Writer’s Diaries Part II: Katherine Mansfield’s Windows

 

Katherine Mansfield’s fiction drew heavily upon images of both windows and mirrors, images that appear almost obsessively in her notebooks as well. In her childhood writing,  rain beating against the windows is a frequent metaphor for the interior struggles of her protagonists while later in her career the view changes radically: the world outside is portrayed as altogether fresher, more beautiful and more vital than the life being lived behind the curtains.

In 1914 for example, Mansfield wrote a story about Elena, a famed singer, and her dying child, Peter.  As in her earlier notebook entries, this story draws upon themes of illness, death and waiting, framed by the image of the window.  Set inGermany, the tale begins in ‘brilliant sunny weather,’ but Elena, trapped in her hotel room caring for her child, has no chance to enjoy it:

 

The frau tapped […] ‘Shall I draw the curtains, gnadige frau?’ she whispered.  […]  ‘No,’ said Elena, ‘I will draw them later. The light is so lovely.’ […] The lovely light shone in the window.  She loved to think of the world outside under the mingled snow & moonlight. (Notebooks 1: 302)

 

Elena gets up to check on Peter and sing him a lullaby, but he begs her not to. Despite his plea, Elena crosses to the window and sings softly. Later, when the Doctor announces that Peter is dead, this window becomes the frame through which Elena recalls the rail journey that brought them to this place.  Then, too, Elena was unable to refrain from performing:

 

She could not bear that even so small an audience—half a dozen people in a railway carriage—should go away indifferent or unsatisfied.  She felt bound to play exquisitely for them.  […]  Sometimes in front of the mirror she played most exquisitely of all.  She  would have acknowledged the fact frankly. […] I find it frightfully difficult to keep my private & my public life apart (1:303).

 

This contrast between the falsified public ‘mirror’ self and the vulnerable private self that looks out the window returns again and again in Mansfield’s fiction. Indeed, her greatest work of fiction, Prelude, begins with the frightened child protagonist Kezia in front of a window and ends with her refusing to look at herself in the mirror. Similarly, Mansfield’s last, incomplete, story ‘The New Baby’ contrasts a group of women on a yacht cruise who powder their noses in the ‘flat cabin mirrors’ with the freshness of ‘the sun flowing through the saloon porthole’ (Notebooks 2: 323). As this negotiation between public and private is arguably the central theme in Mansfield’s fiction, it is intriguing to see it ‘mirrored’ and ‘framed’ symbolically throughout her journals. As Mansfield reflected in 1921: ‘I don’t mean that any eye but mine should read this.  This is—really private’ (2:280).  For Mansfield, then, the writer’s diary was a borderland that enabled her to reflect and then restate the really private self into a public, publishable form, to turn repeatedly from the window to the mirror and back again, writing, recording and reimagining those negotiations into new forms of prose fiction.

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