Recently I re-vamped my writing portfolio and updated it to demonstrate more versatility. (An essay on Irish language acquisition in children interests me but probably no one else.) As I was perusing files on my computer and binders on my shelves, I re-discovered an essay I wrote about New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield and her contribution to the short story form. When I discovered her work, my James Joyce obsession waned; that’s how much I love her stories.
Mansfield wrote before and during the first World War and contributed significantly to both the modernist movement and the evolution of the short story. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 29, and she spent much of her life traveling in pursuit of better health. Her travels led her to struggle with issues of national identity, and her earliest work focuses on physical, geographical, and emotional boundaries. When her brother died in WWI and her own health continued to diminish, Mansfield’s work began to focus less on exterior boundaries and more on internal. Who do we present to the world, and are those persons different from our private selves? What role does deception play?
In one of her last letters, Mansfield wrote, “If I were allowed one single cry to God, that cry would be: I want to be REAL.” This desire permeated Mansfield’s personal life and career. She abandoned the Victorian tradition of rounded characters in favor of unprecedented realism, and she perfected the modernist notion of embracing and portraying an individual’s complex emotional life. Mansfield’s stories are a descent into consciousness and incidental details that bear great significance for her characters and consequently for her readers. Additionally, Mansfield often wrote convincingly in first person as a man, questioning gendered identities and sexuality. Basically, this woman rocked; her writing is beautiful, her themes relevant.
See a sample of her work below. As Virginia Woolf said of Mansfield’s writing, it was the “only writing I’ve ever been jealous of.” Mansfield’s collection of short stories is available here. And there are some available online as well, though nothing quite beats curling up with a book on a rainy evening.
Happy reading, and as always, I love to receive book recommendations. What have you been reading lately? And what are some of your favorite books? xo, m
“I don’t believe in the human soul. I never have. I believe that people are like portmanteaux – packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever, until finally the Ultimate Porter swings them on to the Ultimate Train and away they rattle…”
“The diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura’s age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one thing and then another. But life isn’t like that. We haven’t the ordering of it. Laura says, ‘But all these things must not happen at once. And Life answers, ‘Why not? How are they divided from each other.’ And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability…”
“On her way home she usually bought a slice of honey-cake at the baker’s. It was her Sunday treat. Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference. If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present–a surprise–something that might very well not have been there. She hurried on the almond Sundays and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way.
But to-day she passed the baker’s by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room–her room like a cupboard–and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”
“There lay a young man, fast asleep–sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. [...] While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy…happy…All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.”