Imo­gen Wood­berry

A Child of the Sun

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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

in­flu­en­tial con­tacts.

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.’

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