Whenever I regale people with the attractions of the French town of Menton, something I’ve been doing a lot lately as we’re on the lookout for an apartment there, I include a former home of Katherine Mansfield. I’m met with more or less the same response – ‘Oh, I love Katherine Mansfield! She’s my favourite short story writer.’ To which I add, ‘There’s a street named after her too!’ Eyes light up. This is the ‘cult’ (not my word choice) of Katherine Mansfield.
It’s been described as ‘a cult unique in modern literature’ because it was started after Mansfield died by her husband, the writer and literary critic John Middleton Murry. Only three of Mansfield’s books appeared during her lifetime. After her death, Murray edited and published eleven others, along with articles about her works, giving his late wife a status far greater than she had in her lifetime. According to literary rumour, when Murry received a handsome royalty cheque for The Dove’s Nest and Other Poems, he was reported to have said, ‘It was by far the biggest cheque I had ever received, and ten times as big as any Katherine had received for her own work.’ Most biographers agree that Murry’s motives for creating the myth of Mansfield (better alliteration than ‘cult of Mansfield’) had more to do with his financial needs than any literary conviction.
The intense interest in Mansfield’s work goes beyond her husband’s dealings. Like other idolised figures, Mansfield died young. She was 34 when she fell victim to tuberculosis. Though short, her life was scandalous and intriguing. She married twice and was known to have affairs with women and men, and her friends included D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Mansfield broke barriers, taking up topics such as women’s sexuality and support for the Indigenous peoples of New Zealand.
This year, marking the 100th anniversary of Mansfield’s death, the veneration has been rekindled and interest in her life and works have resurfaced. Helen Simpson, writing in The Guardian, notes that biographers have wildly varied in their account of her personality and motives for writing. I agree. Some have painted her as a saintly feminist icon (the phrase ‘free women’ is overused), others as a liar and literary imposture, while others still describe a tortured life and consequently aggressive personality. Simpson attempts to make sense of this divergence of opinion: ‘One explanation might lie in Mansfield’s keen sense of the absurd and the striking lack of anything deferential in her attitude – whether towards men or anyone powerful or rich or influential. The “ripple of laughter” (a favourite phrase of Mansfield’s) at play throughout her writing could cause offence (particularly coming from a young, upstart, female New Zealander). A sense of humour for a woman is a double-edged sword. When one of her finest tragicomic stories, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, was published, the reviewers found it “cruel;” in a 1921 letter Mansfield commented: “It’s almost terrifying to be so misunderstood.”’
While I have a few ‘favourite’ short story writers – J.D. Salinger, Joyce Carol Oates, Italo Calvino, Anton Chekov, Helen Dunmore and William Faulkner – Mansfield is up there, but not an all-time favourite. It’s not that I don’t like her work. I simply haven’t read much of it. Despite Mansfield’s popularity, her books didn’t appear on the undergraduate reading list during my years as a student or as a teacher of literature. I stumbled across a few of her stories, such as ‘At the Bay’ and ‘The Stranger,’ in anthologies of great short stories. I was surprised to see that the Literary Encyclopedia, which I have written for over the years, does not have any entries for her books, only a short paragraph about her life. I see an assignment proposal in my mental in tray.
I’m currently reading Mansfield’s first collection of short stories, In a German Pension, published when she was only 23. It’s a beautifully subtle work, often involving what modern audiences would call observational humour. It draws me in, and I can see myself engaging in Mansfieldmania – ah, that’s the word I want. ‘Cult’ connotes David Koresh, the Tr*mp base and the horrific deaths reported this week in Kenya at a Christian doomsday ‘church.’ Mania in a non-clinical sense is about enthusiasm and joyful obsession. I submit.
I tell my Mansfield-adoring friends that the house in Menton is called a ‘memorial’ with a plaque on the exterior wall. At this point, I confess that every time I go to this house, it’s always closed, and the plaque is impossible to read from the gated fence. I stand on my tiptoes to see what inhabits her garden. The mysteries of her short life metaphorically captured.