KATHERINE MANSFIELD, who invented the impressionistic modern short story in which not much happens, led a life in which almost too much did. She had talent (even Virginia Woolf was jealous) and a wildly disheveled personal history -- which make her an engaging subject for biography. With two new studies now being published -- as well as the first full text of one of her early journals -- a Mansfield revival must be under way.
For Pressor Antony Alpers, of Queen's University in Ontario, it is the second time around. He wrote his first biography of Mansfield 27 years ago. Since then an avalanche of new papers, 20 times greater than those available in 1953, have turned up, giving him enough fresh evidence to write an entirely new and excellent book -- fat with details of her brief, unruly life. She died of tuberculosis in 1922 at 34.
Katherine Mansfield was the pseudonym for Kathleen Beauchamp, who was born in New Zealand in 1888. The daughter of a prosperous Wellington businessman, she rebelled early against her colonial background and overbearing father and turned her back on both when, at 19, she sailed for London and a life of art. Her delicate, bittersweet short stories, which first appeared in London's little magazines, were as lucid and disciplined at their best as her life was murky and chaotic. Mansfield racked up an unenviable record of unhappy love affairs, literary feuds and diseases -- first mere gonorrhea and then consumption. She took an assortment of lovers including several women, a blackmailing Pole and -- possibly -- Bertrand Russell. Not to mention two husbands and a "wife." The full story of her curious first marriage to George Bowden, a tenor, whom she married one day in 1909 and left the same evening, is now told here. Bowden lasted long enough to perform a major function; he steered Mansfield toward New Age, one of London's liveliest literary magazines, which first published her work. In 1912, Mansfield settled down -- more or less -- with John Middleton Murry, who was the editor of another "little" magazine, Rhythm, and later of Athenaeum. Although the two eventually were married, they endured many separations, during which Mansfield wrote the poignant letters which record her swings from ecstasy to despair as tuberculosis ran its course.
Secretiveness was a Mansfield trademark. She operated with such mystery that there are some things about her even Murry did not find out until he read Alpers' first book in 1953. Nowhere is the unfathomable aspect more evident than in her bizarre relationship with Ida Baker, whom Mansfield called "Lesley Moore" or "L. M." -- also known as the Faithful One, the albatross and "wife." Mansfield alternately depended on and despised the long-suffering Baker, who was the sometime housekeeper, nurse, lover and bane of Mansfield's life for nearly 20 years.
Mansfield crossed paths with most of the young literary lions of her day -- Rupert Brooke, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Lytton Strachey, to mention just a few of that talented and viciously competitive group. Mansfield and Murry were on hand for some of Lady Ottoline Morrell's house parties at Garsington, where the flirtations and feuds were many and complicated. Bertrand Russell once told Lady Ottoline that, in Alper's words, "Katherine hated her because Murry had liked her, and that meant Katherine had to hate Sassoon because Ottoline didn't; so Murry had to hate Sassoon as well."
Although Katherine Mansfield was never a certified member of Bloomsbury, she and Virginia Woolf became friends -- cautiously at first. They talked about their work, and Woolf, after Mansfield's death, gave her the ultimate accolade; she confessed that Mansfield's was "the only writing I have ever been jealous of."
Of all her entanglements, the most intense and explosive was the four-way arrangement among Murry, Mansfield, D. H. and Frieda Lawrence. They took to each other immediately when they met in 1913 (both couples were "living in sin," as it was called back then). "We count on you as our only two tried friends, real and permanent and truly blood kin," Lawrence later wrote them. Soon they rented adjoining houses in the country and even lived communally for a time. Then came jealousy. Lawrence, Alpers suggests, had a yen for Murry and envied Katherine's writing. In the end there were raging scenes that make Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf seem like a children's party. ("I'll cut your bloody throat, you bitch," Lawrence screamed at Frieda -- while pulling out her hair.) Later, he turned his rage on Katherine. When Mansfield was deathly ill in 1920, Lawrence, also a consumptive, wrote her: "You are a loathesome reptile -- I hope you will die." Ultimately, she forgave him; ". . . in spite of everything, there are certain people, like Lawrence, who remain in one's life for ever."
Despite all, she was a prolific writer. From 1917, when her tuberculosis was diagnosed, Mansfield's art, as Alpers says, "was a function of her dying." "How unbearable it would be," she wrote, "to die -- leave 'scraps,' bits' . . . nothing real finished." She moved 27 times in six years, restless wanderings that may have kept her from completing one great work, a planned novel, but she left behind much more than scraps and bits. Her legacy was a new kind of short story, without metaphor or obvious narrator, but vivid with visual images.
Alpers subtly draws the connections between her life and work -- showing how grief at the death of her younger brother freed her to write about New Zealand and her family, how her disease may have changed the way she looked at things, allowing her to capture "the spaces between people . . . as the Impressionists had captured light." Alpers writes with grace and scholarly precision about an unfinished -- not a minor -- writer whose early work is all we have.
Jeffrey Meyers, an American professor, mined the same rich material for his biography, which was first published in England two years ago. He writes an equally thorough but less inspired rendition of Mansfield's life, which he sees as a dark tragedy with Murry the villain. He and Alpers differ on some minor points: Was KM pregnant before or after marrying Bowden? Did the marriage last 12 hours or 24? At times, Meyers indulges in heavy-handed analysis when the drama of his subject's life might better have been left to speak for itself.
The Urewera Notebook, Katherine Mansfield's record of her expedition, at 18, into the Maori-speaking New Zealand bush, makes an interesting companion to these biographies. Now published in full for the first time, it displays her early talent for fresh, immediate imagery. She put down these impressions in her notebook in 1907, and retrieved them some years later for use in her best short stories about New Zealand.