I was excited to read the stories this week, at least partially because they are by another female author. Unfortunately (at least for my taste), Katherine Mansfield seemed determined to be different from one’s common ideas about how women write. I suppose what I mean is that she seems determined to be unpleasant. I was happy that we had the introductory articles, as they seemed to explain what some of her mix of bitterness, negativity and pessimism was caused by. First, she was sick and often in pain. Second, she had a troubled relationship with her husband.
What interested me most was her relationship with Virginia Woolf. As Hussey writes, it was “complex.” (153) Hussey and Lee both recognized that the relationship had ups and downs. The problems seemed to be caused by a mix of Katherine’s illnesses (tuberculosis and arthritis), their rivalry and by Katherine’s personality generally. As a more specific problem, Lee discusses how upset Virginia was by Katherine’s review of Night and Day, which was quite negative. Nevertheless, they seemed to genuinely appreciate each other. They each recognized a kindred spirit in the other; they were women writers working in a time when this profession was uncommon. They both really cared about writing and wanted to be the best at their craft. Lee also notes that Virginia continued to think about Katherine after she died; only then did she recognize how important Katherine had been to her.
The Hanson article was interesting because it questioned how short stories and women are considered together. There is a relationship among writers that are women, writers who are considered “minor” and writers that concentrate on short stories. Which of these factors came first? Which is more causative? It’s an interesting question. Hanson also notes that Mansfield didn’t do much critical writing (in contrast to Eliot) but that she did do some influential criticism of other writers. She too mentions Woolf but notes that there were other influential reviews done by Mansfield.
I enjoyed her beautiful ability to write descriptions. Her description in the first paragraph of “At the Bay,” is fabulous! She uses so many colors and very nice adjectives. She always does a nice job of describing flowers. “Prelude” (in the sixth part) is a great example. (See p. 22.) Though both of these are environmental examples, she also had a real ability to describe thoughts and make you feel like you could really get into a character. Bertha in “Bliss” is the best example. You feel so hopeful and happy when you are reading it. And yet, of course it comes to a bad ending, being Mansfield. Meyers calls “Bliss” a “fictional portrait of her marriage to Murry” (x) and that the “marriage stories reflect her own fear of abandonment and betrayal, her self-destructive jealousy…” (xiii) Even though I know from reading the articles that this probably comes from her own disappointments, I was still bothered by the endings of several of these stories.
Despite all her negativity, she seems to have a little hope that love exists. Linda loves Stanley, and Bertha loves Harry. One worries, of course, that they can’t have happy endings, as Mansfield seems to frown on happy endings. I was actually surprised that Beryl didn’t get raped at the end of “At the Bay.” Also, men seem to be dispensable. In the same story, all the women are happy when Stanley leaves the house and only women are left.
Reading Mansfield, one gets a sense that things in her life, and in the world generally, weighed heavily upon her. For example, she is certainly bothered by the class system, which she illustrates in “The Garden Party.” Laura is sympathetic about the death of a person who could, by distance, be classified as the family’s neighbor, yet everyone brushes aside her concerns. Her mother tells her that she is being “absurd” and that “people like that don’t expect sacrifices from us.” (205) Laura, on observation of the men setting up the party, wonders when “these absurd class distinctions” will be gone. (199) Mansfield is also worried about patriarchy, which she wrote about in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” The sisters are so worried about making a decision independently that they worry that their father will posthumously scold them for planning his funeral incorrectly. Mansfield also seems concerned about the fate of intellectuals; this is symbolized by Jonathan in “At the Bay.” He is smart, spends his money on books, speaks well, and yet he is forced to slave away at an office. For what? He seemed to me a less annoying version of Leonard Bast. Another main theme is children learning about reality. In “At the Bay,” Kezia is worried about her grandmother leaving her and wants reassurance that she will never die.