The extraordinariness of the ordinary

Katherine Mansfield, by John Herbert Folker.
Copyright National Portrait Gallery.
Used under a
Creative Commons License
A few months ago I read Ali Smith's book of short stories Public library and other stories. One of my favourite tales was The ex-wife, a powerful tale in which the author, Katherine Mansfield, becomes the third party in an increasingly unstable relationship. Post-break-up the ex-husband revisits Mansfield unable to comprehend the hold a dead writer has on his wife, only to fall completely in love with her writing. It doesn't bring the couple back together, but it does make the break-up easier post-break-up for both parties. Katherine Mansfield, along with Henry James, occasionally pops up in Donna Leon's Brunetti mysteries too; and it struck me recently that she is a writer that I both know remarkably little about, and whose work has largely been ignored by me (with the exception of one or two short stories).

Mansfield is best known for her short stories, and I started off with her first published collection - Bliss, and other stories first published in October 1920. Mansfield was a New Zealander, who moved to the UK in 1908, and never returned. The short stories in the Bliss collection move between New Zealand, the UK, France and Germany. They all have very ordinary backgrounds, and examine the minutiae of life. The stories set in New Zealand have a wonderful airiness about them that reminded me very strongly of fellow-antipodean writers such as Ngaio Marsh, Richard Flanagan, and (most noticeably) Miles Franklin (My brilliant career). 

A quick canter through some of the tales:
Prelude - Hugely enjoyable story about a house-move in turn of the century New Zealand. Wonderful characterisation, not least the delightful children, the world-weary wife, and the younger sister fated never to find a beau. A loving family warmth oozes through this tale, as Mansfield examines the importance of small things.

Je ne parle pas francais - Unsettling tale of two cads. Mansfield is at her best when portraying innocence betrayed. Similar themes will be written about just as unsettlingly in Pictures and The little governess.

Bliss - One of my favourites. Clever tale, in which the reader is led up the garden path, only to discover an enormous twist in the tale. Delightful writing.

Psychology - The complications of love. You may never have experienced it quite like this, but Mansfield is so good at exploring the ordinary, and making it the experience of everyone.

The man without a temperament, Mr. Reginald Peacock's Day, Revelations and Escape - Mansfield examines the thoughts and feelings behind the face that we all show to the world every day.

Sun and Moon - Charming tale about the borderlands between the worlds of adult and child.

Feuille d'album - A short, but very sweet, love story.

A dill pickle - If you've ever wished that you could go out with THAT ex- again, read this first. A great comic story with a gimlet eye for the truth of the situation.

What I loved about these stories - Mansfield has a wonderful eye for the everyday. She describes the little details of life in the same beauteous way as Colette. Devastatingly truthful, she can be charming, sarcastic, pierce you to the bone, make you cry or make you laugh with a flick of her pen. She is a great writer.

Most of the stories are about men and women in their early 30's, and most seem to be extraordinarily elderly for their years. I did find this a little odd, but then I read a little about Katherine Mansfield's own life, and it all became a lot clearer. Mansfield herself died at the age of 34, just a few years after this collection of stories was published. Indeed by the time the book was published she had already received the, then, terminal diagnosis of tuberculosis. This makes The man without a temperament an especially poignant tale.

I loved her writing. It's hard to explain what happens in Mansfield because very little happens. The fact that she can take these small nuances and weave them into tales of delight, sorrow and anger speaks volumes for her qualities as a writer. D.H. Lawrence had a turbulent relationship with her, while Virginia Woolf was haunted by her. Mansfield's early death and her place as a writer of short stories moved her on to the periphery of the literary world. It's time that she was moved to the centre as a writer who could see the extraordinariness of the ordinary.


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