I like to yank hermits into the spotlight. I'm a sucker for women whose work is sometimes considered "secondary," who kept a low profile and got a lot done. Their lives are usually stranger and their work is often just as unique. So today I'd like us all to focus our attention for a moment on someone who made odd and wonderful fiction, who was constantly seeking out freedom, and who was, to her great dismay, isolated for a large chunk of her short life.
Katherine Mansfield was spirited and strong-willed; diagnosed with tuberculosis at 29, she died five years later after running up a flight of stairs to prove how well she was. She was one of the best writers of the 20th century, though she never wrote a novel, preferring to write in what she called "glimpses." Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal that Mansfield was the only writer she'd ever been jealous of.
Mansfield was born in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, though she lived in Europe for most of her life. Itching for new people and new scenery, Mansfield left New Zealand in 1903 to go to college in London. After college, she embarked on what Patricia Hampl, in her essay on Mansfield, calls her "wild-thing period," having all kinds of affairs with women and men and doing that whole bohemian frolicking thing. Of course, while she was frolicking, she got almost no work done. She had two lesbian relationships that she wrote about in her diary with both guilt and passion. She became pregnant, broke up with the father, miscarried, married a much older man she hardly knew out of panic, left him almost immediately, and escaped to a spa town in Germany for a while before returning to London in 1910 to begin a stormy relationship with John Middleton Murry, who she would break up and get back together with over and over again until her death in 1923.
Mansfield is sometimes pushed aside in favor of more prolific and longer-lived writers (read: Woolf). But stories like "Bliss" and "Prelude" are some of the more perfect short stories ever written. I have a soft spot for Mansfield's work, but I don't think that being a good writer is enough to make you a feminist icon. The structure of Mansfield's life makes her tricky as a feminist figure: When she was young she relished the freedoms of the "new woman," but those freedoms were taken away from her when she got sick. Late in her life, she focused on writing, producing some of her best work. In her final days, as she grew more desperate to find something to stave off death, she became spiritual and repentant for her earlier wild behavior.
Some of Mansfield's biographers, and a few of her peers (including Virginia Woolf, who wrote some nasty things about Mansfield in her journal) couldn't help but interpret her life story as a classic tale of transgression, punishment, and redemption. But as Hampl points out, during her life Mansfield's first concern was freedom. Her choices were her own. She wanted to move through the world uninhibited, to love who she wanted when she wanted, and to write what she wanted, never mind Woolf's jealous comment that Mansfield was "content with superficial smartness." Mansfield wrote in her diary,
"I want to work...with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing...Warm, eager, living life—to be rooted in life—to learn, to desire to know, to feel, to think, to act. That is what I want."
Unfortunately, Mansfield's freedom-seeking life didn't pan out the way she wanted it to. It must have been crushing to fall ill in her prime, just when she was making a place for herself as a writer. But to me, the best way to make sense of disappointment like this is with words that Mansfield herself wrote, about a character in "The Garden Party":
That is bewildering for a person of Laura's age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn't like that. We haven't the ordering of it. Laura says, 'But all these things must not happen at once.' and life answers, 'Why not? How are they divided from each other.' And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.
Patricia Hampl's essay is called "Relics of Saint Katherine," and it's published in Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman.You know what they say about history... This post originally appeared on the Bitch blogs in November 2010.