The Books: Journal of Katherine Mansfield

Daily Book Excerpt: Memoirs:

Next book on the Memoir/Letters/Journals shelf is Journal of Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield lived and worked in London in the years before, during, and after World War I. Her circle included people such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey. She wrote short stories, which, naturally, is not a big-money enterprise, and she had relationships with certain magazines who always published her stuff (she was often left bereft when a magazine folded. Her stuff would be left without a home). She had been born in New Zealand, and came to school in England. I suppose she is mainly forgotten now, although she was very prominent at the time. Her stories are personal, often tricked-up autobiographical sketches, and she preferred plain and simple speech, pure, to the experimentation going on in modernism at that time. There’s a funny section in one of Mansfield’s letters where she describes her reaction to meeting Joyce (and reading Ulysses):

“Joyce was rather … difficile. I had no idea until then of his view of Ulysses — no idea how closely it was modelled on the Greek story, how absolutely necessary it was to know the one through and through to be able to discuss the other. I’ve read the Odyssey and am more or less familiar with it but Murry [Mansfield’s husband] and Joyce simply sailed out of my depth. I felt almost stupefied. It’s absolutely impossible that other people should understand Ulysses as Joyce understands it. It’s almost revolting to hear him discuss its difficulties. It contains code words that must be picked up in each paragraph and so on. The Question and Answer part can be read astronomically or from the geologic standpoint or — oh, I don’t know!”

The best part of this is that Joyce said after meeting Katherine Mansfield and her husband

“Mrs. Murry understood the book better than her husband.”

Katherine Mansfield eventually married J. Middleton Murry, a publisher in England at that time (he edited her journals, and a very nice job he did as well), and they had a very unconventional life together, often living apart for long stretches of time. They would split up, get back together, even after they were married. All of this was exacerbated by the fact that Mansfield came down with tuberculosis in 1919 and was a very sick woman. She would take Magic Mountain rest cures, lying in a deck chair on the Alps and other things, all in the hopes that she would be well again. Her suffering was huge. Her beloved brother was killed in World War I and she never really recovered emotionally from that blow. She lived with the awareness of impending death. She had lung hemorrhages (horrifying), and that was what eventually killed her in 1923, at the age of 34. The last year or so of her life involved her running around like crazy trying to find health (a situation which probably exacerbated her condition). She tried New Age cures and new-fangled medicine (some which sound particularly brutal), and she probably went a little bit mad at the end there. Always running, always running just ahead of death.

She was quite prolific and left a huge body of work for such a young woman.

She also left behind piles of notebooks, writers’ journals and diaries. J. Middleton Murry put all of this material together (a massive editing job), and brought out her journal, as well as her notebooks. They are magnificent, one of the best journals of the 20th century. She would work out story ideas in her journals, doing character sketches, writing down childhood memories of New Zealand, recording her dreams. There are lots of thoughts on other writers, amazing stuff, and analysis of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. There is a collage effect in her journal. While, yes, there are some “went for a walk today” entries, for the most part, it feels like WORK. A writers’ workshop.

I love her journal. I read them while I was in grad school and madly in love with someone, still, whom I had left behind in Chicago. I was happy in my new life in New York but ached because of the man I remembered. Her journals gave me great comfort. This woman SUFFERED. Yet she kept working. It was a great inspiration.

Here is an entry from 1920.

Excerpt from Journal of Katherine Mansfield

February 8

To Villa Flora. In the garden with the unhappy woman lying on the hard bench. The Spanish brocade cloth – the piece of heliotrope. Jinnie’s plan that I shall go and live there. Came back and wrote it all to J. in delight. I for the first time think I should like to join the Roman Catholic Church. I must have something.


The postman was late. She rang and asked the eternal, ‘deja passe?’ and heard the eternal ‘pas encore, Madame.” At last Armand appeared with a letter and the papers. The letter she read. And then it happened again, again there seemed to be a dreadful loud shaking and trembling: her heart leaped. She sang down in the bed. She began to weep and could not stop.

The first bell rang. She got up, she began to dress, crying and cold. The second bell. She sat down and steeled herself; her throat ached, ached. She powdered herself thickly and went downstairs. In the lift: ‘Armand, cherchez-moi une voiture pour deux heures juste.” And then one hour and a quarter in the brilliant glaring noisy salle, sipping wine to stop crying, and seeing all the animals crack up the food. The waiters kept jerking her chair, offering food. It was no good. She left and went upstairs, but that was fatal. Had she a home? A little cat? Was she any man’s wife? Was it all over?

She dressed and went downstairs into the horrible hall, because there, with the monde drinking coffee, she dared not cry. A little brougham drove up with an old dragging man. She got in. “A la poste!” Oh, these little broughams, what she had gone through in them! the blue-buttoned interior, the blue cords and ivory tassels, all, all! She leaned back and lifted her veil and dried her tears. But it was no use. The post office was full. She had to wait in a queue for the telegrams among horrible men who shouted over her shoulder, horrible men. And now, where? A dose of sal volatile at the chemist’s. While he made it up she walked quickly up and down the shop, twisting her hands. There was a box of Kolynos. It spoke of him, him in her room, talking about the foam, saying he’d leave his behind. Four francs seventy-five.

She bought and drank the mixture, and now, where? She got into the cab – the old man hung at the door – she couldn’t speak. Suddenly down the road on the opposite side, looking very grave came Frances. She crossed over and taking her hand said “Deo gratias”. And she was silent a moment. Then she said suddenly, “Come along and see M’Laren now. Let’s fix it now this moment.” They waited in a quiet room, rich with books and old dark coloured prints, and dark highly polished furniture. Frances went out for a preparatory talk and then came back for her and they entered the doctor’s room. He was short, dry, with a clipped beard and fine brown eyes. A fire burned: there were books everywhere. German books too. Frances stayed while the long familiar careful examination went on again. The doctor took infinite pains. When he had done she dressed, and Frances said: “Doctor, it’s the desire of my life to cure this – little friend of mine. You must let me have her, you must let me do it.” And after a pause which the other thought final, he said: “I think it would be ideal for her to be with you. She ought not to have to suffer noise and the constant sight of repellent people. She is highly sensitive and her disease – of such long standing, has increased it a thousandfold.” He was quiet, grave, gentle. Oh, if they could have known or seen her heart that had been stabbed and stabbed. But she managed to smile and thank the doctor, and then Frances put her back into the brougham, and it was arranged she would leave in a week.

All the afternoon she had been seeing wallflowers. Let her never have a sprig of wallflowers – if ever she had a garden. Oh, anguish of life! Oh, bitter, bitter Life! That reminded her of wallflowers and Shakespeare. Yes, how in a Winter’s Tale, Perdita refused gillyflowers in her garden. “They call them nature’s bastards.” She came back into her room and lay down. It was like Bavaria again, but worse, worse – and now she could not take a drug, or anything. She must just bear it and go on.

The Glimpse

And yet one has these ‘glimpses’, before which all that one ever has written (what has one written?) – all (yes, all) that one ever has read, pales … The waves, as I drove home this afternoon, and the high foam, how it was suspended in the air before it fell … What is it that happens in the moment of suspension? It is timeless. In that moment (what do I mean?) the whole life of the soul is contained. One is flung up – out of life – one is ‘held,’ and then, – down, bright, broken, glittering on to the rocks, tossed back, part of the ebb and flow.

I don’t want to be sentimental. But while one hangs, suspended in the air, held, – while I watched th spray, I was conscious for life of the white sky with a web of torn grey over it; of the slipping, sliding, slithering sea; of the dark woods blotted against the cape; of the flowers on the tree I was passing; and more – of a huge cavern where my selves (who were like ancient sea-weed gatherers) mumbled, indifferent and intimate … and this other self apart in the carriage, grasping the cold knob of her umbrella, thinking of a ship, of ropes stiffened with white paint and the wet, flapping oilskins of sailors … Shall one ever be at peace with oneself? Ever quiet and uninterrupted – without pain – with the one whom one loves under the same roof? Is it too much to ask?

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Books: Journal of Katherine Mansfield

  1. Mary L says:

    Thank you for reminding me that I NEED to read her journal right away. This has always been on my list of things to read, but your excerpt made me realize I have neglected something important.

  2. sheila says:

    Mary L – my pleasure! Yeah, they are really really special. You’re in for a real treat!!

  3. Gerri Kimber says:

    Yes, she is very special, and there is a huge resurgance in interest in her work. Why not join us at the Katherine Mansfield Society? Our website has some terrific resources on her, all created by unpaid volunteers. Come join us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.