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Monday, October 20, 2008

Yours rudely, Katherine Mansfield Trev Broughton TLS

Yours rudely, Katherine Mansfield
Letters from a writer doomed to fame – and the Russian guru George Gurdjieff
Trev Broughton
(Times Literary Supplement 10/15)

"I have such a horror of telegrams that ask me how I am!! I always want to reply dead.” Such was Katherine Mansfield’s typically robust response to yet another wire from the ever solicitous Ida Baker. The fifth and final volume of Mansfield’s surviving letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott, covers just over a year, and begins with her decision to leave Switzerland for one last, desperate attempt to find a cure in Paris for the tuberculosis that had pursued her for the past six years. It sees the publication of The Garden Party, to considerable acclaim; her return to London and trial separation from her husband John Middleton Murry; and her decisive withdrawal from family and friends to spend what turned out to be her remaining days at the “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man”, an eccentric community of exiles and idealists living in a former priory at Fontainebleau-Avon, and directed imperiously by the charismatic Russian guru George Gurdjieff.

The Swiss and Parisian letters, in particular, make painful reading, not just because Mansfield was in pain, though her advanced consumption was compounded by the crippling symptoms of the by now systemic gonorrhoea she had contracted during a brief but disastrous experiment with wild oats ten years earlier. Nor is it just that the letters disclose a personality capable of lacerating cruelty, insensitivity and belligerence. Any reader of the earlier volumes will be familiar with Mansfield’s alternating moods of feverish glee and raging discontent; with her propensity to lash out viciously when she feels cornered; with the way her friends slip in and out of favour like figures on a weatherhouse; with her breathtaking capacity for insult. (Witness the condensed spite in a phrase to Dorothy Brett, one of her closest friends, in 1920: “why did you think I’d admire you for being such a poor artist as not to understand a sick person’s psychology?”. With one blow, Brett is snubbed as naive, vain, stupid, callous and a lousy painter.) Rather, the disease one feels here is a dreadful consciousness of being stuck: stuck in snow, in hotel rooms, in pointless diets and regimes, in mutually destructive relationships, stuck artistically, but above all stuck in a kind of emotional stammer. She is unable to cope on her own, yet intolerant of all intrusion:

Doors that bang, voices raised, smells of cooking, even steps on the stairs are nothing short of anguish to me at times. There is an inner calm necessary to writing, a sense of equilibrium which is impossible to reach if it hasn’t its outward semblance.

She writes to her cousin Elizabeth von Arnim in January 1922, explaining what recovery would mean to her: “To be alone again . . . . To be invisible, not to be offered chairs or given arms!”. By February, Mansfield is ensconced in a Paris hotel, committing herself to a long and eye-wateringly expensive regime of outpatient treatment by Ivan Manoukhin, a Russian physician who claims he can cure even advanced tuberculosis by irradiating the spleen with X-rays. Needless to say, the treatment is, as the editors wryly note, medically useless. When an ancient Swiss hotelier later suggests a “poultice of mashed potatoes on [the] chest”, one can’t help thinking it would have been more comfortable, cheaper, and no less effective than the months of internal cookery Mansfield endured.

Confined almost permanently to beds and sofas, and deprived of the glimpses of the natural world that had hitherto sustained her through her grimmest battles (from the Paris hotel window she can see only a “piece of sky and a view into the windows opposite”), she desperately garners clues about the changing seasons from the nature columns of the English newspapers. On February 3 she reports perkily to Brett: “The Dog’s Mercury is in flower so I read. But what is Dog’s Mercury? And does the dog know? Its all a great puzzle – Perhaps he is very pleased or perhaps he just looks at it and bolts it. Oh, I do hope not. Life is so wonderful – very wonderful . . . let us not waste it”. A cute fragment of whimsy, but it doesn’t get any funnier when rolled out the following day to another artist friend, Anne Drey: “I hope he’s pleased but I expect he just looks at it and bolts it and goes on with a kind of ‘so that’s that’ air. Sad for the Dog’s Mercury – don’t you think?”. By the time, a fortnight later, the joke is retold almost verbatim to her sister Charlotte, one begins to blush for her; to hope that her correspondents never exchange notes; to pray that she doesn’t drag the dog or the mercury back into another letter to Brett, Anne or Chaddie (she does not). It is this sickening sense of a life being consciously lived at several removes, of a dwindling and recycling of resources, that makes these letters depressing where her earlier outbursts were often infuriating, yes, but never dull.

But underneath the stifling sense of confinement there emerge hints of what is now called “disengagement”: a loosening of worldly ties, a dropping of habits of mind. Although, with the publication of The Garden Party in February, her fame is at its height, she is relatively indifferent to her celebrity and cut off from most of its benefits. (She is still writing to her agent, James Brand Pinker, nearly two months after his death.) The precious cat, Wingley, who has followed her around Europe, and whose antics have punctuated her letters since kittenhood, is by April being coolly dispatched: “What about giving Wingley for always to the de Perrots . . . . I think it would be in the long run kinder to destroy him than to let him be with strangers”. To Sidney Schiff she confesses, “It is more and more difficult to me to write letters”. Although she goes through the motions (a request to her sister for “a good depilatory”, a suggested diet of milk and oranges for the boils on Murry’s neck), her letters, even to Murry, gradually become less impassioned, more circumspect, as if she is putting everyone at arm’s length.

By April 23, she is bemoaning having “eaten hundreds of wings of hotel chickens and only God knows how many little gritty trays with half cold coffee pots on them have whisked into my room and out again. It doesn’t matter”. For a fleeting moment in late spring she can persuade herself she is cured. “I go out alone and nobody looks at me. I sit in the Luxembourg Gardens hidden and it’s quite easy to pretend one is walking slowly just because one chooses to”. One notes, however, that her longed-for invisibility is an effort of will. A stay of a few months in England between treatments soon has her doubting her progress. The tea parties of literary London have their usual congealing effect on her: “As for taking risks, making mistakes, changing their opinions, being in the wrong, committing themselves, losing themselves, being human beings in fact – no, a thousand times! ‘Let us sit down and have a nice chat about minor eighteenth century poetry’”. During this time, as she confesses to her cousin Elizabeth, she has “what books and undergraduates call a spiritual crisis . . . . For the first time in my life everything bored me”.

Her aspirations towards a more spiritually attuned, vital relationship to existence had been evident since her early twenties (“I like always to have a great grip on Life, so that I intensify the so-called small things”, she wrote to her early love Garnet Trowell in 1908), but were intensified in 1910 by the influence of the theosophist A. R. Orage, Editor of the New Age, and by the onset of ill health. Given her distaste for most forms of society, her suspicion of organized religion, and her tendency to regard virtually everyone around her as “corrupt”, it is sometimes hard to grasp where this vital principle is supposed to reside. Flowers, as always, provide her characteristic metaphor for what she means. As the letter to Trowell explains: “I like first, to get that sense of loneliness . . . and then always I like to be able to see the flowers pushing their way up through the brown earth”. The persistence of the metaphor, and its force as a credo, need to be gauged against the fact that the coming of winter weather aggravates her disease to a dangerous extent, and that, insofar as she manages to escape it by fleeing south, winter deprives her of the physical intimacy and the friendship she craves. In other words her faith and her bodily experience are at once organically related, and, at any given moment, cruel satires on each other. In some moods, of course, Mansfield – who has a fair share of both cruel and satirical impulses – can relish the irony. “You picture me writing this”, she writes to Ottoline Morrell in 1917 (in a letter that was later circulated and in its turn mocked within Morrell’s circle),

of course, in a hair net and dress improver, with my elbow leaning upon a Life of George Eliot. But in very truth, life seems to me so thrilling, so intensely wonderful that I feel quite hopelessly ardent before it.

Such self-consciousness notwithstanding, it is striking that the abstract principle she most passionately embraces (the contingency of beauty on withdrawal and suffering) coincides with the cycle in her own life she most vividly fears and detests. That this pattern of exile and return also generates most of her letters, and thus discloses her to correspondents (and to us) at her most passionate and detestable, has tended to obscure the subterranean struggle between her metaphysics and her sense of embodiment. One way of reading that struggle is as a nascent spiritual discipline, or even as a form of asceticism. The move to the priory can thus be seen as an attempt to achieve some sort of alignment between the two: to yield herself up to winter, as it were.

Commentators have been uncomfortable with this final phase of Mansfield’s life, not least because it seems so starkly at odds with the relentlessly writerly bent of her first thirty-three years. Her last story, “The Canary”, was completed in February 1922, and is, as Claire Tomalin rightly noted in her excellent biography (1988), “truly mawkish”. She seems to have decided that any future writing would depend on her success in healing herself. “I am at the end of my source for the time”, she writes to Murry. “Life has brought me no flow.” Since they did not produce or lead to any stories, the Prieuré months are, to the literary historian, an embarrassing postscript rather than the culmination of a lifelong quest. “Do send Lit Supps”, she asks Murry towards the end of October. “They are so good for lighting fires.”

Gurdjieff, who must be admired for taking in a young woman who was both famous and clearly dying, seems to have designed a regime based on what he saw as Mansfield’s spiritual needs: her body mattered only for what it could still do, rather than for what it couldn’t or shouldn’t do. It is too easy to sneer at the mystical tourism he offers her – “I was a little European with a liking for eastern carpets and music . . . . In three weeks here I feel I have spent years in India, Arabia, Afghanistan, Persia” – or to deride as cultish his apparently arbitrary changes to sleeping arrangements: “I hope Mr Gurdjieff does not move us again too soon”, she writes with uncharacteristic diffidence. “But it is a favourite habit to set the whole house walking.” Yet he clearly provides a wider range of sensations and impressions than her invalid existence has so far vouchsafed her, and he has an unerring instinct for what will soothe and stimulate her. He has a cosy gallery constructed for her in the cowshed so she can watch the cows and listen to the milking: “I lie there for several hours each day to inhale the smell of the cows”, she tells her father on New Year’s Eve, days before her death. “It is supposed to be a sovereign remedy for the lungs . . . . I enjoy the experience.” Gurdjieff makes her face much that she has dreaded and avoided: sewing, mathematics, pig-sticking, proximity to unsympathetic people. He satisfies her craving for new experience, community and meaningful work by setting her minute tasks and giving her responsibilities commensurate with her depleted energy. “I am fearfully busy . . . . I learn Russian, which is a terrific job, have charge of the indoor carnations – no joke, & spend the rest of the day paying visits to places where people are working.” A few days’ superintendence of the carnations and an afternoon spent scraping carrots – “masses of carrots” – emboldens her to lecture Murry on his latest version of the country cottage idyll that has for years been the staple of their joint fantasy lives:

Your idea of buying some land & building a little house does seem to me a bit premature, darling. You know so little. You have never tried your hand at such things. Its not quite easy to change from an intellectual life like yours to a life of hard physical work . . . . There is certainly no other spot on this whole planet where one can be taught as one is taught here. But Life is not easy. We have great “difficulties” – painful moments, and Mr Gurdjieff is there to do to us what we wish to do to ourselves, and are afraid to do.

Her experiences gave her letters a new kind of certainty, a renewed sense of purpose that must have been difficult for her cautious, cerebral husband either to believe in or to agree with: “You see Bogey if I were allowed one single cry to God that cry would be I want to be REAL. Until I am that I don’t see why I shouldn’t be at the mercy of old Eve in her various manifestations for ever”.

Only the letters to Ida Baker, the friend-companion-housekeeper-nurse who had for the whole of Mansfield’s adult life borne the brunt of her most violent moods, retain almost to the end the mesmerizing pulsations of contempt and affection that had always characterized them. On November 10, Mansfield writes from the priory dispensing with her services, apparently for good, in the coolest terms: “No, it makes no difference to me if you are in Paris or not . . . do you see that our relationship was absolutely wrong now? You were identified with me. I prevented you from living at all. Now you have to learn & its terribly hard”. The next day, without a backward glance, she writes complaining that her laundry has been stolen and sending Ida scurrying around Paris with elaborate orders for

cream woolen chemise & knickers at 20 francs . . . . Quite plain, little closed shape knickers bound in cream silk . . . 3 tops (can you make them?) . . . 1 tricot (cream if possible). 3 pairs woolen stocking . . . 1 ½ dozen handkerchiefs – quite simple . . . . You know that red shawl you made me. Can you make me a cream one embroidered in cream? and so on. And two days later, “I have asked Jack [Murry] to give you some stockings to bring me. Id like another wrap, too, like my red one, but cream & another pair of slippers from Lewis”. And ten days later, “Please buy me NO dress of any kind and NO shoes. This is final! . . . What a pity you and Jack could not start a small farm together”. So much for dispensing with Old Eve.

Her last, unsent letter, addressed to Ida in early January 1923, has her in more gentle mood, learning how to read Eastern carpets, describing the killing of the community’s pigs, worrying about the condition of the stable floors, observing that the goat has nibbled her fur coat. Life is still full and absorbing. But “I am looking for signs of spring already”.

Under the espalier pear tree there are wonderful Xmas roses which I saw for the first time this year. They reminded me of Switzerland, and somebody found four primroses the other day. I have moods when I simply pine for the S. of France or somewhere like Majorka. When this time is over I shall make for the South or the East never go North again.

The first volume of this collection was published in 1983, and work on it began several years earlier, so the editors have devoted to the letters a period longer than the correspondence itself (Mansfield was born in 1888 and the first surviving letter dates from 1903). The editors’ labours throughout have been meticulous yet unobtrusive: footnotes direct us, where relevant, to Mansfield’s published writings and notebooks, track down allusions, and deftly sketch in back-stories. As an undertaking, and as a collaboration, the project has lasted longer than many careers and its completion is a triumphant achievement.

As a monument to Mansfield it is, however, equivocal. Even if we leave aside the ethical questions surrounding their publication (Mansfield’s posthumous instructions to Murry were to “destroy all letters you do not wish to keep . . . . Have a clean sweep, Bogey, and leave all fair – will you?”), the collection of letters is an unsparing, perhaps a gratuitous, test of their writer’s mettle. More than any other genre, letters expose – because they enact – writers’ casual disloyalties and betrayals, their moods and inconsistencies, their broken vows, flatteries, promiscuities. The revelation is the harsher in the case of “Collected letters” rather than “Correspondence”, because (other than in precious hints in footnotes) there is none of the answering back that might recast a snide remark as repartee, or a brutal attack as mutual cut and thrust. We never learn what was so exasperating about the luckless Ida Baker or so ultimately disheartening about the adored Murry, so we build up resistance to taking Mansfield’s word for that or anything else. This readerly suspicion was something she understood only too well: she dramatized it crisply in “The Singing Lesson”.

It is conventional to end accounts of Mansfield’s life-writings with a statement that, though often difficult and sometimes impossible, she was brave, driven and achieved an astonishing body of work in the most unpropitious circumstances. All that is true, but the completion of this series raises a question. Whose letters, laid out nose to tail, would smell of roses?

Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott, editors
Volume Five: 1922–1923
376pp. Oxford University Press. £60 (US $120).
978 0 19 818399 0

Trev Broughton is Senior Lecturer in English and Related Literature at the University of York. She is co-editor, as Trev Lynn Broughton, of volumes one to four of Autobiography, 2006, and author of Gender and Fatherhood in the Nineteenth Century, 2007.

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