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Katherine Mansfield (14 October 1888 – 9 January 1923)

Having forgotten earlier to write about Bernard Shaw, I suppose it was not surprising that I had forgotten too about Katherine Mansfield. Her principal claim to fame is that she was the first exponent of the short story alone, and she certainly brought the genre much more critical acclaim than it had received previously.

Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand, but spent some years in her teens in England, during which she also traveled on the continent. New Zealand obviously proved dull after that, for she came back to England when she was 20, and spent the next and last 15 years of her life there. She married twice and had lots of affairs with people of both sexes, while writing prolifically in spite of much illness that culminated in the tuberculosis from which she died in 1923.

She discovered Anton Chekhov while she was dealing with an unwanted pregnancy in Germany and, influenced by his sharp eyed observation of the extraordinary vulnerability of the ordinary, she developed into a masterful writer. To all intents and purposes the tone of her work, that of pervasive melancholia, scarcely changed, but her subject matter was varied and usually very moving.

I first came across her work in a collection which was prescribed for study for I think the Ordinary Level, forty or more years ago. It was a difficult enough book then, and I was surprised to find some of the stories recurring more than a decade later, for example Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ and even Conrad’s phenomenally difficult ‘Secret Sharer’. Thankfully Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ was not, I think, regurgitated, for it would have been much too subtle for students in the eighties to have appreciated.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2010
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