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Posts Tagged ‘Stream of consciousness’

Robert Graves (July 24 1895 - December 7 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Gabble-gabble,… brethren, …gabble – gabble!”
My window frames forest and heather.
I hardly hear the tuneful babble,
Not knowing not much caring whether
The text is praise or exhortation,
Prayer or thanksgiving, or damnation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside it blows wetter and wetter,
The tossing trees never stay still.
I shift my elbows to catch better
The full round and sweep of heathered hill.
The tortured copse bends to and fro
In silence like a shadow-show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The parson’s voice runs like a river
Over smooth rocks, I like this church:
The pews are staid, they never shiver,
They never bend or sway or lurch.
“Prayer,” says the kind voice, “is like a chain
That draws down Grace from Heaven again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I add the hymns up, over and over,
Until there’s not the least mistake.
Seven-seventy-one. (look! there’s a plover!
It’s gone!) Who’s that Saint by the lake?
The red light from his mantle passes
Across the broad memorial brasses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s pleasant here for dreams and thinking,
Lolling and letting reason nod,
With ugly serious people linking
Sad prayers to a forgiving God….
But a dumb blast sets the trees swaying
With furious zeal like madmen praying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alright then, in deference to recent comments,  here is a belated 2¢ worth.

 

 

The marvelous thing about this poem – besides its astringency,  vibrancy and  precocious irreverence, is the that it observes the present moment with the use of all the natural  senses – excepting perhaps smell – the absence of which, in the close confines of a weather-beset English congregation might have been more than just a qualified mercy.

It is interesting for me to see Graves use the characteristically very female literary device of ‘Stream of Consciousness’,  in order to drive his poem, and in addition, to place before us the streaming thoughts of this very appealing child.

Others, of course most notably James Joyce, plundered the form and made off with the loot to his great remunerative and professional advantage, (though Dorothy  Richardson herself, who invented the style,  died in poverty) but I don’t think that before I came across this poem, I had found Graves to have adopted this particular style.

As  I read “A Boy in Church,” the thought began to occur to me for the first time that this form and style may indeed have originated in the mind of the little Dorothy Richardson during her childhood. 

And why shouldn’t it after all? Neotony is of course one of the outstanding hallmarks of cognitively superiorly developed species —  and the skills and perceptions we form in childhood repeatedly prove to be the fertile ground from which our most vigorous adult perceptions spring. The works of Virgina Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are replete with childhood recollections, retrieved, re-worked and re-inserted directly into their novels and short-stories.

The consciousness in Grave’s  poem is brisk, with no trace of  the  laxity  one expects to find in the company of wandering thoughts  frequently provoked when in boring surroundings. There is a huge appreciation for each of the things which rise up to charm engage and captivate the mind, both inside the church and in the rain-sodden world outside.

The trees swaying in the drunken ecstasy of their prayers are in stark, melodramatic contrast to the parson’s trite and banal addresses: this service after all, is demonstrably missing the uninhibited histrionics of Pentecostal fervour , and instead  asserts the very staid, steadfast and carefully measured  progress of the Church of England ritual.

The boy likes the weighted substantiality of his place of worship, which is echoed reassuringly in the well put-together pews and their sober solidity. This is unsurprising, because even as children find them to be dull and restrictive, the steady reliable social norms and structures  which surround them tend to provide children with the stable white noise in the backgrounds of their childhoods, over which the real orchestra of original thinking can make its more complex music.

The windows in my own childhood church (staunchly Methodist) I remember as being above my head level and translucent, so as to permit the entrance of light but not of distractions. This might have been a very good thing for us schoolgirls for whom attendance at two church services on Sundays was compulsory. Nevertheless we contrived to while away the tedious hours playing with our handkerchiefs, folding and unfolding the corners to make little roses, and surreptitiously scraping the beeswax off the pews to form into little grey balls, as prisoners are said in the past to have rolled up their prison bread as a means of keeping count of the days, and we used these little grey masses to stick our collection money onto the backs of the pews which faced us.

The hymns were always curious and wonderful – I remember most of them even now. They were never the anæmic, politically correct pablum one hears today, but settled and confident in doctrinal assurance. They were firmly unembarrassed in their assertions and  prejudices. One hymn in particular comes to mind – “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, which had a verse in which Ceylon was described as being a place “Where every prospect pleases but only man is vile.” We all sang these lines imperturbably and   without a trace of disquiet.

As a product of a British Colonial upbringing, I absorbed much of its calm certainties in the love of order which expresses itself in my tastes even today.  When I say  ‘order’ I don’t mean the staleness of unquestioned assumptions etc, but the beauty and balance required in order to make coherent the fast flowing current of thought and give it the structure it needs to stand up as a piece of writing. Respect for order is something I always recognise and appreciate in a Grave’s poem: Order such as  can take the onrush of thoughts and usher them in diligent retrospect into the necessary complements of stanzas, rhymes, metres etc needed to make a poem, but with the unobtrusive practicality which places such linguistic implements in attendance of the main subject  so to speak, so that they stand like attentive guardians who watch a child at play without interfering, unless she appears to be about to stumble into the deep end of the fish pond.

This Robert Graves does as he does everything else – vibrantly, efficiently, admirably and believably in matters of original insight and thinking – even in a deceptively simple little poem such as this. Graves brought the same degree of Lexical, Philological and Orthographic polish and rigour to his prose works, both fiction and non-fiction, which is why in these times of passive and negligent reading, he is not nearly as appreciated as other writers who are far less deserving of recognition.

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Virginia Woolf (January 25th 1882-March 28th 1941)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, here we are, and if you cast your eye over the room you will see that Tubes and trams and omnibuses, private carriages not a few, even, I venture to believe, landaus with bays in them, have been busy at it, weaving threads from one end of London to the other. Yet I begin to have my doubts—   If indeed it’s true, as they’re saying, that Regent Street is up, and the Treaty signed, and the weather not cold for the time of year, and even at that rent not a flat to be had, and the worst of influenza its after effects; if I bethink me of having forgotten to write about the leak in the larder, and left my glove in the train; if the ties of blood require me, leaning forward, to accept cordially the hand which is perhaps offered hesitatingly—     “Seven years since we met!”      “The last time in Venice.”     “And where are you living now?”    “Well, the late afternoon suits me the best, though, if it weren’t asking too much——”     “But I knew you at once!”   “Still, the war made a break——”     If the mind’s shot through by such little arrows, and—for human society compels it—no sooner is one launched than another presses forward; if this engenders heat and in addition they’ve turned on the electric light; if saying one thing does, in so many cases, leave behind it a need to improve and revise, stirring besides regrets, pleasures, vanities, and desires—if it’s all the facts I mean, and the hats, the fur boas, the gentlemen’s swallow-tail coats, and pearl tie-pins that come to the surface—what chance is there?     Of what? It becomes every minute more difficult to say why, in spite of everything, I sit here believing I can’t now say what, or even remember the last time it happened.     “Did you see the procession?”    “The King looked cold.”    “No, no, no. But what was it?”     “She’s bought a house at Malmesbury.”   “How lucky to find one!”  On the contrary, it seems to me pretty sure that she, whoever she may be, is damned, since it’s all a matter of flats and hats and sea gulls, or so it seems to be for a hundred people sitting here well dressed, walled in, furred, replete. Not that I can boast, since I too sit passive on a gilt chair, only turning the earth above a buried memory, as we all do, for there are signs, if I’m not mistaken, that we’re all recalling something, furtively seeking something. Why fidget? Why so anxious about the sit of cloaks; and gloves—whether to button or unbutton? Then watch that elderly face against the dark canvas, a moment ago urbane and flushed; now taciturn and sad, as if in shadow. Was it the sound of the second violin tuning in the ante-room? Here they come; four black figures, carrying instruments, and seat themselves facing the white squares under the downpour of light; rest the tips of their bows on the music stand; with a simultaneous movement lift them; lightly poise them, and, looking across at the player opposite, the first violin counts one, two, three——    Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain. Fountains jet; drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy where—it’s difficult this—conglomeration of fish all in a pool; leaping, splashing, scraping sharp fins; and such a boil of current that the yellow pebbles are churned round and round, round and round—free now, rushing downwards, or even somehow ascending in exquisite spirals into the air; curled like thin shavings from under a plane; up and up…. How lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through the world! Also in jolly old fishwives, squatted under arches, oh scene old women, how deeply they laugh and shake and rollick, when they walk, from side to side, hum, hah!   “That’s an early Mozart, of course——”   “But the tune, like all his tunes, makes one despair—I mean hope. What do I mean? That’s the worst of music! I want to dance, laugh, eat pink cakes, yellow cakes, drink thin, sharp wine. Or an indecent story, now—I could relish that. The older one grows the more one likes indecency. Hall, hah! I’m laughing. What at? You said nothing, nor did the old gentleman opposite…. But suppose—suppose—Hush!”     The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight. Woven together, inextricably commingled, bound in pain and strewn in sorrow—crash!     The boat sinks. Rising, the figures ascend, but now leaf thin, tapering to a dusky wraith, which, fiery tipped, draws its twofold passion from my heart. For me it sings, unseals my sorrow, thaws compassion, floods with love the sunless world, nor, ceasing, abates its tenderness but deftly, subtly, weaves in and out until in this pattern, this consummation, the cleft ones unify; soar, sob, sink to rest, sorrow and joy.   Why then grieve? Ask what? Remain unsatisfied? I say all’s been settled; yes; laid to rest under a coverlet of rose leaves, falling. Falling. Ah, but they cease. One rose leaf, falling from an enormous height, like a little parachute dropped from an invisible balloon, turns, flutters waveringly. It won’t reach us.    “No, no. I noticed nothing. That’s the worst of music—these silly dreams. The second violin was late, you say?”    “There’s old Mrs. Munro, feeling her way out—blinder each year, poor woman—on this slippery floor.”     Eyeless old age, grey-headed Sphinx…. There she stands on the pavement, beckoning, so sternly, the red omnibus.    “How lovely! How well they play! How—how—how!”  The tongue is but a clapper. Simplicity itself. The feathers in the hat next me are bright and pleasing as a child’s rattle. The leaf on the plane-tree flashes green through the chink in the curtain. Very strange, very exciting.    “How—how—how!” Hush!    These are the lovers on the grass.  “If, madam, you will take my hand——”   “Sir, I would trust you with my heart. Moreover, we have left our bodies in the banqueting hall. Those on the turf are the shadows of our souls.”  “Then these are the embraces of our souls.” The lemons nod assent. The swan pushes from the bank and floats dreaming into mid stream.    “But to return. He followed me down the corridor, and, as we turned the corner, trod on the lace of my petticoat. What could I do but cry ‘Ah!’ and stop to finger it? At which he drew his sword, made passes as if he were stabbing something to death, and cried, ‘Mad! Mad! Mad!’ Whereupon I screamed, and the Prince, who was writing in the large vellum book in the oriel window, came out in his velvet skull-cap and furred slippers, snatched a rapier from the wall—the King of Spain’s gift, you know—on which I escaped, flinging on this cloak to hide the ravages to my skirt—to hide… But listen! the horns!”   The gentleman replies so fast to the lady, and she runs up the scale with such witty exchange of compliment now culminating in a sob of passion, that the words are indistinguishable though the meaning is plain enough—love, laughter, flight, pursuit, celestial bliss—all floated out on the gayest ripple of tender endearment—until the sound of the silver horns, at first far distant, gradually sounds more and more distinctly, as if seneschals were saluting the dawn or proclaiming ominously the escape of the lovers…. The green garden, moonlit pool, lemons, lovers, and fish are all dissolved in the opal sky, across which, as the horns are joined by trumpets and supported by clarions there rise white arches firmly planted on marble pillars…. Tramp and trumpeting. Clang and clangour. Firm establishment. Fast foundations. March of myriads. Confusion and chaos trod to earth. But this city to which we travel has neither stone nor marble; hangs enduring; stands unshakable; nor does a face, nor does a flag greet or welcome. Leave then to perish your hope; droop in the desert my joy; naked advance. Bare are the pillars; auspicious to none; casting no shade; resplendent; severe. Back then I fall, eager no more, desiring only to go, find the street, mark the buildings, greet the applewoman, say to the maid who opens the door: A starry night.    “Good night, good night. You go this way?”     “Alas. I go that.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When she wrote this Modernist  short story  in 1921 as part of a collection of eight short-stories called “Monday or Tuesday”, Virginia Woolf was thirty nine years old. She had allowed herself the indulgence of writing this way, between her more serious writing commitments  as a treat and a reward, for persisting with the much more demanding task of novel writing.

That she had fun writing this piece is something that is seems clearly undeniable, but beneath the rush of words on can almost hear the persistent hum of anxiety – like the whine of a machine that is overheating and cannot be turned off.

The style of writing classified as ‘Stream of Consciousness’ is one that documents the flow of thoughts and images as they arise and fall away to be replaced by others in the waking mind, but ‘The String Quartet’ is not so much a stream as a torrent.

The hectic pace of Woolf’s thoughts in this run-away short story clearly conveys ‘pressure of speech – one of the hallmarks of a manic episode.

It is only with difficulty that any connections at all can be found between the seemingly inexhaustible images.

We are all familiar with the kinds of reveries that overtake us when we are caught up in listening to music – when a kind of day-dream comes over us, and while our eyes remain unseeing, we watch transfixed  the shifting scenes that float across the screen of our imaginations.

The enjambments of images maintain a connection with the movements and notes in a manner that is coherent – meaning that they in one fashion or another cohere.
There might not be any discernible meaning in the unfolding process, but while the trance or reverie lasts, it conveys us in a reasonably smooth way from one point of the music to another.

Not so in the case of this story. There seems to be an almost strident out-of- synch cacophony of thought that begins with the social contract between two unnamed people, and their ensuing decision to attend a performance together.
Though the story is called ‘The String Quartet’ – there appears to be no apparent reason why it should be so called.

We have no idea of what the evening’s program was – except that it included some Mozart.  Now, I have to admit that the sheer  busyness of Mozart’s music seems to me to be terribly conducive to racing thoughts – but here the thoughts have clearly begun to race long before even the first notes of music were heard.  Here music and images seem to run along their separate grooves, and only occasionally swerve to overlap.

A mind that grasps each fragmented moment of time as it passes is something quite different from a fragmented mind – and the consciousness that we see displayed in ‘The String Quartet’ belongs to the latter and not to the former type.

This is The mirror cracked from side to side and then broken into a further thousand splinters. It has the crazed onrush of uncontrolled images which are not associated ideas – there is no sociability in them – they are a mad crowd of thoughts jostling to clamber one atop the other in their haste to be selected.

Woolf had at least five major manic episodes in her life, and during one of them she talked non-stop for three days. During her first manic episode at the age of nineteen, she heard the sparrows outside her window speaking in Greek. We have no idea what they said – whether they were the auspicious emissaries of Aphrodite, or the less unfortunate ones that God is  always said to see as they fall, but without the benefit of the least kind intervention on his part.

If we should stop to consider that this fast- flowing lahar of torrential thoughts was collected and recorded and inflected to reveal humour and irony and order in the midst of manifest chaos, we can begin to grasp the huge degree of skill and talent that went into the task: It would seem akin to an announcer fluently and unhesitatingly calling a horse-race of a thousand horses, with each word clearly enunciated, and the winner spotted in the moment that a blur of noses approach and touch the finish line.

That writing saved and sustained Woolf’s life – until the completion and revision of her final novel Between the Acts,  is undeniable. That it served as a substitute for engaging directly with the world beyond the one that she created within her own mind is something that is beyond our ability to determine with any degree of certainty. What is certain, however, and that beyond any shadow of a doubt, is Woolf’s brilliant facility to orient herself as an observer of fugitive thoughts and fleeting moments. Her surpassing skill in this regard has never, in my opinion, been even distantly approximated.

We all know from time-to time what it means to be possessed by our own teeming thoughts, but our unidentifiable little demons seldom obey our orders, or even so much as do our bidding.  Woolf’s Gadarene legions  on the other hand, would all seem  to be known to her by name, and It would appear that she could compel them by some expulsive command to leap over the cliff of her awareness in such a fashion that she could skillfully order them take their proper places and assume the form of a brilliant piece of writing such as this.

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Katherine Mansfield circa 1913

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Virginia Woolf

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.

Mansfield ( top left) and her siblings.

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

Ida Baker

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,

Mansfield’s and Murry’s ‘wedding’ photograph’ with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda von Richthofen.

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

Edith Bendall

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Middleton Murry

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.

George Bowden

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.

The staircase at the Priory at Fontainbleau

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:

Bertha, a few months before her marriage to Harry

The week before the engagement

The afternoon of the party…

Pearl aged 18 posing for a fashion photograph

Pearl: Publicity Shot.

Mr. and Mrs. Norman Knight at their wedding

Bertha in her mid-thirties

Bertha’s girlfriend Vivian Demmer.

Bertha in her late thirties, in a portrait commissioned by Viv

Bertha’s younger sister Coleen, who introduced her to Vivian

Those vexing pear blossoms….

Pearl in her early forties.

Coleen’s Dutch girlfriend Annelise

Bertha dressed up for a night at ‘Le Monocle’

Bertha’s and Coleen’s friend Deirdre de Vos

Andrea Hunter Deirdre’s girlfriend

The Norman Knights on a bridge night with Harry and Pearl

Little B and her dog Bluey

Viv’s dog Handy

Bertha’s dog Honey

Colleen and Annelises’ dog Virgie

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