Thursday 10 September 2009

Katherine Mansfield - Selected Stories

Thanks so much for your response yesterday, everyone, that was really interesting - and lovely to have comments from new people. I have to check these things sometimes - doing an English degree tends to make one a bit blinkered, in terms of which authors are well-known and which aren't. I usually ask Colin - he knows rather more about literature than most, but isn't as obsessed, and he assured me that nobody at his office would have heard of Katherine Mansfield. I knew the literary-blog-reading-and-writing world would be rather more keyed up, but wasn't sure where our Kath featured on the scale of things. So, whilst more or less all of you have heard of Katherine Mansfield, she remains an untapped mine for many - and so I shall put her into my ongoing list of 50 Books You Must Read etc. etc....

27. Katherine Mansfield - Selected Stories

Katherine Mansfield only wrote for a few years, in the 1910s and '20s. She was on the outskirts of the Bloomsbury Group, in an ambivalent friendship with Virginia Woolf. Born in New Zealand, her stories are set in both NZ and England, but also often an indeterminate mixture of the two. I wrote about Claire Tomalin's biography of KM a couple of years ago, if you're interested... but onto her writing.

Though you can read anything by KM - I recommend buying her collections as they were published, especially The Garden Party and Bliss, as well as various others - the Selected Stories is an excellent place to start. Plus Oxford University Press just sent me their latest World's Classics edition of it, and it's rather beautiful - as well as including nearly all of my favourite stories. But - and this might be make or break in terms of appreciating KM - don't start at the beginning. This Selected Stories, perhaps unsurprisingly, lists her stories chronologically. KM's writing got better and better, most of her best work appearing in the two years before she died, age 34, of TB. Who knows what she'd have gone onto achieve had she lived - or perhaps it was facing her death which drew such genius out of her?

If you do get this collection, which I'd encourage - or indeed any collection - then start with something from The Garden Party. 'The Garden Party', for example. Other favourites from around this period include 'Miss Brill'; 'Bliss'; 'The Daughters of the Colonel'; 'Her First Ball'; 'A Cup of Tea'. All of these are included in the OUP selection. Others prefer her longer stories, 'Prelude' and 'At the Bay', but I think her craft and talent are shown best in the short, short stories.

What is it that makes KM so very, very good? It is this ability to demonstrate so much in such short works - to capture entire lives in mere sentences. Even if you don't usually like short stories, I can't imagine anybody not appreciating these. They manage to show everyday events, which at the same time completely turn people's lives upside down. They are about people dealing with grief, or change, or power shifts, or the strange. 'The Garden Party' is all about class, on one level, but also a girl's first encounter with death. And her writing - it is absolutely sublime. Virginia Woolf said 'I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I was ever jealous of.' It transports you to another world when you're reading it - everything delicate and observant without being cloying or obtrusive. A quiet modernist, her stories owe as much to Chekhov as to any later writers.

I don't want to give away the plots of these stories, because quite often only one significant event happens, and it is the stunning crux of the story. Like 'Bliss' - incredible story - to give away the ending would be treason! But when the pivots take place, they are not sensational - they are life, and KM's talent is in sensitively showing how people respond to events which are externally almost insignificant, but of huge personal enormity. And, because it's impossible to judge a writing style without evidence, here's a link to 'The Garden Party', and here is one to 'Bliss' (note the significance of the first word, in conjunction with the title). Do go and read them, slowly, and see if you wouldn't like to read more. I do hope you'll give KM a try, if you haven't before - and if you've not read her for years, why not get a copy and read one story a night for a few weeks? Just remember, contrary to everything we learnt in The Sound of Music, don't start at the beginning, it's not a very good place to start.


  1. I am afraid I am one of those readers who had heard of Mansfield, and even thought I might have read her, until I read this post. No, I have not read these stories, and if she is the only writer that Virginia was jealous of...I must read her! This sounds like a wonderful edition and I'm off to Amazon to see it. I'm saving this post for the arrival of my book!! Thanks!

  2. Just to say that there is a vibrant international Katherine Mansfield Society and a brand new journal on Mansfield studies coming out in the autumn, published by Edinburgh University Press.

    A copy of the journal is sent free to all members. Please do join us!

  3. I love that Virginia Woolf quote and have used it a few times.

    I have the Penguin Collected Stories, the OUP Selected Stories and some separate volumes; I also covet Persephone's The Montana Stories. Perfect stories. I'll be reviewing a short story collection in parts over the coming weeks including Mansfield's "Mr and Mrs Dove", one of my favourites.

  4. I hadn't heard of her before university, but after being introduced to her on my feminism and postcolonialism course (so many isms..) I read the required stories and then just kept on reading. My words don't do justice to describing how well and how beautifully and how subtly she crafts her stories. I just followed your link and reread Bliss and am sitting at my desk feeling a bit stunned. I want to go home now and get my big volume of collected stories out but unfortunately I have work to do!
    Thank you for such a lovely post and a reminder of how I really must get to reading her biography, letters, diaries, journal, poems...I have them all but haven't made the concerted effort to read them properly.
    I also now want to join the Katherine Mansfield Society...I would love to plough through all of my books on her and write an essay for their would make me feel like I was doing the MA I was offered the chance to do but had to turn down due to finances :( I miss spending days of discovery in the library.

  5. "Bliss" seemed to me to be a highly coloured version of "Mrs Dalloway", where VW used the metaphor of 'a day in the life' to describe far more than the mere activities of one single day.

  6. Thanks for this excellent posting about Katherine Mansfield. She's a literary genius. I think "A Cup of Tea" is phenomenal!

  7. I have heard of Katherine Mansfield but I have to admit not in great detail so thank you for the last two days posts. Now I have read this I think I will have to read this collection as it sounds very, very good. Plus I am joining in with Lizzy's Short stories stuff and this sounds perfect.

  8. I tend to be one of those 'start at the beginning' people, so I'm glad you remarked not to do so! My Penguin collection has the stories in order which they were written. I also dug out a smaller Virago collection and The Garden Party--so will tackle The Garden Party first!

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  10. I read Mansfield at University on a modernist literature course - Bliss completely stunned me and my copy of her short stories is completely dog eared as I have thumbed through it so many times. Fantastic post which has reminded me that I am due to read them again soon!

  11. I just read my first Mansfield, "Miss Bliss"-I completely enjoyed it and will be reading more of her work-a lot of her stories can be read on line-thanks for sharing your thoughts with us

  12. One of the best Kiwi writers of all time, no doubt about it. Every now and then I go back a reread a story picked at random from the bunch. I do the same with Janet Frame, another genius from little old NZ. Sheer brilliance.

    1. I have read some Janet Frame, but nowhere near enough... what is it in the NZ water that makes for such good short story writers?

  13. I'm writing a book on Charleston and the Bloomsbury group and doing research I did come across the name of Katherine Mansfield. The Hogarth press printed some of her books and there was rivalry between her and Virginia Woolf. Virginia was jealous of her. I'm going to read KM now since you said she's so good.


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