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Sunday, 10 April 2011

Book Review: Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin

I've always been fascinated by Katherine Mansfield, despite never knowing much about her. I came across her when writing my undergraduate dissertation on poet, Charlotte Mew, and promptly bought Mansfield's The Collected Stories at Waterstones. It's an epic volume and I'm sorry to say I haven't yet had the discipline to get through it (for my musings on my short story reading habits take a look here). Nevertheless, after reading Tomalin's book I may be inspired to return to the collection.

Published in 1987, this book followed two other biographies of Mansfield by Jeffrey Meyers and Antony Alpers in 1978 and 1980 respectively. Throughout, when drawing different conclusions about certain events, Tomalin is just to their research. That's important because in some cases when biographers ignore each other the end result can feel artificial, as though the subject is being seen through a lens. Tomalin's account avoids that by her outright admissions on why she's differing from her predecessors. She also doesn't either sentimentalise Mansfield or turn her into a hate figure, both of which are possible with the material available.

Mansfield is probably most famous (outside her writing) for dying at the young age of 34 from tuberculosis. Tomalin attributes her other health problems to complications stemming from gonorrhoea and demonstrates how these debilitating illnesses affected her throughout her life. The image portrayed here is of a woman physically tortured but unwilling to submit to the pain. Tomalin also analyses many of her friends and acquaintances in-depth. The friendships with D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf are shown in the light of her relationships with other people, particularly her second husband, John Middleton Murry.

Murry is not portrayed very sympathetically, though his actions both during her life and after it suggest the negative attitude is justified. Tomalin generally documents without judging, especially when Murry's relationships with other women are concerned. The same can be said when she describes Mansfield's complicated relationship history. However, the feeling that Murry hindered Mansfield shines through the biography, although her connection to him was unshakable until the end.

The person I found most intriguing in this book, almost more than Mansfield herself, was her lifelong friend, Ida Constance Baker, whom she met at school in London. Baker's devoted attitude towards Mansfield, despite being the victim of frequent quarrels with her, is both a joy to read and quite painful. On the one hand, Mansfield desperately needed the stability of friendship Baker offered; on the other, Baker was treated as something of a servant on occasion and certainly deserved more affection than Mansfield showed her at times. Baker was sent away from her friend by her father earlier in life due to their 'unwise attachment'.

Mansfield had relationships with both men and women in her youth, though she developed a dislike of lesbianism later in life. There are mentions of these attachments, including those towards Martha Grace and Edith Bendall. An interesting appendix to the book is a fragment, 'Leves Amores', which is homoerotic and very striking as an example of this 'other' aspect of Mansfield's nature.

There is far too much in this book to be condensed into a review. It's very readable, not exceptionally long but detailed enough to satisfy curiosity. The second appendix offered is an account of Mansfield's apparent plagiarism of Chekhov provided in the form of argumentative letters. This is a wonderfully clear biography that doesn't shirk from showing Mansfield's selfish, careless and occasionally malicious personality, but Tomalin shows, rather than tells, things to which some of her behaviour can be attributed.

As Tomalin sums up: 'At her least likeable, she adopted sentimental postures, and used them as a shield for treacherous malice. Yet how much there is that is admirable about her. She was always more interested in the external world than in her own suffering. She was a worker to her bones, and prized the effort required by craft. She fought, bravely, stubbornly, tenaciously, against two terrifying and incurable diseases that finally destroyed her. If she was never a saint, she was certainly a martyr, and a heroine in her recklessness, her dedication and her courage.'

I read this as part of the LGBT Book Challenge 2011 (see sidebar for details).

The book can be purchased here.


Crafty Green Poet said...

It sounds like an interesting book, though I don't often read biographies to be honest

CharmedLassie said...

I think you have to be very interested in the subject to make one worth reading, otherwise it can seem like you're reading about illness and family meltdowns which are vile and make you a little uneasy. If I want to read that kind of thing I usually prefer it to be all made up.

Annie said...

I didn't know Tomalin, whom I very much respect, had written on Mansfield. I studied her as an undergraduate and read all her stories as well as her letters and journals, but it was before this would have appeared. My favourite comment from her journals was always her discovery that

I cannot burn the candle at one end and write a book with the other.

Something we all have to learn.

CharmedLassie said...

As I was going through the book there were so many little quotes like that which summed up writing for me!

I've just inherited all my grandfather's old books and I noticed Tomalin's analysis of Dickens and Nelly Ternan in a box. I'm definitely going to read that at some point as her style is so relaxed while being accurate and informative.

Di said...

I loved this book and found your post while searching for information about the book. I've just finished it ... I'm a New Zealander who was never really taught about this particular NZer. I wish I had been. I find so much that is familiar in her. We antipodeans are a different kind of creature perhaps. I live in Belgium these days but this book ... it gave me a huge sense of longing for home.