The Books: Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman; ‘Relics of Saint Katherine: ‘The Journal, Letters and Stories of Katherine Mansfield’, by Patricia Hampl

Next up on the essays shelf:

Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman

During Anne Fadiman’s reign as editor of The American Scholar (I had a subscription). During her reign, she instituted a regular feature called “Rereadings”, where she asked authors to go back and reread a book they loved when they were young and see how the experience had changed. What was the book to them originally and what was it to them now? This book is a collection of those essays.

Patricia Hampl is from St. Paul, Minnesota and teaches at the MFA program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. She has written numerous memoirs, many of which have received critical acclaim. I can see why. In this essay in Rereadings, she talks about her discovery of Katherine Mansfield’s journals and letters when she was a teenager. It was as though she had discovered a kindred spirit. She says she didn’t just read Mansfield, she “stalked” her. She read Mansfield’s short stories as well, and thought the writing was good, but they didn’t inspire in her the obsessive passion of those journals. One of the things that is so special about this essay is that it is also a portrait of the woman who gave her the books, the mother of her first boyfriend as a teenager. Patricia grew up seriously Roman Catholic (which was its own ghetto, as it is in so many other places). Her boyfriend was not Roman Catholic so that gave him a difference that was appealing, a sort of “way out” of the limited way of thinking. Her boyfriend’s mother was named Doris, and one day, while Patricia was hanging out at their house, Patricia said something, and Doris remarked that it “sounded like something Katherine Mansfield would say.” Patricia Hampl, although a voracious reader, had never heard of Mansfield. Something about the way Doris spoke had such authority, it was a gift, a perception of herself that was larger, more expansive. Who was this Mansfield persona? Doris walked to her bookshelf, took down two books (the journals and the letters) and handed them to Patricia.

Mansfield, in all her consumptive glamour, represented everything Patricia yearned for, represented the escape she was looking for. Mansfield was a pioneering type of woman, a modern woman, who did what she pleased, cut her hair short, slept with various people. She also was dying of consumption, which gave an added tragedy to her story. She died young, and her death was a horrible one. In the final years of her life, she exhausted herself racing around Europe seeing quacks and mystics and charlatans, looking for a cure. There is also some recent evidence that Mansfield had contracted gonorrhea somewhere along the way, which had left her more susceptible to the deteriorating effects of consumption. Anyway, it’s all very tragic, and … if you’re 14, 15, yearning for an escape … somewhat glamorous. She died young. Her husband (and editor) published her journals and letters after her death. These two volumes gained far more fame than her short stories ever did.


Katherine Mansfield very well may have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for those journals and letters, which pulse with vibrant life, to this day. I read Katherine Mansfield’s letters and journals while I was in grad school. They had a huge impact on me. I was struggling quite a bit with heartbreak at the time, adjusting myself to my new life, and missing a man I had left behind. Her journals, so filled with life and observations and amazing language, seemed to speak to the particular intensity of life I was experiencing at that time. It didn’t have quite the impact on me that they had on Patricia Hampl. Maybe because I was older. Late 20s. Very different outlook than 15 years old. Perhaps if I had discovered them then, I would have been as out of my mind for them as Hampl was. What Hampl describes as her reaction to the journals reminds me of my own high school discovery of Sylvia Plath’s journals. Those journals (along with her poems) launched a life-long relationship with that author. And I had to move past my high school infatuation with her death wish in order to see what ELSE she was expressing, although that was the first attraction.

Hampl writes about Doris, and what Doris represented to her. A world of serious reading. A world where you read books and discussed them and related to them. A world that connected the past with the present. Doris would talk about Katherine Mansfield as though she knew her personally. It was a legacy she passed on to Hampl.

Later in life, Hampl learned more about the journals, and how carefully they had been edited and shaped by Mansfield’s husband. He was crafting a narrative. The journals, then, are not just raw private genius passed on un-touched. He had put the whole thing together. He did a great job, clearly. But there was less “magic” in them than Hampl first thought.

Here’s an excerpt.

Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman; ‘Relics of Saint Katherine: ‘The Journal, Letters and Stories of Katherine Mansfield’, by Patricia Hampl

But even the autobiographical intimacy of those forms – journals and letters – doesn’t explain the fascination for Mansfield that developed in my teens and persisted into my twenties. The word “fascination” hardly states the case. For years – in college and graduate school and beyond, through dumb jobs and frequent moves from one crummy apartment to another as I too tried “to be a writer” – home was where I hammered a nail and hung my photograph of Mansfield’s hieratic, consumptive face. My shrine, my saint.

I read everybody with fierce appetite during those years – Whitman, Woolf, Lawrence, poets beyond count. But I didn’t just read Mansfield. I stalked her. I chased down primary sources, secondary sources, tracking any shred of memory or gossip. When I learned from Frieda Lawrence’s memoir that during the period when they had lived next door to each other in Cornwall, Mansfield had introduced her to Cuticura soap, I was off to Walgreens, dazzled to find that in 1968 it was still possible to buy the assertive clove-scented bar. A relic.

I learned from one of Mansfield’s biographers (for a supposedly minor writer, she had quite a few) that she liked to keep “low bowls of bright flowers”on her writing table: I affected the same. She favored little jackets of “lovely colours and soft velvet materials”: soon my style as well, though my latter-day velvets draped over jeans. Mine was the moist devotion of a cultist, not the frank pleasure of a reader.

Of course I also read the short stories. I approved the transparency of Mansfield’s prose, the click of her snapshot scenes, her pitch-perfect ear for a volley of dialogue, her descriptive delight in the world. The voice in my favorite stories (“Prelude,” “At the Bay”) combined a cool authority with an unspoken, and therefore all the more convincing, heartache for her lost New Zealand. I knew that her Wellington had hardly been cherished at the time. Like me in St. Paul, she knew she was a provincial, and she longed to escape – and she did, to London in 1908, before she was twenty. But successful nostalgia is bred of regret, and Katherine Mansfield was a great regretter. After her relatively brief wild-thing period, illness turned her into a pondering, sometimes frantic, invalid. Her gleeful escape was twisted into lonely exile.

Her fiction had a more aloof voice, of course, than the urgent Journals and Letters, but this too was evidence of her particular genius: the ability both to bare her soul and to write works of detached authority. She exposed the membrane between self and work, the porous fiber that transformed a raw girlish ambition and overheated poeticism into the remorseless assurance of fiction.

Why were there no novels? I wondered briefly, but even this lack turned into virtue: Mansfield was a miniaturist, not a big-sweep writer, and all the finer for that, a noticer of moments and gestures, a tender of oblique details. She fretted about this: “Don’t I live in glimpses only?” she wrote in a letter. But she also understood that her idea of a story’s form was genuinely new, “pure risk,” as she said, moving not by plot but by impression and association, episodes beaded on a brief string of time. Her vision was essentially poetic, not narrative, and this enlivened her voice and, for me, her appeal. Her “glimpses” gave her work – the stories as well as the letters – a striking immediacy. For all her intensity, she was not a fainter and a swooner. She was modern and proud of it. Her humor was mordant, even unkind. Her lyricism had a squeeze of lemon.

Mansfield suffered – this too was important to me. She died at thirty-four after enduring years of tuberculosis. Her youthful death hovered everywhere, even in her most rhapsodic flights. No wonder there were no novels. But there was nothing self-destructive about her: her tubercular lungs were bursting to live, live. My saint might die, but extinguish herself? Never. Would Chekhov have killed himself? And Chekhov, I learned from the critics (including Mansfield’s husband and arch promoter, John Middleton Murry), was the writer she most resembled.

In fact, it seems to me now that she more truly resembled Jean Rhys (Mansfield nailed the “woman alone” theme before Rhys got to it). Even more fundamentally, Colette was her kin. Like Colette, Mansfield had her youthful cabaret period, complete with club performances and lesbian flirtations, and though she wrote of the first generation of urban “free” women, her signature was her sensuous evocation of nature. She wrote from her beloved Côte d’Azur:

After lunch today, we had a sudden tremendous thunderstorm, the drops of rain were as big as marguerite daisies – the whole sky was violet. I went out the very moment it was over – the sky was all glittering with broken light – the sun a huge splash of silver. The drops were like silver fishes hanging from the tree.

Had she lived, she might very likely have become an English Colette, an earthier mother-of-us-all than Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf might write to her sister, in an initial assessment of Mansfield, that she found her “cheap and hard … unscrupulous.” But Mansfield had the keener eye for character, writing to Ottoline Morrell after this first meeting that she sensed in Woolf “the strange trembling, glinting quality of her mind … She seemed to me to be one of those Dostoevsky women whose ‘innocence’ has been hurt.”

The Journal and the Letters were suffused with consumptive ecstasy/ She saw this in Lawrence: “I recognized his smile – just the least shade too bright … his air of being a touch more vividly alive than other people – the gleam …” Her “work”, as she wrote in the Journal, became a kind of parallel universe, spiritualized, even sacralized, as the clock ran out. She spoke severely of “sinning against art”. This too I revered: the religion of art.

Keats (dead at twenty-five, also of TB), was her saint. She wrote of him in her journal as a colleague. Like her, he was a hero-worshiper: he lugged around a portrait of Shakespeare wherever he lived. I perceived in – or created from – this relationship a lineage that lifted Mansfield out of the low-rent housing where she lodged in the anthologists’ rented rooms. Boldly (if privately) I attached her to the great Romantic dynasty, as configured expressly by and for me: Shakespeare → Keats → Mansfield. I dragooned her into the firmament.

And who was going to stop me? It was the early 1970s, and we were supposed to be “discovering” women writers, wedging them into the literary canon any which way. Yet it is strange that I fastened on Mansfield. Virginia Woolf, whose novels I read at the time and admired, did not compel me to buy her brand of face soap. Mansfield was my girl.

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4 Responses to The Books: Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman; ‘Relics of Saint Katherine: ‘The Journal, Letters and Stories of Katherine Mansfield’, by Patricia Hampl

  1. bybee says:

    I went through a Mansfield stage, too, and it was intense, but Sylvia Plath was my girl. I underlined in purple ink, wore kneesocks with skirts, wrote burbly letters like “Sivvy” and then of course, there was my poetry…I cringe to go on.

  2. Lesley says:

    Thanks, Sheila, well said and done. I knew nothing about Mansfield and you have piqued my interest. So onto the list she goes, and perhaps sometime in the next decade, when I’m not working on a book and planning classes, I’ll be reading just for myself. That was lovely, wasn’t it, reading just for fun?

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