Despite the biographer's bizarre claim in the foreword that male sensibilities are not up to the task of fully understanding Katherine Mansfield, I took the plunge! Though Tomalin works strenuously to find 'much that is admirable' in her subject's life, she also identifies perilously conflicted veins of thought and behaviour in every phase of Mansfield's life. "Intimacy," she writes, "was established with a mixture of wheedling and lying." D.H.Lawrence goes further and strikes gold in his portrait of Gudrun (Katherine Mansfield) in 'Women in Love': "Once inside the house of her soul, there was a pungent atmosphere of corrosion, an inflamed darkness of sensation, and a vivid, subtle critical consciousness that saw the world distorted, horrific." The reader gets close to Mansfield here and the strange liminal space she occupied as a short-story writer. She was seduced by the very things she found most alienating and grotesque, and what emerges is dry, comic pathos at every point as she edges around her colonels, aunts and betrayed lovers, scratching out her pen-portraits with the exquisite skill of a miniaturist. Tomalin brings this hideous brilliance to life in her biography by focusing on the no-holds-barred description of the gonorrhea that ravaged Mansfield's body after her 1908 encounter with Floryan Sobieniowski, her Polish evil genius. Her debilitating illnesses give her writing a disengaged, glacial feel and she is likened to a bird, descending into the ugly melée of human relations, giving them some neat parodic pecks before flying off again. Tomalin brings this out as pure Mansfield, most 'austere and caustic' towards those she most loves - especially towards Ida, her slavishly loyal idolater - drip-feeding the most loving and the most loathsome character sketches simultaneously. Tomalin echoes this perplexing ambivalence in her own writing, bewitched and bewildered by turns. This biography will haunt my memory for a long time.
A wonderful biography of a difficult, brilliant woman who, through a number of tragic circumstances, culminating in a losing battle with tuberculosis, died young, having written many superb (and some not so good!) short stories but without perhaps ever fully realizing her entire potential.
Claire Tomalin's book is a prime example of why biography can be really enjoyable: it's well-paced, full of interesting discussion about Mansfield, her social circle and her writings, both serious and at times wonderfully and darkly comic (I still almost weep with laughter every time I read about Mansfield's husband John Middleton Murry's unsuccessful attempts to become a poet and novelist - Tomalin prints a couple of extracts from appalling poems by him!). Tomalin brings the world Mansfield lived in vividly to life, with superb descriptions of London, Paris and the French and English countryside. There are some great character sketches: D.H. Lawrence, for example, leaps off the page, as does his wife Frieda, the French writer Francis Carco, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Virginia Woolf and the Greek/Armenian guru George Gurdieff in whose commune Mansfield spent her last weeks before her horribly early death, aged 33. Tomalin also writes well and sensitively about Mansfield's family and her New Zealand background, her early aspirations towards becoming a musician - ditched at the age of 19 in favour of writing - and her various friends, including Ida Baker, a schoolmate in London who virtually became Katherine's servant. She is refreshingly honest about Mansfield's complex character: she could be manipulative, a terrible liar and ruthless in her ambition, but also had a real zest for life and, when not feeling threatened or needing to play a role, a charming and very kind friend. Tomalin is perceptive about her relationships with various men (though I'm still slightly puzzled as to why her first relationship finished so abruptly), and writes particularly well about Mansfield's marriage to John Middleton Murry, so intelligent but also very much a 'man on the make', with many problems of his own. The material about tuberculosis is wonderfully researched, and draws attention to the horrors of a disease which - partly due to its depiction in opera - has been somewhat romanticized. And the biography does what is perhaps one of the strongest things about literary biography: it makes you want to go away and read a lot of Katherine Mansfield.
A magnificent achievement. I have several other Tomalin biogs on my shelves and am looking forward to tackling them soon.
Best known as a short story writer, Katherine Mansfield died in 1923 at the tragically early age of 34. Her life was a restless, itinerant one after she left her native New Zealand to attend school in London. Her wanderings never made her happy: nor did her liaisons either with men or women, and she was dogged by ill health. She, like her close friend D H Lawrence, finally succumbed to tuberculosis. Her best work was written in frenzied bursts in the last few years of her life: stories of the alienation between men and women, mothers and children - evocative, perceptive stories bubbling over with life. She objected to Frieda Lawrence pointing out obvious sexual imagery but her own stories use such imagery freely - especially one of her most well-known, "Bliss".
Claire Tomalin succeeds in painting a sympathetic portrait of a woman who many found hard to like in life, and shows us her vulnerable, alone side . When she was in the last throes of her illness, she wrote "One knows how easy it is to die. The barriers that are up for everybody else are down for you and you've only to slip through". And this was the woman who loved life, who wrote "I had a whole spring full of blue-bells one year with Lawrence. I shall never forget it...the shadows raced over the silky grass and the cuckoos sang".
At the end, she realised, and wrote - "I am a writer first". But it was too late, and by then the seeds of destruction were well grown.
A gifted life tragically cut short - whose epitaph could perhaps justly be: The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us.
Absolutely fascinating and as usual brilliantly written and thoroughly researched by Tomalin. I have read some of her other literary biographies (Austen, Hardy and Dickens) and I particularly like the way she approaches the subject dispassionately with an open mind. Some other biographers seem to have fixed ideas about their subject which they then attempt to justify. You never get this impression with Tomalin. She is able to be objective, but at the same time you feel you get to know the character intimately. She does not hold back from exposing some of the more unpleasant sides of Mansfield's character, yet she is also compassionate and understanding about the situation she found herself in. Thoroughly recommended if you're interested in the period.
If you want a life written with the rubbish left out; this is it; you get Katherine Mansfield in all her complexity. Claire Tomalin gives you a sense of the real person and the real context of her times. Loved it.