Mansfield with Monsters — The Untold Stories of a New Zealand Icon, by Katherine Mansfield with Matt and Debbie Cowens (Steam Press, 2012), 240 pp., $25.
Everything about this book raises questions, starting with the title. The link between Mansfield and monsters is nicely emphasized by alliteration, but why the awkward conjunction ‘with’? To suggest that Mansfield did not create the monsters, but had them imposed upon her? And which monsters are we talking about? Metaphorical monsters, such as the tuberculosis that killed her? Or Mansfield’s various lovers, such as Floryan Sobieniowsky, who spoiled her with gonorrhea and blackmail, or Francis Carco, who used her as a model for the character of an amoral female author in his novel, Les Innocents? Not to mention that greatest exploiter of all, John Middleton Murry, whose biased editing of her journals, letters and stories not only warped her image, but made him rich after her death.
But no, the title signifies something quite different. The Cowens, in imitation of the popular new American genre, ‘the Mash-Up novel’, have combined the work of a classic author, to wit Mansfield, with a series of supernatural monsters, such as one-legged larks, vampires, sky and sea monsters, extraterratorials, walking dead, leeches, colossal preying insects, werewolves, and so on. The first Mash-Up novel, brought out by Quirk Books, a small publisher in Philadelphia, specified the category of monsters in its title: namely Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith in 2009. This was followed by a spate of classics boasting supernatural monsters, and mostly capitalising on Austen. Michael Thomas Ford writes a trilogy that even goes so far as to transform Austen herself into a vampire. The New York Times book reviewer, Jennifer Schuessler, commented : ‘Take some Jane Austen, add a healthy dollop of gore and start counting the money.’
Other classics have been used. A Mash-Up novel of special interest is The Eerie Adventures of the Lycantrope. It combines Robinson Crusoe with werewolves, as well as with elements borrowed from the horror story writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and consequently has three authors : Daniel Defoe, H.P. Lovecraft and Peter Clines.
And now Mansfield with Monsters, which also has three authors: Mansfield herself and Matt and Deborah Cowens. The Cowens make strategic use H.P. Lovecraft as well. In theirIntroduction, there is a badly-executed composite photo of him standing next to Katherine Mansfield — this in total contradiction to the fact that they never once shared a continent. The authors have instigated the myth that Mansfield and Lovecraft were friends. In a parody of academic style, this myth is set in motion by a fictive character, Dr Marcus Walker, who reputedly wrote a thesis on Mansfield and the Occult, and described her imaginary involvement with Aleister Crowley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft. Walker claims that several early manuscripts were found which revealed Mansfield’s ‘obsession with the monstrous’ and which inspired the Cowens’ addition of monsters to her stories.
The Cowens claim that their book is ‘in part speculation, in part careful reconstruction of those stories that originally contained the horrors that Mansfield most feared’ and, adding more questions, ask: ‘why [does] the official version of her life story so carefully conceal her occult adventures? They hope to ‘shed some light on the world as Mansfield saw it.’
This supposed ‘light’ is more likely to mislead unwary or ignorant readers. One presumes that the Cowens’ authorial errors are a deliberate attempt at humour. For example, they include a photo believed to be of Mansfield on a camel, visiting the pyramids in 1924. It is supposed to have been taken at least a year after her death. This could be a macabre joke, playing on the theory also mentioned in the introduction, that Mansfield’s ‘ghost’ bothered people long after her death, but it runs the risk of being misread as ignorance or wilful deception. And then there is the statement About the Authors, which claims that Mansfield was born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp Murry (italics mine). So, are these errors meant as somewhat oblique signals to the readers not to take the book too seriously ?
Roger Robinson has pointed out in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature :‘no other New Zealand figure has troubled or challenged so many writers to irreverent, defiant or merely exploitative responses. Perhaps the must curious underlying assumption is that she has ever been an establishment icon.’ The Cowens seem to hold that assumption and it is difficult to believe that their subtitle ‘The untold stories of a New Zealand icon’ is other than tongue-in-cheek.
Ironically, Mansfield was notoriously horrified by anyone attempting to change even a phrase in her stories. She repeatedly warned Murry, who was, at one time or another, editor of most of the magazines in which she was published, that she would withdraw her work if he altered a single word. This is just what the Cowens have done. They not only altered single words but borrowed her stories wholesale, changing them irretrievably. And Mansfield is no longer at liberty to withdraw. They retain about eighty percent of her texts, copy the ideas and most of the phrasing, and transform the rest. Sometimes they begin with the title. For instance,Miss Brill becomes Mrs Brill, and the ‘late colonel’ transmogrifies into a ‘Lizard Colonel’. Most of the changes are clumsy : Her First Bite rather than Her First Ball, The Unlife of Ma Parkerinstead of The Life of Ma Parker, thereby losing much of the subtle potential of the original. Their clumsy obviousness is worthy of Murry, who also took liberties with Mansfield’s titles.
The Cowens’ collection begins with The Woman at the Store, one of Mansfield’s more lugubrious stories, set in the Urewera. First published exactly a hundred years before Mansfield with Monsters came out, in 1912, it was part of Murry’s magazine Rhythm, whose motto ‘before art can be human, it must learn to be brutal’ fitted the story perfectly. It is a stark tale, and the interest is not primarily in the plot, but in the repression and inarticulateness of the inhabitants of a wild and desolate landscape. Three people move through this landscape and stop at an isolated store. The climax of the plot is revealed visually, art within art, when the storekeeper’s little girl draws a picture of her mother murdering her father. Meanwhile one of the narrator’s companions, Jo, is next door, having it off with the mother. Mansfield characteristically understates the horror of the situation.
The Cowens undermine the subtle ambiguity of the story by replacing understatement with overstatement. They are noncommittal about the gender of the narrator by removing the simple pronoun ‘she’. The latter is attacked by an abnormally big one-legged lark, but survives the ordeal. Jo is not so lucky. He gets turned into a zombie by the otherworldly storekeeper, so that she can keep him in that isolated place forever. A Mash-Up seems an appropriate term for the genre.
Some of the rewritten stories do show signs of more than ordinary inventiveness. In The Unlife of Ma Parker, the grandson, Lennie, pronounced dead in the first paragraph of Mansfield’s story, miraculously lives on. We discover that this is due to Ma Parker having exchanged her strong lungs for his weak ones. She is now running on an electric clockwork. When she is attacked by a thief, she turns out to be stronger than expected, and, killing him, takes his fresh corpse to the doctor who had operated on her, to help him with his experiments by supplying spare parts.
In The Doll’s House, the Cowens also turn the plot around by using Mansfield’s famous little lamp as a source of evil instead of good. Old Mrs Hay is superseded by the much maligned washerwoman, Mrs Kelvey, who is made responsible, unbeknown to the Burnells, for sending the doll’s house to the girls as an act of revenge. There is a rumour that the Kelveys are connected with witchcraft and it is implied that the little lamp had a spell put upon it by Mrs Kelvey. The little lamp takes the children who see it into its power and makes them violent and blood-thirsty. They get hysterical and kill Aunt Beryl. Mrs Kelvey’s strategy backfires when she realizes that her daughters have been allowed to see the little lamp.
There are (significantly) thirteen stories. What kind of readership is all this aimed at ? Probably teenagers, who hate the obligation of having to read Mansfield in class, and who can now be persuaded to swallow the pill with the addition of some more exciting pop culture phenomena. It could also be a way of getting back at ‘the Establishment’ for admiring the ‘New Zealand icon’ of the subtitle by sending up her work . Or it may actually be intended as an efficient technique for younger readers to deal with unspecified fears by encountering them embodied in fiction — transforming Mansfield’s stories into fairytales.
For Mansfield scholars the book could prove interesting in that it allows them to examine how her texts can be transformed. Only, the alterations are easily detectable and in some cases quite minimal, and, for this reader at least, they scarcely add anything of intrinsic horror to Mansfield’s stories. But the authors must have had fun turning a Modernist writer into a Postmodernist by rewriting the stories; and they seem to be receiving considerable praise for doing so. The final questions, though, are moral : who would want to become famous by plagiarising other people’s art ? And is not the book ultimately a cheapening and venal venture?
SIMONE OETTLI co-edited Fragments of a World: A Collection of Photographs by New Zealand Women (McIndoe, 1976), and wrote Surfaces of Strangeness: Janet Frame and the Rhetoric of Madness (Victoria University Press, 2003). She taught English literature at the Universities of Auckland, Lausanne and Geneva, and is presently editing a book on Katherine Mansfield.