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Posts Tagged ‘Katherine Mansfield’

I adore Katherine Mansfield’s short stories – some of which I swear I could happily read over and over. Therefore, I had been looking forward to Journal which I have had waiting for the perfect moment for some time. Unfortunately, I don’t think I did necessarily choose the right moment, I think my mood wasn’t quite right for this book – which has so many beautiful, wonderful nuggets within it that I can’t possibly take anything away from it – I just wasn’t as delighted by it as perhaps I had assumed I would be. That said, there is always lots to love about Mansfield’s writing – and I learned more about her the woman, reading this, than I knew before – so all in all it was a positive read – I just wish I had felt more enthusiastic at the time. Definitely a case of right book, not quite right time.  

A few years before this Journal begins, Katherine Mansfield has left her native New Zealand for Europe – where she remained – living at multiple addresses throughout the period- until her death. London, Cornwall, France, Italy, and Switzerland it appears that Katherine was for ever packing up and travelling from one place to another. We see these places through her wonderful eye – and experience her delight in often the simplest things – her wants seem to have been few – she took joy from the smallest of things.

“The heavens opened for the sunset to-night. When I had thought the day folded and sealed, came a burst of heavenly bright petals.”

Various friends and acquaintances flit in and out of these pieces, referred to by their initials – there is an explanation of who each set of initials refers to in the front of the book. Her one constant companion – aside from John, who sometimes stayed in London when Katherine went abroad – is LM – Ida Baker who Katherine called Lesley Moore who was a loyal and constant presence in her life until she died.

Compiled by her husband John Middleton; after Katherine Mansfield’s death it is a uniquely personal and revealing book. I know John Middleton has come in for criticism in the past – accused perhaps of benefitting too greatly from his wife’s legacy and making decisions to publish things that Katherine would rather he hadn’t. I think perhaps that is why I often feel a little uncomfortable reading collections like this – I can never quite escape the little voice in my head whispering – ‘would she want me to read this?’ Still, I do love Katherine Mansfield – not just her writing – but her – the person she was, complex, creative, flawed and often a little sad. One day I will read this Journal again – because it is wonderful, and next time, I will be in a better mood – and appreciate it even more.

Journal is a book of many kinds of writing, there are diary entries, unposted letters, writing drafts and reminiscences. One of the things that certainly struck me early on is the honesty with which Katherine wrote here – she is hugely self-critical and always observant. Chronicling the last twelve years of her life we see her in every kind of mood – in love, in happiness in delight in the world around her but also in grief, despair and of course in illness.

“By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love — the earth and the wonders thereof — the sea — the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. A want to enter into it, to be part of it, to live in it, to learn from it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it’s no good — there’s only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun. About helping others, about carrying a light and so on, it seems false to say a single word. Let it be at that. A child of the sun.”

Her creativity is in evidence throughout – her stories never very far from her mind – her battles to perfect her writing – and her great desire to see her work in print. She would read her stories to John and when he pronounced them good she would be pleased, but later self -doubt would creep in and unsettle her again, this is so often the case with those writers we later declare genius!

“Saw the sun rise. A lovely apricot sky with flames in it and then solemn pink. Heavens, how beautiful…I feel so full of love to-day after having seen the sun rise.”

Often writing in reflective mood, Katherine writes about her childhood – memories of New Zealand would swamp her. She writes about her mother from whom she never felt love – and her adored grandmother for who she still felt a great loss. Her beloved brother is killed almost as soon as he stepped on to French soil during the First World War, and a note from Middleton tells us sadly, that of all her friends who went to war, none came home. Yet, despite this we get little sense at all of the war – even though the war years make up a large part of this Journal. In a sense the world she writes about is fairly narrow – but it is all her own.

Journal is a book full of beautiful, tender moments – written by a woman who must have known her time was limited – and who strove to leave something of herself behind through her writing.

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I have been meaning to read more Katherine Mansfield for months – and it is only because my tbr is so absurd that this tiny gem nearly got forgotten. The Aloe is the only novel (novella would be more correct it is less than 100 pages) of Katherine Mansfield’s it was published posthumously in 1930. It is the original version of what became Prelude – an exquisite short story first published by the Hogarth Press in 1918 – and which opens the Bliss and other stories collection.

There is a foreword by Kirsty Gunn in this lovely Capuchin Classic, who tells us:

“This is Katherine Mansfield making ‘a home for herself in words’, to paraphrase a line taken from the cultural and literary critic Edward Said when he’s describing what it is to be a writer. She is bringing together her broken life that is spread in bits about the world, the memories of her dead brother and her estranged family, all gathered into one house, one place, one time.”

(Foreword – Kirsty Gunn )

Katherine Mansfield wrote three short stories about the Burnell family – Prelude, At the Bay and The Dolls House – I think I could read them again and again they are so wonderful. So, when I found out about The Aloe – a longer, rather different version of Prelude – I bought it immediately. Those three stories and The Garden Party – about the Sheridan family Mansfield wrote in response to her own memories of childhood.  Kezia Burnell is the child character who represents the childhood of Katherine Mansfield, and throughout these stories she is beautifully portrayed. I think we can feel Mansfield’s yearning for her childhood – the place she brings us to here – is so warm and comforting.

This novella opens in a not dissimilar way to the story of Prelude – the Burnell family are moving to their new home in the New Zealand countryside. The buggy is piled high with people and belongings with not an inch of room for Kezia and her older sister Lottie. So, the two little girls get to spend the day at their neighbours the Samuel Johnson family. They are altogether different to the Burnells.

“The Samuel Josephs were not a family. They were a swarm. The moment you entered the house they cropped up and jumped out at you from under the tables, through the stair rails, behind the doors, behind the coats in the passage. Impossible to count them: impossible to distinguish between them.”

Later, following tea and games in the garden the storeman arrives to finally take Lottie and Kezia to the new house, tucked up in the buggy they watch the countryside fly by under evening skies.

“It was the first time that Lottie and Kezia had ever been out so late. Everything looked different – the painted wooden houses much smaller than they did by day, the trees and the gardens far bigger and wilder. Bright stars speckled the sky and the moon hung over the harbour dabbling the waves with gold. They could see the light house shining from Quarantine Island, the green lights fore and aft on the old black coal hulks.”

At the new house, the children are immediately hurried off to bed by their Grandmother. The next day they begin to get to know their surroundings. Stanley Burnell goes off to work, leaving behind Linda, his wife, her sister Beryl, their mother Mrs Fairfield and the children. Linda is dreamy, her sister sings love songs to an imaginary young man. The children ‘cook’ lunch on a concrete step outside the house, Kezia spots the Aloe plant in the garden. The children witness the killing of a duck for supper, Stanley looks forward to getting home to his beloved – and some nearby cousins pay a visit.

In The Aloe Katherine Mansfield paints an exquisite portrait of family life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Quite frankly, I love spending time with this family – and while I haven’t read all Katherine Mansfield’s stories yet – I could re-read those concerning the Burnells endlessly.

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When I read my first collection of short-stories by Katherine Mansfield I was sure it wouldn’t be long before I read my next. Well that was five years ago!

The Montana Stories was one of those odd gaps I had in my Persephone collection – I had meant to acquire a copy for years. I love collections of short-stories – and I have no idea why I left it so long to get and read this one – it is glorious.

The Montana Stories ticked off 2001 in my A Century of Books – which felt like a bit of a cheat, because all the stories were written in 1921 – but this collection was only put together by Persephone in 2001. In 1921, Katherine Mansfield, very ill with TB went to stay in a chalet in Montana, Switzerland for her health. This period became one of her most creative periods – and the pieces in this collection are presented chronologically – which is often such an interesting way to read a writer’s work. This collection contains short stories and unfinished fragments – and some extracts from her letters in the editorial notes at the back. The unfinished stories can be a little frustrating – though still beautiful to read. Some of these unfinished pieces end less abruptly and could be seen as having an ambiguous ending – other pieces end more suddenly. Many of the stories in this edition had been previously published in The Spectator – and illustrations that accompanied those stories are reproduced here too.

montana switz

With so many very short stories and fragments in this collection I am only to talk about three particular stories in any detail – but I really can’t stress how perfect every word of the whole collection is. What a truly gifted writer Katherine Mansfield was. Some other stories that will stay with me particularly are: Mr and Mrs Dove, Marriage á la Mode and A Cup of Tea, as well as the frustratingly unfinished A Married Man’s story.

In Bliss and other Stories (1920) – the collection opens with Prelude – a story still that is very memorable to me five years later. In that story we meet the Burnell family – perhaps that story is so memorable for me because it was my introduction to Katherine Mansfield. So, imagine my delight to find not one but two more stories in The Montana Stories featuring the Burnell family; At the Bay and The Doll’s House. One of the daughters of the Burnell family is Kezia – and I read something, somewhere online that suggests that Kezia is an autobiographical character, having little patience with conventional society rules. These two stories were perhaps not surprisingly among my favourites in the collection.

“As the morning lengthened whole parties appeared over the sand-hills and came down on the beach to bathe. It was understood that at eleven o’clock the women and children of the summer colony had the sea to themselves. First the women undressed, pulled on their bathing dresses and covered their heads in hideous caps like sponge bags; then the children were unbuttoned. The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells. It was strange that even the sea seemed to sound differently when all those leaping, laughing figures ran into the waves.”
(At the Bay)

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In At the Bay, Stanley Burnell, Kezia’s father goes out for an early morning swim, then returns to the house for breakfast before leaving for work. When he leaves, the women and children – left behind – breathe a sigh of relief. Aunt Beryl talks coolly to a society woman, while Kezia’s mother daydreams the day away, her latest baby at her side – leaving the majority of the household tasks to be supervised by Kezia’s grandmother. It is a beautifully atmospheric story – suffused with a feeling of long, indolent sunny days, bathing, dreaming and talking the day away, until the time comes for the men to return.

In The Doll’s House the Burnell children are given a fabulous Doll’s House that is so large it has to sit outside the house in the garden. The house opens up to reveal tiny, beautifully furnished rooms, Kezia is particularly enchanted by a lamp. The children delight in telling the other children at school all about their doll’s house, Kezia’s older sister reserves the right to do the telling first, she is, after all, the eldest. They are permitted to bring their friends home to see it – a couple at a time, glorying in the envy and delight the other children have for it. However, they are not allowed to bring the Kelveys – who no one else ever associates with the Kelvey siblings either. No one knows who their father is – and their mother is the washerwoman. It is only Kezia who is made uncomfortable by such rules and dares to go against them.

“The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat prised it open with his penknife, and the whole house swung back, and – there you were gasping at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat stand and two umbrellas! That is – isn’t it? – what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker.”
(The Doll’s House)

Another of Katherine Mansfield’s most well-known stories in this collection, is The Garden Party – and this too is utterly masterful. The Sheridan family are preparing for their garden party. Daughter Laura has been put in charge of ensuring the marquee is put in the correct place, while her sister Jose tests the piano. Their mother has ordered masses of lilies and the girls are enchanted by the flowers. As the preparations near completion, the family learn that a working-class neighbour has been killed in an accident, leaving behind a wife and children. Laura thinks the party should be called off out of respect but neither her mother or sister agree. Later she is asked to take a basket of left-overs to the family. The Sheridan sisters also appear briefly in the story Her First Ball.

Persephone short story collections are always a hit with me – I’ve yet to read one that isn’t fabulous. This collection reminds me that I haven’t read nearly enough Katherine Mansfield – and I do have another collection waiting on my kindle.

katherine mansfield

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It is possibly surprising that I had not read any Katherine Mansfield before now, but I am fairly sure that I hadn’t. I downloaded this collection to my kindle free – there are so many amazing free books to be found out there! I must say that I always find it quite difficult to review collections of short stories, but anyway here goes.
There are fourteen stories in this collection, and while there were a couple I couldn’t quite see the point of – the majority I found to be wonderful. The writing is really very beautiful, and the characterisation surprisingly deft considering how short some of these pieces are. The stories concern small incidents in the lives of the characters – highlighting their disappointments, naiveties and quiet angers.
Two of my favourite stories were the first story Prelude, and the title story Bliss. In Prelude a family move from town to a large house in the country – there are four adults and three children, nothing very much happens – but the setting and characterisation are just glorious. In the title story Bliss – a young woman is about to get a rude awakening from her perfect life. Then the way Mansfield ends this sharp little piece is just masterly, in complete contrast to the start.

“Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply.
What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss! – as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?”

The little governess is another of the stories that will stay with me – an innocent young woman journeys by train to her new appointment, and meets a grandfatherly type of man who she naively fails to realise has other interests in her. I also rather loved the story Pictures, a sad little tale about a young woman contralto who can’t pay her rent and is trying to get a job as a singer or an actress. She and others like her dreaming of the big time, the realities of life coming much sharper.
This collection has really piqued my interest in Katherine Mansfield – so I’m sure that I will be reading more of her work at some point.

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