Ruth Scurr

The imaginative energy of Katherine Mansfield

Claire Harman discusses ten of Mansfield’s short stories in connection with her tragically short life

[Bridgeman Images]

A hundred years ago, in a former Carmelite monastery 60 kilometres south of Paris, Katherine Mansfield ran up a flight of stairs to her bedroom and died of a haemorrhage.  She was 34 years old. She had known for five years that she had tuberculosis. After joining the spiritualist therapeutic community at Fontainebleau-Avon in October 1922, under the guidance of the Russian guru George Gurdjieff, she had been careful to avoid stairs, or only to take them very slowly. But on the 9 January 1923, her husband, the writer and editor John Middleton Murry, came to visit and they enjoyed an evening watching other members of the commune dancing. In a fit of high spirits, or recklessness, forgetful of the painful constraints on her body, Mansfield took off for the last time upstairs and never came down. 

Claire Harman, a distinguished literary biographer, has written a wonderful book to mark the centenary of Mansfield’s death.  Determined to consider the work and life in tandem, Harman chooses ten of Mansfield’s short stories, some renowned, some obscure, and discusses them in connection with her life.

She once even stopped on the stairs to write down a sentence that was in her head

Mansfield pioneered fragmented narratives full of the ‘so-called small things’ and ‘the detail of life, the life of life’. Harman argues that in the aftermath of her death, Mansfield’s ‘irregular and short life, devoted as it was to an irregular short form, didn’t fit at all well with the dominant idea of pantheon literature, on a large scale, with heroic resonances’. She has sometimes been overlooked or condescended to (Wyndham Lewis dismissed her as a ‘mag.-story writer’, D.H. Lawrence predicted she would ‘fade’, and T.S. Eliot thought her reputation ‘inflated’), but in our age of pandemics, loneliness and an overwhelming number of texts online, Harman suggests, appreciation of short stories – which ask ‘the biggest questions in the smallest spaces’ – is burgeoning.

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