Posts Tagged ‘Katherine Mansfield’

A Woman’s Sentence

Like Emily Dickinson, many other women writers have been concerned with the unspoken – with the silence of women’s voices in literary history.

In Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Prelude” for example, we can see Mansfield’s attempt to describe the secret language of, and between generations of women. In the dreams of the story’s central character, Kezia we see surfacing the language of the symbolic and images of plants of birds and of other animals that she has inherited from her mother and grandmother. For Kezia and the other women in Mansfield’s story, the symbolic replaces traditional discourse, and is their birthright as women.

The difficulty, both for the characters in Mansfield story and for her readers, is to find meaning in this secret code:  Kezia does not understand the fearful “It” she sees in her dreams – she only knows to be afraid.

Likewise in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. There, Woolf discusses the the literal silencing of women’s words, voices and work in the western canon of literature.  In this text, Woolf is concerned with the lack of female “foremothers” upon whom the modern woman writer can rely for inspiration.

Woolf’s argument in this essay is that women writers can and should turn their exclusion to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

Just what might such a sentence might look like? On this topic, Woolf is less than clear, offering Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a Woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

In Woolf’s own fiction, and perhaps most especially in her fictional biography Orlando,  gender and the effect it has upon the mind of the writer is of central importance. But how far might a work like Orlando be said to cross the boundaries into women’s language, reliant as it is upon critiquing and deconstructing patriarchal forms such as the traditional biography, male literary and military history and even the male body? For Woolf and many women writers before and after her, the overwhelming demand to define oneself against what one is not (ie, Orlando may be best defined as “not a traditional biography of an aristocratic man; I know I am a woman because I am not a man, etc.) led to a kind of frustrating cul de sac of expression, but also to new forms of fiction informed by the symbolic, the rhythmic and by making use of silence itself to subvert meaning. But more on that soon….

 

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Writer’s Diaries Part V: Louisa May Alcott: Dutiful/Devil

 

 

Now that I have submitted the first 10,000 words of my new novel to my agent I am back to my work on Writer’s Diaries by way of further brain stimulation. Like Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, Louisa May Alcott kept a diary throughout her life, and on its pages navigated her own split place in literary and familial history— as both the creator of dutiful daughters in The Little Women series and the pseudonymous author of sensational, subversive ‘thrillers.’ One major influence on Alcott’s writing life was her father, Bronson Alcott.  Bronson was, among other things, an educational reformer, and as Karen Haltunen argues in ‘The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott’ ‘the impression that Bronson expected children to convey with their bodies was the perfect repose of their minds […] he required his young students to sit perfectly still, without fidgeting or whispering.’   From infancy, however, Louisa, ‘presented a major challenge to her father’s educational theories […] Louisa was demanding, noisy and even violent’ . Just as Mr March in Little Women sees anger as the sin that will halt Jo’s pilgrim’s progress, Bronson constantly instructed Louisa in calmness, stillness and patience.  And while the fictional Jo March’s boisterousness bristled beneath her calm exterior, so too did Louisa’s own stifled energies need to find expression. 

Alcott found this release by secretly writing and publishing numerous sensation stories either anonymously or under the pseudonym AM Barnard. In tales with titles such as ‘Pauline’s Passion and Punishment’, ‘Doctor Dorn’s Revenge’ and ‘The Mysterious Mademoiselle,’ Alcott escaped from the morality tales for which she had become famous (and through which she single-handedly supported her family) by writing tales of passion, incest, revenge, drug addiction and murder.    

Alcott once wrote that she’d rather be a ‘good daughter’ than a ‘great writer’ and the Little Women series compounds this image of Louisa as conforming like Jo March to the desires of her father.   In her pseudonymous thrillers, however, she avoided Bronson’s  policing gaze by writing not of feminine stillness, silence and governing one’s temper, but of powerful women with uncontrolled desires. Alcott’s journals offer enticing clues towards understanding this split-voiced fiction, as they witness the divide between her private desire and her public duty that was woven into fictions that seem otherwise irreconcilable: the passion, decadence and addictions of the characters in her thrillers are merely the dark reverse of the controlled and dutiful characters of her morality tales.

From the age of eleven to Alcott’s premature death at fifty, images of enclosure and intrusion (physical and moral) in the journals run alongside an anxious recital of financial wins and losses—in which none of her astounding successes ever silence her fear of not having enough to share. In an undated sketch of her childhood cited by Alcott’s first biographer, Ednah Cheney, Alcott noted that ‘[r]unning away was one of the delights of my early days; and I still enjoy sudden flights out of the nest. ’Louisa’s need for escape hints at the dynamics of their family structure and her relation to the moral surveillance of her father.

What inspires writing: The Hurricane

 

 

I have begun working on a new novel.  Don’t tell anyone.  Because they say that the moment you start talking about it you stop writing about it, and to some extent that’s true.  When my students ask me how to get published, I say “finish writing something good,” and I am not being facetious.  What I mean is that while most would-be JK Rowlings stand little chance of making a living as a novelist – they have no chance at all if they don’t finish writing something good.  It’s sort of like my sister said to me when my marriage failed.  “You might not ever fall in love and be happy in the future – but at least now you have a chance to fall in love and be happy in the future!” She was right.  You have to be in it to win it.  And the same with writing.  But where does the inspiration come from?  If Woolf and Mansfield used their diaries as “practice grounds” for their fiction, what do others use?  For me, an image comes first – right now it is the image of the life guard shack at Long Beach New York, slamming into the boardwalk during hurricane Irene last summer.  I had been to that beach the day before with my family, and was due to go to a wedding at a hotel on the boardwalk the night of the hurricane.  The hotel flooded, the wedding was postponed and thereby seeds of a novel were sown.  How they will grow, I have no idea, yet.  Or I should say I have lots of ideas, still.  And I should be writing them down now instead of telling them all to you.  Maybe this blog is becoming my Woolfian ‘practice ground.’

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.

Writer’s Diaries: Part 1 Katherine Mansfield

 

 

I am working on a piece about how women writers make use of their diaries in different ways to as what Virginia Woolf called a “practice-ground for fiction.”  As my own writerly imagination tends to draw me back and back again to certain key images, sounds, and words from my childhood and my writing practise engages with creative ways to confront and reimagine this “primal” material, I have always been curious about how other writers negotiate this challenge. The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield ( 1888-1923) is a case in point.  One only has to read twenty or thirty pages into her journals to see the similarity between the imagery Mansfield used in her journals and in her fiction. To read more than thirty pages of her journal is to be shocked at the limitations of her palette.Mansfield’s fiction is wide-ranging and encompasses urbane ‘bad marriage’ tales, stories about and for children, fairy tales, rural and urban stories. Her repetitive use of windows, mirrors, trees and dreams in all of those stories and in her journals and notebooks is therefore the more startling. The changing frame through whichMansfieldunderstood her own place in literary history, however, is revealed by her varying approaches to these images over time.

Mansfield’s younger brother Leslie died in army training in 1915, soon after he had visited her inLondon. Her reflections on this event stand out as one of few moments of revelation about her sources for writing in the notebooks. In an entry written as if to Leslie, soon after his death, Mansfield noted:

I want to write poetry.  I feel always trembling on the brink of poetry. The almond tree, the birds, the little wood where you are, flowers you do not see, the open window out of which I lean and dream that you are against my shoulder […] but especially I want to write a kind of long elegy to you—perhaps not in poetry. No, perhaps in Prose. (Notebooks 2:33).

 

That prose elegy found its form in Mansfield’s most well-known story, Prelude (1918) that begins with the child Kezia standing at a window and continues with further images of trees, flowers, birds, woods and the rhythms of poetry. What Mansfield’s notebooks illustrate, however, was that these same tropes had already surfaced repeatedly in her writing—indeed they appear in the first extant sample of her fiction, composed when she was nine years old.  This early piece begins withMansfield’s central trope—that of the protagonist at a window, judging the temperature of the outside world:

 

‘Oh, mother, it is still raining, and you say I can’t go out.’ It was a girl who spoke; she looked about ten.   She was standing in a well-furnished room, and was looking out of a large bay window. ‘No, Enna dear,’ said her mother, ‘you have a little cold and I don’t want it made worse.’ (Notebooks 1:1)

 

This scene, so like that of Kezia pressing her palms against the ‘big bay window’ in Prelude, is just the first example of this image inMansfield’s fiction: story after story on page after page of her notebooks begin and/or end in this same way. Such images, moreover, provide a haunting foreshadowing of illness and sick-room enclosure from a writer who was an invalid for much of her career.

At twelve, Mansfieldwrote several versions of a story entitled ‘She’ that begins with a gravely ill boy in a dark room. ‘Out of the window he saw the night, the stars, and the tall dark trees[…] He had been in pain all day.’  As he ‘lay in his little bed and gazed out,’ a stranger enters his room, ‘Death’ (Notebooks 1:31).  In these childhood tales, the window suggests the character’s fragility and the dangers of the outside world but also implies that separation from the world is itself deadly.  Thus from the start of her writing life, windows frame the gaze of the Mansfield’s protagonists, either representing the division between them and the world, or, instead, the eyes of the soul—the gatekeeper between the private and the public.