A Child of the Sun
Katherine Mansfield and Psychology, eds. Clare Hanson, Gerri Kimber, W. Todd Martin, Edinburgh University Press, September 2016, 224 pp, £70.00 (hardback)
Katherine Mansfield: The Early Years by Gerri Kimber, Edinburgh University Press, September 2016, 272 pp, £30.00 (hardback)
In Point Counter Point (1928), Aldous Huxley caricatured the critic John Middleton Murry as Burlap, a figure who spends his time writing copious ‘pages of a rather hysterical lyricism about the dead child-woman’, which mourn ‘the realest Susan, the little girl who survived so beautifully and purely in the woman.’ Huxley lambasts the Mansfield cult created by Murry after her death, in particular, his posthumous publication of her works and his assessment of her character and of her writing, which emphasised its delicacy and sweetness. In many ways, Murry’s efforts were a continuation of the couple’s natural tendency to stress the childlike nature of their companionship. Mansfield wrote that theirs was ‘child love’ and after her brother Leslie’s death, Murry consoled her with the words: ‘For you and I are not of the world, darling; we belong to our own kingdom, which truly is when we stand hand in hand, even when we are cross together like two little boys.’
The idea of childhood as a point both of innocence and escape was part of Mansfield’s Edwardian literary heritage and figured largely in her stories about children. Her works often drew upon her upbringing in New Zealand and her early ones, in particular, betray a jaundiced view of her childhood in which she sentimentalizes herself as the misunderstood victim of sibling rivalry and parental dislike. In ‘New Dresses’ (1912), the child protagonist, Helen, is the subject of constant carping from her parents who prefer her older sister Rose. In contrast to Rose, Helen is, for instance, prevented from having lace on her dress and is forbidden from seeing her baby brother for
fear that she might frighten him. An outsider, Dr Malcolm, is however able to appreciate her true worth: when her father invites him for dinner, he comments to himself: ‘She’ll come to her own yet, and lead them just the dance they need.’ Similar plot dynamics operate in ‘Mary’ (1910) where a girl, Kass (Mansfield’s childhood nickname), altruistically allows her sister Mary to win the school poetry prize that she otherwise would have won. The good deed remains undiscovered by the adults who wrongly attribute her subsequent gloominess to jealousy.
Both these stories were written only a few years after her return to England from New Zealand, a point, as Gerri Kimber’s account details, of heightened conflict with her family. In 1903 her father, Harold Beauchamp, had sent Katherine along with her two elder sisters to be educated at Queen’s College due to the esteem in which a British education was held in New Zealand. In 1906, however, he decided that they should return home, a decision that upset Katherine deeply. Her hatred of her father at this time bordered on the pathological. In a diary entry written on the boat going home, she wrote of her revulsion towards him: ‘His hands, covered with long sandy hair, are absolutely evil hands. A physically revolted feeling seizes me […] [he] eats in the most abjectly blatantly vulgar manner that is describable.’ She was also curtly dismissive of both parents as ‘so absolutely my mental inferiors.’
Within Mansfield scholarship there has been considerable debate as to whether she had a genuinely difficult childhood or whether her sense of injustice was something she later imposed onto a largely secure and caring upbringing. Kimber’s narrative suggests some possible reasons for her sense of alienation, such as her stutter, the remoteness of her mother and her position as the middle child. Particularly revealing are the many photographs that accompany Kimber’s account and show a rotund and bespectacled Katherine standing next to her tall and elegant elder sisters. In spite of these grievances, her upbringing appears to have been one that many would envy: she had an expensive education, lived in in large houses and luxurious circumstances and, in spite of the tensions between parents and siblings, she was part of an extended family and network of friends and
In the latter years of her youth, alienation assumed a conspicuous place in her self-identity, especially in her work as a writer—a way of setting herself apart from her origins amid the colonial backwaters. During her school years in London, the Decadent movement was a crucial influence on her literary development: Oscar Wilde became one of her heroes, and for a while she referred to herself as the ‘White Gardenia’, a reference to one of his favourite flowers. Once home in New Zealand she cultivated a decadent, fin-de-siècle aesthetic in her style of living. She banned all visitors from her bedroom, kept it darkened, filled it with the scent of cut flowers and placed a reproduction of Velaquez’s Rokeby Venus on the walls. Her bisexuality or ‘Oscar-like thread’ that manifested itself in these years was also aestheticized in these terms. Kimber describes how Mansfield expressed her attraction for the artist Edith Bendall in terms replete with decadent motifs. Musing in one notebook passage ‘I feel more powerfully all those termed sexual impulses with her than I have with any man’, Mansfield closes with the invocation, ‘O Oscar! Am I peculiarly susceptible to sexual impulse? I must be I suppose, but I rejoice.’
This tendency to affectation became the additional subject of Huxley’s critique. In a letter he rather poetically captured an essence of Mansfield’s personality: ‘[She was an] unhappy woman, capable of acting any number of parts but uncertain of who, essentially, she was—a series of points and arcs on the circumference of a circle that was uncertain of the location of its centre.’ In Those Barren Leaves (1925), he caricatured her as the empty and affected writer Mary Thriplow who muses somewhat absurdly on the difficulty of achieving sincerity: ‘I think it’s difficult to be genuine… Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery.’ Mansfield at times expressed her own frustration with her role-playing but questioned whether there existed within her a fixed identity capable of expression. Responding to Polonius’s advice to Hamlet (‘to thine own self be true’), Mansfield lamented: ‘True to oneself! Which self? Which of my many – well, really, that’s what it looks like coming to – hundreds of selves.’
In her more mature writing on her childhood, which was provoked by her brother’s death in 1916, tensions arises not from misdeeds of characters but from their inner psychological conflict. In ‘Prelude’ (1918), characters are constantly divided in their thoughts and feelings. The mother, Linda Burnell, loves her husband and shows tenderness towards him, patiently listening to his tales of the office and fetching his slippers. Yet she muses that while ‘she loved and admired and respected him tremendously’ these emotions co-exist alongside feelings of hatred: ‘There were all her feelings for him, sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest.’ In another instance, her sister Beryl sits down to write a letter to a friend, light-heartedly bemoaning their move to the country but then reflects ‘it was all perfectly true, but in another way it was all the greatest rubbish and she didn’t believe a word of it […] She felt all those things, but she didn’t really feel them like that.’
In the essay collection Katherine Mansfield and Psychology, Clare Hanson opines that Mansfield’s sensitive rendering of the mutability of the self is connected to developments in fin-de-siècle psychology that explored the heterogeneity of consciousness, in particular the school of vitalist psychology associated with Henri Bergson. Developing an insight broached in the introduction—that modernists writers were ‘creatures of the nineteenth as much as the twentieth century’ —she relates the interest of Mansfield’s associates with the vitalist psychology of Henri Bergson: Murry had attended Bergson’s lectures in Paris while the modernist periodical, the New Age, was a key organ for the philosopher’s popularisation in Britain.
Vitalist psychology was marked by fracture and discontinuity. William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) reflected that identity lay simply in the ‘resemblance among the parts of a continuum of feeling’, while Bergson, in his essay ‘An Introduction to Metaphysics’ (1903), described the self as a sphere whose surface is made up of perceptions from the material world which overlays an inner state of continuous flux. Hanson notes the parallel of Bergson’s ‘surface and depth model’ with Mansfield’s analogy of the self as a hotel in which a ‘small clerk […] has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests’. Here
the guests stand for the multiple perceptions that leave the inner self, the clerk, at a loss to co-ordinate. Mansfield’s frustrated probing for a more certain level of self was expressed in a journal entry: ‘I positively feel, in my hideous modern way, that I can’t get in touch in with my mind. I am standing gasping in one of those disgusting telephone boxes and I can’t “get through.”’
This search was an impulse that would manifest itself in Mansfield’s turn towards mysticism in the final years of her life. Maurizio Ascari’s essay explores her fascination with Cosmic Anatomy (1921) by M.B. Oxon, the pen name of the theosophist and New Age benefactor, Lewis Alexander Richard Wallace. Mansfield’s interest in Wallace’s abstruse reflections on the notion of ‘cosmic man’ that drew on a jumble of mythological and astrological ideas has often been treated with embarrassment. However, as Ascari notes, Mansfield would have been drawn to Wallace’s stress upon the existence of an ‘extended consciousness’ through which it was possible to access an essential ‘I.’ Mansfield’s diary entry after just having read Wallace reflected: ‘To do anything, to be anything, one must gather oneself together and “one’s faith make stronger.” Nothing of any worth can come from a disunited being.’
Within her literary networks, interest in mysticism was closely allied to a fascination with psychology. In addition to its championing of Bergson, the New Age was one of the first organs in which psychoanalysis was discussed. The writers on this subject formed part of what the occult historian James Webb has labelled a ‘psychosynthesis group’ that discussed psychoanalysis along with ideas of a more mystical bent. When the Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky arrived in London, this group proved a willing audience for his ideas – as well as those of the guru G.I. Gurdjieff. Both James Young and the journal’s editor, A.R. Orage, went to the latter’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of man at Fontainebleau where Mansfield spent the final months of her life.
The more florid speculations contained in Gurdjieff’s cosmological system have also been the source of embarrassment for Mansfield scholars.
However, Gurdjieff’s fundamental insight centred on the diagnosis of the discordant state of consciousness caused by the physical, emotional and intellectual parts of humanity failing to work in harmony. Despite his damning assessment that the most part of humanity operated at a lower level of consciousness so that they were effectively asleep, in his scheme higher levels of consciousness also existed. One way they could be accessed was through the regime at Fontainebleau which sought to re-align the body and mind through holistic living and attention exercises.
Mansfield had speculated, by way of a return to childhood, that one could seek this higher self; she reflected in a notebook entry that interest in childhood memories was prompted by the conviction that we have a ‘persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent.’ There was a childlike dimension to her stay at Fontainebleau, with its family-like atmosphere provided by the community of fellow seekers and the chance to give oneself up to guidance provided by the dominating personality of Gurdjieff. Through the stripping away of false levels of being, by purging her mind of conflict, Mansfield hoped that ultimately she might regain a purified form of childhood; becoming, as she put it, ‘a child of the sun.’