by Perry Meisel
"My theory," wrote Virginia Woolf in 1923, six months after her friend Katherine Mansfield had died of consumption at the age of 34, "is that while she possessed the most amazing senses of her generation . . . she was as weak as water" - Woolf suddenly grew impatient - "when she had to use her mind." Mansfield may have lacked the larger, shaping powers required to construct novels, but the lyric intensities of her exquisite short fictions are sufficient proof of her considerable gifts. The self-portrait that emerges in the first of four projected volumes of her "Collected Letters" is, not surprisingly, a luminous and affecting one.
Mansfield's forthright stance and extraordinary sense of self should dispel the two biographical myths that have endangered her reputation. She was neither a mistress of manipulation nor an unappreciated genius. "I'm only the jam in the golden pill," she wrote in 1915, "and I know my place." Born in New Zealand in 1888 as Kathleen Beauchamp (she delighted in using different names throughout her life), Mansfield narrates her journey from the outpost of Empire to its center. After girlhood schooling in England, she decided to leave New Zealand forever. As she explained to her sister Vera, "there is really no scope for development - no intellectual society - no hope of finding any."
London, of course, was the only alternative. Although Mansfield's colonial status marked her as a perpetual outsider, she made her way in the capital with pluck and stamina. Snug in lodgings in Gray's Inn Road, the newly fashionable bohemian neighborhood adjacent to Bloomsbury, the young writer was ecstatic. "Everything," she wrote to a friend in 1911, "is a wonder." The intellectual figures with whom she mixed included D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
In 1911, Mansfield also met John Middleton Murry, then a student at Oxford, and, like herself, a writer (he was to become editor of the Athenaeum in 1919); her entrance into the worlds of love and letters was thereby secured. Precocious to a fault, Mansfield had already had two painful romantic experiences, one leading to marriage and divorce, the other to pregnancy and miscarriage. Murry was, by contrast, her anchor, and he remained her emotional and intellectual focus. Soothing his inherent bitterness ("You must not really hate life"), she also learned to quell her own turbulence both as a person and as a writer: "In my heart I am happy," she declared in 1915, "because I feel that I have come into my own."
So intense was the relationship, however, that Mansfield retreated for a time to Paris, then to Bandol in the south of France. Her visionary predilection flourished in the Mediterranean warmth: "The sea is roaring out the Psalms," she wrote to Murry on Christmas morning in 1915. Although Mansfield's editors, Vincent O'Sullivan, who is lecturer in English at Victoria University at Wellington, New Zealand, and Margaret Scott, who has written extensively on Mansfield, share the popular misconception that Mansfield was a tissue of masks, the letters from Bandol are eloquent testimony to her daunting authenticity. "I seem to have only played on the fringe of love," she confided, again to Murry, "and lived a kind of reflected life that was not really my own but that came from my past - Now all that is cast away."
On her return to England, she and Murry moved to Cornwall in April 1916 with D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda. The difficult months during which they were neighbors prompted Mansfield to write some of the most vivid accounts of Lawrence we have - his "frenzy," his "monomania," his "slavery" to Frieda. The tensions of Cornwall forced Mansfield back to London and into the snares of Bloomsbury that Lawrence had evaded. When the Woolfs' new Hogarth Press published Mansfield's most significant achievement, "Prelude," in 1918 (only their own stories had been printed before hers), Mansfield's acceptance was complete. "I threw my darling to the wolves," she remarked on the success of her work, "and they ate it and served me up so much praise in such a golden bowl that I couldn't help feeling gratified . . . . It is all too wonderful."
Even at the hub of London letters, however, Mansfield and Murry remained subtly marginal, a familiar enough station for the emotionally durable Mansfield, but one that hurt Murry and abetted the paranoia for which he became notorious. Murry's illness from overwork at the War Office late in 1917 preoccupies Mansfield in the final pages of the first volume, even though the severity of her own condition was just coming to light. The ironies did not escape her. Now Murry had to console Mansfield once the doctor warned her never to spend winters in England again. Having worked her way to the center, she was compelled to abandon it at the height of her powers. Mansfield seemed to have grasped her fate well beforehand: "I want to get so much into a short time," she wrote in 1909. In fact, she did.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, January 20, 1985