….and at peak crystallization, almost all waking thoughts revolve around the limerent object’ and so on.
Bertha’s shimmering stream of ardent and exited thoughts at the intoxicating prospect of having within her reach in the beautiful and enigmatic Pearl the thing she so desperately and urgently longs for, catches exactly the slightly manic admixture of acute hope and fear and anticipatory dread-tinged euphoria of limerence. Tennov’s research suggests that the period of limerence can last up to three years, but in “Bliss” Bertha’s supernova ignites and explodes in a matter of days. Mansfield’s fast-paced, almost breathless speed of narration adds to this story its aura of hectic excited urgency.
Of course in her short-story “Bliss” Mansfield does not restrict herself to a single concern, but ranges over the whole constellation of complex social and personal matters as well. Her writing shimmers and dazzles us with her ironic pitch-perfect command of the affected dialogue of the arty set thirty-year-old Bertha (the same age as Mansfield
when she published the story) has invited to dine. Bertha’s relationship with her husband Harry is dealt with obliquely and revealingly in a few deft strokes, as is Harry’s flippantly sardonic character. We absorb the details of Bertha’s domestic situation: the relationship she has with her baby’s bossy
Nanny whose predominant tone with Bertha is one of asperity. We know Bertha chafes with the sense of ‘untouchedness’ and claustrophobia that her body “has been shut up like a rare, rare fiddle.”
We sense the urgency that she feels – of an unplayed instrument – an unsung song. We get the feel of the interior of her house, and her sudden invitation of its chilliness, and the familiar beauty of her household objects: the easy carelessness with which she instantly enlivens a room by merely flinging the cushions around and the studied care with which she arranges the fruit on the table. We sense the freighted manner in which her sense of beauty deepens and sharpens as the day goes on, and we are infected by her barely-contained anticipation of the evenings’ promise, and the interminable build-up to something which now feels like a powerful under-current pulling her into the depths away from the dull and predictable shoreline. She expects it will be vivid and new and yet in some way also culminal. We can almost glimpse the glitter in her eyes and the dilation of her pupils….
Lillian Faderman in her book Chloe plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present refers to Mansfield’s subtle treatment of lesbianism, and reveals that despite her marriages to men and her several affairs with them, Mansfield had several relationships with women. Faderman has deftly sorted through much of the biographical material now available on Mansfield to reveal several facts about her erotic life and her relationships with women, which were for many years kept hidden or glossed over. Faderman in her introduction to “Bliss” reveals that Mansfield, like many women of that era, (Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen,
Daphne Du Maurier,Vita Sackville West, Hilda Doolittle and others) was highly ambivalent about her sexuality. Faderman points out the not so very surprising fact that Mansfield wrote “Bliss” while still trailing behind her the vague entanglements of her marriage with Middleton Murry, even as she was living in France with Ida Baker who selflessly and faithfully loved and cared for Mansfield throughout her adult life.
Mansfield’s sapphic attachments began in boarding school, when she fell vibrantly and confusingly in love with a Maori Princess. When she was eighteen, and about to become engaged to a musician by the
name of Arnold Trowell, she fell in love with a woman, Edie Bendall. Faderman quotes from Mansfield’s diary: “Caesar (Trowell) is losing hold of me. Edie is waiting for me. I shall slip into her arms, They are safest. Do you love me?” And “Last night I spent in her arms – and to-night I hate her – which , being interpreted, means that I adore her: that I cannot lie in my bed and not feel the magic of her body: which means that sex means as nothing to me. I feel more powerfully all those so-termed sexual impulses with her than I have felt with any man. She enthralls, enslaves me – and her personal self – her body absolute – is my worship. I feel that to lie with my head on her breast is to feel that life can hold…. In my life – so much Love in imagination; in reality 18 barren years – never pure spontaneous affectionate impulse. Adonis was – dare I seek in the heart of me – nothing but a pose. And now she comes – and pillowed against her, clinging to her hands, her face against mine, I am a child, a woman, and more than half a man.”
Mansfield’s self-torment over her refusal – or inability – to heed and respect, or even simply to come to terms with the valid importunities and demands of her sexual orientation and sexuality, continued to plague her for the rest of her life.
Through a strange coincidence, Hogarth press, which was owned and run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and which first published Mansfield’s short story “The Aloe” (later re-named “Prelude”) was the first publisher (beginning in 1921) of Freud’s work in English. Freud’s vociferations about female sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, (now emphatically dismissed as specious and misguided) were then beginning to gain serious currency in the intellectual circles of the day. It seems to me to be more than just a little likely that when Freud’s poisonous theories were permitted to leach and seep from the toxic containment of his private speculations into the collective mind of unsuspecting English society, they may have steeped the susceptible soil of Mansfield’s thinking. If so, she was one of the earliest of the hundreds upon thousands of casualties of what I refer to as the Freudian inquisition. It might be interesting to speculate about how much of Mansfield’s sexual self-rejection had its roots in Freud’s pernicious theorising. It is clear that Mansfield was aware at a very early age of the divisions within herself. At the end of Mansfiled’s short story
“The Aloe”/ “Prelude”, there is a striking and unforgettable paragraph where one of the characters, Beryl, becomes aware that the reason for the central hollowness of her life is that she is compelled to inhabit her ‘false’ (social/external) self, while her ‘real’ self remains hidden and suppressed.
Mansfield’s first marriage in 1909 was to George Bowden, a singing teacher eleven years her senior – which is perhaps one of the briefest marriages on record, since it endured for less than day. Ida Baker accompanied her to the registry where the marriage took place. On the evening of the wedding, she ran straight back to Baker who had been her lover since 1903 when they first met at Queen’s College Oxford and Mansfield said to Baker “Let’s be friends.”
In 1918 when she was about thirty years old Mansfield embarked upon her second marital disaster, her marriage to John Middleton Murry whom she had known since 1911. It was a marriage in which the two spend more time apart than together. She expressed her views about the two of them this way: “We are both abnormal. I have too much vitality and you have not enough.” It is difficult to imagine why Mansfield married the feckless and ineffectual Murray, who gave her neither the emotional support she wanted nor the financial support she needed throughout her difficult illness and her unremitting search for a suitable home in a climate that her fragile health could tolerate, nor could Murry’s tight-fisted parsimony and his numerous affairs have done Mansfield any good. Her wedding photograph shows her standing between her fellow consumptive the writer D.H. Lawrence (who would later refer to her as “a loathsome reptile”) and his wife Frieda Richthofen, with whom Middleton Murry would later have an affair. Murry stands on the far left next to Frieda. Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Mansfield A Secret Life plausibly suggests that it was probably in 1913, while she and Murry lived briefly with Lawrence and his wife Frieda in Cornwall, that Mansfield probably contracted the disease that would kill her ten years later.
Baker’s and Mansfield’s relationship continued apace after her sporadic marriage with Middleton Murry during which she tried various arrangements to divide herself between the two. One of those arrangements was for her to have lived half the year with Middleton Murry and the other half with Baker. Mansfield’s health was not sufficiently robust to permit her exposure to the inclemencies of the English climate, so she and Baker continued living together in France. Baker nursed Mansfield during much of her final illness despite Mansfield’s less than admirable treatment of her to whom she said “I am simply unworthy of friendship as I am. I take advantage of you – demand perfection of you – crush you – And the devil of it is that even though that is true as I write it I want to laugh.” Before Mansfield died she wrote to Baker “Try and believe and keep on believing without signs from me that I do love you and want you for my wife.”
During the previous three months, beginning on October 18th 1922, Mansfield had been living at the Priory at Fontainbleau (presided over by G.I. Gurdjieff). It was here that she died of a haemorrhage following a coughing fit on the staircase on her way to bed at 10:30 at night on January the 9th. She was thirty-four, years old, and she had been suffering since 1913 from the tuberculosis which finally finished her off. Mansfield was buried on January 11th in the cemetery at Fontainbleau in Avon France. When Middleton Murry forgot to pay for the funeral, her remains were disinterred and subsequently moved by the authourities to a pauper’s (some say a communal) grave. When Mansfield’s father Harold Beauchamp learned of this indignity in 1929, he had her grave moved to its present location in the main cemetery.
Mansfield’s favourite quotation which she had chosen for the title page of Bliss and Other Stories was from Shakespeare’s Henry IV part one – “… out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower safety.” It was said to be the epitaph on her gravestones, but photographs of the grave stone show no such inscription. Mansfield’s last words were “I love the rain. I want the feeling of it on my face.” We can still marvel – and find much to admire in the fact that she did her most prolific writing despite being in the grip of a fatal illness, in the final years of her life.
*Robert Graves ‘Signs of Love’
This gloomy ending to Mansfield’s life prompts me to insert, as a sort of ameliorating amendment, some photographs I might suppose to have been extracted from Bertha’s album, and which might serve to reassure us that she did not make the same mistakes as Mansfield, and that she went on to have the kind of future presaged by the blossoms of her lovely little pear tree.
From The Album: