A Little Savage

Katherine Mansfield was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1888. The country had become a British colony a scant 50 years earlier. Wellington had only recently shed its image as a frontier town. Men travelled by horse and carriage from the city to the countryside. Women and children remained at home.

At age 15, Mansfield sailed to London together with her family. At Queen’s College, she learned that, while she was a subject of the Crown, she would never be regarded as English. You are a little savage from New Zealand, a teacher once said to Mansfield.

After school, Mansfield returned to Wellington for a brief and unhappy 2 year period. She escaped once more, back to Europe, where Mansfield remained for the rest of her short life.

These experiences — her childhood in New Zealand and her Otherness — inform her writing. The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield assembles the 3 short story collections published during her lifetime, the 2 collections her husband, John Middleton Murry, published after her death, and a collection of unfinished works.

A Happy Savage

My favorite stories by far are the interlocking tales of the Burnell family. Three generations live together under one roof, a house not unlike the one where Mansfield grew up in the small village of Karori. Father Stanley, mother Linda, the unmarried sister Beryl, Mother Fairfield, and the three daughters: Isabel, Lottie and Kezia.

In “Prelude”, the Burnell family is moving house. But there’s no room in the buggy for the two youngest daughters, Kezia and Lottie. They are left behind in the care of a neighbor until the storeman can deliver them later that night. The little girls glimpse their new home.

It was long and low built, with a pillared veranda and balcony all the way around it. The soft white bulk of it lay stretched upon the green garden like a sleeping beast. And now one and now another of the windows leaped into light. Someone was walking through the the empty rooms carrying a lamp. From the window downstairs the light of a fire flickered. A strange beautiful excitement seemed to stream from the house in quivering ripples.

Katherine Mansfield, “Prelude” in The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Penguin Books 2007)

For Mansfield, “Prelude” is an evocation of her New Zealand childhood. It is also an homage to her brother, Leslie Beauchamp, killed in Flanders in 1915. His death devastates Mansfield and alters the way she writes.

In the garden some tiny owls, perched on the branches of a lace-bark tree, called: “More pork; more pork.” And far away in the bush there sounded a harsh rapid chatter: “Ha-ha-ha … Ha-ha-ha.”

“Prelude”

Outsider

“At the Bay” shows us the Burnell family on holiday at the seashore. Mansfield sets the scene as a true romantic would: the heavy morning dew, the old sheep dog, a giant gum tree emerging from the mist. Then the tone turns acidic, the light lemon fizz of a fresh-baked meringue. Mansfield can be a cruel observer.

In London, Mansfield falls in with the Bloomsbury crowd. Virginia Woolf finds her charming yet inscrutable. Leonard is sure That Mansfield dislikes him behind her mask of affability. And perhaps she does. She skewers her Bloomsbury friends, mocking their self-absorption.

As good as Mansfield is at social comedy, she excels at giving voice to children and “foreigners”, transients like herself who live in rented rooms. In the Introduction to The Collected Stories, Ali Smith lauds Mansfield’s gift for directly transcribed voices: the Burnell children, the buskers on the streets of Wellington, a char woman in London who’s just lost her grandson.

From Lennie’s little box of a chest there came a sound as though something was boiling. There was a great lump of something bubbling in his chest that he couldn’t get rid of. When he coughed, the sweat sprang out on his head; his eyes bulged, his hands waved, and the great lump bubbled as a potato knocks in a saucepan.

“Life of Ma Parker”

In 1917, at the age of 29, Mansfield contracts pleurisy. It soon develops into tuberculosis. She refuses treatment, moving restlessly from London to Italy to Switzerland.

Better not ask what it was that kept them going. Or why the only word that daunted Father was the word — home…. Home! To sit around, doing nothing, listening to the clock, counting up the years, thinking back … thinking! To stay fixed in one place as if waiting for something or somebody. No! No! Better far to be blown over the earth like the husk ….

“Father and the girls”

Craftswoman

We get our last look at the Burnell family in “The Doll’s House.” The house is a gift to the little girls and so large that it takes two men to carry it into the courtyard. It’s a dark, oily, spinach green with two chimneys, four windows and a tiny yellow porch. But, best of all, the whole house swings open so that

There you were, gazing at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat-stand and two umbrellas!

“The Doll’s House”

Mansfield uses that same device to narrate many of her stories. Her mobile narrator glides from one room to the next, overhears a conversation, spies a carriage far down the road. It feels like a camera panning for the wide shot, the mid-frame, the close-up.

Hungry people are easily led, Mansfield remarks in “A Cup of Tea.” Perhaps this is the reason for Penguin Books to include her unfinished stories in this collection. To me, it feels like grave robbing. No author wants her work to be seen until it is, to her mind, the best it can be.

As her health declines, Mansfield lives in fear of leaving nothing more than “scraps”, “bits”…nothing really finished. She plans a new collection of interconnecting stories that would begin with “Prelude” and continue with “At the Bay”.

She never completes that project. Katherine Mansfield dies on 9 January 1923.

10 February 2020 | Karen Kao