Posts Tagged ‘Women’s Writing; Katherine Mansfield’

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.


Women, Windows, Mirrors, Diaries

Bank Holiday Monday, and I had the first opportunity in some time to have a good long look in the mirror.  And what did I see?  What does the writer ever see – the disconnect between mind and body, between that other in the reflection and the me whose words long to scream out across the paper. So I sit down to write.

The figure of a woman standing in front of a mirror is a recurrent one in Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and critic Emily Dalgarno has argued that such images are related to a childhood trauma that Woolf recounted in her 1939 memoir “A Sketch of the Past.” In “Sketch,” Woolf recalls the “small looking-glass in the hall at Talland House” and the “looking glass-shame” she continued to feel, and links this shame to being molested as a “very small” child by her much older step-brother in front of that hallway mirror.2  Dalgarno argues that that this event constitutes the primal source for Woolf’s fiction in which:

“the moment of becoming a female subject often occurs before the looking-glass.  Although many of her characters use the mirror to check their social identity, others glimpse the split between visual subject and object that brings subjectivity into play.  … the mirror scene in Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’ figures the process by means of which her fiction challenges and accommodates the ideology of patriarchy” . 

Dalgarno concludes that for Woolf, such mirror images reflect “not a face, but a structure in which the face is visualised in the context of its resemblance to its lineage” , and thus confront the split between subject and subjectivity – the felt divide between one’s public and the private self that is the central dilemma in virtually all Western women’s writing. 

For many women writers, diaries worked like mirrors, reflecting this split between self as subject and self as object – but they were also windows – framing and offering escape from, the split-voiced selves of the writers that composed them.  Moreover, in the major fictions of writers like Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Louisa May Alcott, we encounter not only mirrors but also numerous images of windows, open and closed.  If Woolf’s mirrors symbolise her characters’ resemblance to, and divergence from social and familial expectations, and Mansfield and Alcott were likewise concerned with the divide between their public and private selves, between family duty and artistic desire.   These concerns, I would argue, were first reflected on in their diaries and then reimagined, or reframed, into new forms in their fiction: into symbols of mirrors confronted and avoided, windows open and closed.   While the stories that Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott published are very different, their shared need to construct a written borderland between self-reflection and public revelation is striking. Their diaries functioned as transformative locations in which personal concerns became textual artefacts. As Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott turned from journal to storytelling and back again, their diaries enabled them to define their writerly efforts against the past, and transform the split they felt between their public and private selves into figurative discourse.

Towards the end of her life, there is a perceptible difference in Woolf’s tone in the journal, as its focus turns decidedly inward. In one of her final entries she considers this change:

I intend no introspection.  I mark Henry James’s sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency.  By that means it becomes serviceable.  Or so I hope. […] I will go down with my colours flying.  This I see verges on introspection; but doesn’t quite fall in (DVW 5:357).

By such observance of both her public and private selves, and her negotiations of the division she felt between them, Woolf’s diary offers more than biographical fact or insights into the sources of her fiction: it was a mirror in which she could reflect upon her ancestry and her private desires, a frame in which she could contextualise her duties as a Victorian daughter and a public figure, and an open window that allowed her to transform these struggles into a symbolic language of subjectivity. For this reason her diaries stand alongside her novels as her flying colours, her statues against the sky.