From the desk of Helena Whitbread: Katherine Mansfield


This week, Helena’s postcard turns our attention to a still somewhat under-read writer who was one of the parents of modernism in English literature. Here’s Helena Whitbread:

My reading pleasure this summer has been, and still is, a quite in-depth exploration of the life and works of Katherine Mansfield. Initially, I bought The Complete Stories (published by Penguin Classics). The Introduction by Ali Smith, a noted novelist and short story writer herself, alone made me want to know much more about Katherine’s life. Claire Tomalin’s biography of her, entitled A Secret Life, was my starting point, which then led me on to the five volumes of Mansfield’s Collected Letters (I have just started Volume V). Another biography, Katherine Mansfield. A Darker View by Jeffrey Meyers, is holding me enthralled and I have just received the 1985 Virago publication of Ida Baker’s memoir, Katherine Mansfield. The Memories of LM.

So – as a writer myself, albeit not of fiction, have I learned anything from this brilliant woman? I think the greatest impression her work made on me must be the meticulous attention she pays to the careful building up of layer upon layer of seemingly small, insignificant details until the whole picture emerges in a glow of luminosity thereby creating unforgettable scenes which are her gift to us, her readers.

In my own work on the life of Anne Lister, I have sometimes hesitated over the thousands of myriad details contained in Anne’s journals – for instance, is it important to say that at Shibden Hall they used a “metal teapot”, of which Anne obviously felt ashamed when her friends came to tea? Does it matter that she combed such classical works as the Iliad to find names for her horses? Or that she lined a deal box with blue paper in which to keep her letters? Well, as Anne’s biographer, what I have brought away from Katherine Mansfield’s letters and fiction is a ringing endorsement of the fact that small things do matter!


If you’ve never read Mansfield, a good way to dip your toes is THIS  free U of Adelaide e-book site that archives many of her short stories. My gossipy side also wants to know whether it is true that Mansfield had relationships with women. Any information about that, our resident historian?

6 thoughts on “From the desk of Helena Whitbread: Katherine Mansfield

  1. In answer to your question above regarding her relationship with Ida Baker, Meyers writes :“…It is clear that their friendship was determined by Katherine (“Ida never took the intiative”); that Ida, who craved affection, would have done whatever Katherine wanted; and that their emotional and psychological relationship was intimate. In March 1914, Katherine wrote about Ida: “Her body was obedient [to the touch], but how slowly and gravely it obeyed, as though protesting against the urge of her brave spirit.’ [Katherine Mansfield’s Scrapbook. New York 1940 and quoted in Meyers, p.44]
    According to the evidence in her Journals and Scrapbook (some portions of which are unpublished) there is no doubt that Katherine was bisexual. ‘…I am a child, a woman, and more than half man.’ [Journal, pp.12-13 – quoted in Meyers, p.31] Some of her lesbian relationships took place in her younger years with girls she met at school, .i.e. one relationship which she writes about in a previously suppressed passage in her 1907 ‘Journal ‘ she,as Meyer states, ‘gives full expression to her powerful lesbian feelings’ She writes: ‘…I want Maata I want her – and I have had her – terribly – this is unclean I know but true. What an extraordinary thing – I feel savagely crude.’ [Quoted in Philip Waldron, ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Journal’. Twentieth Century Literature, 20 (1974) 13 and Meyer’s, p.10]

    In one of her short stories, Bliss, Katherine touches upon the lesbian theme, which caused Virginia Woolf to throw the manuscript aside, exclaiming “She’s done for!” [Meyers, p.142.]

  2. Katherine Mansfield was included in the “world literature” course I took in High School, in Wisconsin, early 1960s. (As I recall now, most of ” world literature” seems to have come from England and the Empire, with a dash of France and Germany.) I looked at the list at the Adelaide Books, and believe the story we read was “The Little Girl”. A story with a gay/lesbian subtext is The Garden Party, which is four pages long or so, and can be read at the Adelaide site.

  3. Perhaps I discriminated too finely by attributing Virginia Woolf’s disgust with Bliss solely to the lesbian theme contained in it. Meyers wrote that Virginia was Virginia was “…seriously disappointed in Bliss, a satiric story of lesbianism and adultery that appeared in August 1918. He gives a fuller version of her criticism as follows:

    ‘I threw down Bliss with the exclamation “She’s done for!” Indeed I don’t see how much faith in her as a woman or writer can survive that sort of story. I shall have to accept the fact that, I’m afraid, that her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock. For Bliss is long enough to give her a chance of going deeper. Instead she is content with superficial smartness; and the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind. She writes badly too. And the effect was, as I say, to give me an impression of her callousness and hardness as a human being…Or is it absurd to read all this criticism of her personally into a story?
    [Virginia Woolf. A Writer’s Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf. (New York 1954.) p.2.]

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