Thursday, 17 December 2009

Katherine Mansfield as reviewer

Like most people that have passed through a New Zealand university, I've been exposed to a strong dose of writing by Katherine Mansfield, who even today ranks as New Zealand's pre-eminent writer. I've marvelled at the technique in her short stories, and enjoyed the candidness of her writing in the diaries and letters, and even enjoyed a number of books about her, including Antony Alper's biography and Margaret Scott's enjoyable reminiscenses about following the Mansfield trail.

However, I'd never really realised the strength and wit of Mansfield's writing as a reviewer, as illustrated in her reviews written for The Athenæum, the literary magazine edited by her husband, John Middleton Murry.

Spanning a period of only 21 months, Mansfield produced reviews covering more than 150 works of 127 authors, totalling more than 100,000 words, before becoming too ill and disinterested to write more. These reviews exemplify the wit, charm, and caustic exactness of Mansfield's writing, and should be regarded as an essential resource for those studying her work and technique.

She recognises the talent of her contemporaries, extolling with pleasure on Virginia Woolf's Kew Gardens:
Mrs. Virginia Woolf's story belongs to another age. It is so far removed from the note-book literature of our day, so exquisite an example of love at second sight. She begins where the others leave off, entering Kew Gardens, as it were, alone and at her leisure when their little first screams of excitement have died away and they have rushed afield to some new brilliant joy
She is no less taken by Woolf's Night and Day:
The strangeness lies in her aloofness, her air of quiet perfection, her lack of any sign that she has made a perilous voyage—the absence of any scars [...] It is impossible to refrain from comparing ‘Night and Day’ with the novels of Miss Austen. There are moments, indeed, when one is almost tempted to cry it Miss Austen up-to-date. It is extremely cultivated, distinguished and brilliant, but above all—deliberate.
However, she is also not reluctant to unlease her acerbicness for those works that fail to impress her. For instance, in her review of Jerome K. Jerome's All Roads Lead to Calvary:
‘All Roads Lead to Calvary’ is another novel. It is not more; it is one of that enormous pile of novels…. ‘Are they fresh?’ ‘Yes, baked to-day, Madame.’ But they are just the same as those that were baked yesterday and the day before—and the day before that. So much flour, a sprinkle of currants, a smear of sugar on the top. Melancholy, melancholy thought of all those people steadily munching, asking for another, and carrying perhaps a third one home with them in case they should wake up in the night and feel—not hungry, exactly—but ‘just a little empty.’
Her easy manner and facility with language emerge strongly from her reviews, and make them a pleasure to read, whether or not we are familiar with the work being critiqued:
Public Opinion, garrulous, lying old nurse that she is, cries: ‘Yes! Great books, immortal books are being born every minute, each one more lusty than the last. Let him who is without sin among you cast the first criticism.’ It would be a superb, thrilling world if this were true! Or if even a very moderate number of them were anything but little puppets, little make-believes, playthings on strings with the same stare and the same sawdust filling, just unlike enough to keep the attention distracted, but all like enough to do nothing more profound. After all, in these lean years of plenty how could it be otherwise? Not even the most hardened reader, at the rate books are written and read nowadays, could stand up against so many attacks upon his mind and heart, if it were. Reading, for the great majority—for the reading public—is not a passion but a pastime, and writing, for the vast number of modern authors, is a pastime and not a passion.
For those studying Mansfield and her influences, there is plenty to focus upon, whether it be references to the writers that deeply influenced her, such as Jane Austen, Chekhov and Dostoevsky, or allusions to childhood and her New Zealand past:
Perhaps one of the rarest and most delicious is meeting with an old play-fellow who is just come from the country of our childhood, and having an endless talk with him about what is changed and what is the same—whether the Aliens still live in the same house, what has become of the huge Molesworth family, and was the mystery of old Anderson ever solved?
We shall never see these people again; we shall share nothing more with them. We shall never push open their garden gates and smell our way past the flower bushes to the white verandahs where they sit gossiping in the velvet moonlight. Why should we feel then this passionate interest? Is it because, prisoners as we are, we love to feel we have inhabited other lives—lived more lives than one—or we are reluctant to withdraw wholly because of that whispered word ‘Finis’ which locks the doors against us, one by one, for ever?
But in case we ever think she is becoming sentimental in her critique, there are plenty of occasions where she is brusque and to the point, as with her review of Jane Mander's Story of a New Zealand River:
Miss Jane Mander is immensely hampered in her writing by her adherence to the old unnecessary technical devices—they are no more—with which she imagines it necessary to support her story. If one has the patience to persevere with her novel, there is, under all the false wrappings, the root of something very fresh and sturdy. She lacks confidence and the courage of her opinions; like the wavering, fearful heroine, she leans too hard on England. There are moments when we catch a bewilderingly vivid glimpse of what she really felt and knew about the small settlement of people in the lumber-camp, but we suspect that these are moments when she is off her guard.
Although many of the novels Mansfield covers in these reviews are now lost to the collective memory, there are also many writers whose works have stood the test, including Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Jack London, Gertrude Stein, and Edith Wharton.
Reading through the reviews, I can't help but have my attention caught again and again by some turn of phrase or description which is very tangible and sharply-defined in the way that few writers are able to produce even today.

These reviews are a joy to read, and we're pleased to be able to make these reviews available for everyone's edification / mortification. They can be found at:
, which also includes an index of the writers reviewed.

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