Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station by Redmer Yska (Otago University Press, 2023), 272pp, $50
Was Katherine Mansfield a poster child for every kind of wild? If each generation seeks to define Mansfield anew, and every interpreter has their own Mansfield in mind, Redmer Yska in Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station chooses to emphasise Mansfield as a wild colonial girl, a bohemian, an instinctive rebel—a proto-punk who dabbled in drugs, carried a pistol for self-protection and spent her last days on a commune guided by a Russian guru, all the while writing the incandescent prose that has made her a literary immortal.
There’s a certain tabloid luridness to this, the child prodigy turned prodigal daughter, and, of course, Yska’s Mansfield is actually much more complex and nuanced. It’s as if he has been forced to simplify her to allow a coherent portrait to emerge, one that doesn’t get bogged down in contradictions within the scope of this partial biography—which is also partly autobiographical in that he presents his writing process as a pursuit, a quest, a pilgrimage, a journey, a revelation. As he wrote in his preceding book, or companion volume, A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888–1903, researching the life of Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) involves ‘chasing dusty phantoms’.
This time, he’s assisted by a number of ‘literary sleuths’, as he calls them: amateur historians in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland who are knowledgeable fans or ‘friends of K.M.’. They help him trace the writer’s peregrinations through Europe just before, during, and just after World War I. Some, notably Bernard Bosque in France, also provided Belle Époque postcards and other evocative memorabilia, which, along with colour photographs of locations today, visually enliven and enrich Yska’s impressive marshalling of pertinent facts, curious anecdotes and occasional speculations, alongside apt quotations from Mansfield’s voluminous correspondence, intimate journals and hundred or so short stories.
The colour photographs by Conor Horgan—of Mansfield’s grave at Fontainebleau-Avon and of assorted hotel and apartment buildings and interiors she is associated with—have an elegiac, melancholy quality that matches the two poignant black and white photographs of Mansfield outside the Villa Isola Bella in Menton, taken by her boon companion Ida Baker and shown on the book’s front and back covers. These reveal her as frail and delicate, ravaged by the effects of tuberculosis. They are images of great pathos, although her stare is steady and direct, a reminder of her friend Ottoline Morrell’s remark: ‘I love her vivid awareness of the trembling beauty of life.’
Yska’s organising principle in this stuffed travelling trunk of a book, as its title might indicate, is the railway network linking stations and towns across Europe and the use that Katherine Mansfield made of it: ‘Trains put Europe at Katherine’s feet.’
Mansfield was the epitome of the restless traveller, at first energised, almost frenetic, in her toing and froing from London to the continent, having escaped the tiny, stifling world of colonial Wellington and eager, too, to get away from the ‘strange cement-like state of England’ to the ‘humour, life, gaiety, sorrow’ of France and the Mediterranean. But she rarely settled anywhere for long. Her life moved to the rhythm of railway timetables as if she was addicted to motion.
Yska points out it was the ubiquity of the Thomas Cook & Son travel agency, commercial travel agents for the British Empire, that enabled this. Mansfield was representative of the phenomenon known as the ‘New Woman’ who took advantage en masse of this safe and secure form of travel. The early twentieth century confirmed the emergence and grudging acknowledgement of independent women, but a chaperone (a role Ida Baker filled) remained advisable. Aesthetic women, Fabian women, social reformers and suffragettes: emancipated women. Mansfield, a bright young thing with a thoroughly modern sensibility, grasped the moment.
Her writing shows her measuring the tempo of the times as if taking her own pulse. Modernity was about mobility, and as an expatriate, an exile, a nomad, a wanderer—in D.H. Lawrence’s term ‘a vagabond’—Mansfield’s letters bear witness. They have turned out to be a singular achievement both in the rapidity of their execution—mail was collected and sent twice a day across Europe—and in their exquisite precision of recorded detail. This privileged status as observer and recorder was in part thanks to the small regular allowance her wealthy father granted her, though she also made money from her published stories and book reviews.
Yska travels to the Bavarian spa resort town of Bad Wörishofen where in 1909, aged 20, Mansfield was taken by her mother to stay in a Catholic convent ‘to recover from all her adventures’, but where in fact, she was delivered of a still-born premature baby. The town and its inhabitants became the inspiration for her first published collection of short stories, In a German Pension, which, in its acerbic satire, picked up on a mood of anti-German sentiment in the years before World War I. Later, it became the reason why she is still commemorated in the town with various public memorials and conferences. Yska also discovers that the authenticity of her brand, her mystique, is such that she is being used to sell real estate in the town: the Wohnpark Mansfield building contains a number of ‘ecologically-friendly apartments … each priced at half a million euros’.
Another way, then, of reading the phrase ‘station to station’ might be as the temporal difference between then and now. With our environmental catastrophes and loss of faith in progress, at this neoliberal moment of climate emergency denial, we are at the end of modernity while Mansfield celebrates its beginning.
Yska continues on the heritage trail but finds a number of the places associated with Mansfield or mentioned in her writing have been demolished or are about to be refurbished, transforming from hotels and apartment accommodation at affordable prices into exclusive luxury suites, while Mansfield’s name is used to add cultural value in the form of a Parisian bar known as ‘the Katherine Mansfield Library’, and so on.
In her time, Mansfield helped establish ‘modernism’ as a literary force that took over and subverted high culture, sweeping away stuffy and outmoded formal literature and bringing in a new order. Mansfield, for example, was amongst the first to acknowledge T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, calling it ‘by far and away the most interesting and best modern poem’. The publication of her short stories in avant-garde literary magazines, such as The New Age, edited by A.R. Orage and The Athenaeum, edited by her lover and later husband, John Middleton Murry, helped confirm the centrality of new techniques such as stream-of-consciousness and shifting perspectives. A trained musician who wanted to be a professional cello player until her parents dissuaded her, Mansfield produced pitch-perfect experimental prose, admired and acknowledged by her contemporaries, that has also turned out to be popular, accessible and enduring.
Depictions of a fractured sense of time are synonymous with modernism—with modernity. The sense of modernity was created by speed and the disorientation of modern travel, particularly the train. Albert Einstein saw the railway as a laboratory for the theory of relativity and constantly used it for examples of what he meant; while the French philosopher Henri Bergson described the body and the spirit as two railway lines converging as he elaborated on his theory of ‘vitalism’ and of time as a flux, a flow. Mansfield responded to Bergson’s vitalist psychology in her writing.
For her, the constant scribbler, everything was in motion, in a state of flux, as she transcribed the world passing by her hotel window or caught conversations on the wing and pinned them to the page. And then she would leave to catch another train. Abruptly, time began speeding up. She found herself feverish and ailing over the space of just a few years, and her rail travel became about the desperate search for a cure for her tubercular condition, though where she caught it and exactly how long she had it are still something of a mystery.
Train journeys turned nightmarish, and when not forced to travel in search of medical help, Mansfield became a recluse, shuttered away in a succession of rented rooms, tended to by Ida Baker and sometimes her husband, who was otherwise busy in London. She visited a succession of doctors for dosages and treatments, but she herself was suspended within the limbo of her sickness. Finally, in late 1922, she wound up at Fontainebleau, south of Paris, staying with the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff and his community of ‘seekers’ at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man as an invalid, hardly daring to move, restrained even from writing. And then, as if trying to speed up time, to master it once more, she runs up a staircase and brings on a fatal haemorrhage, aged 34.
Tracing the series of way-stations in Mansfield’s abbreviated life, with its tragic finale, Yska discovers Mansfield’s long afterlife as commemorated in an extraordinarily various number of ways and also uncovers proprietorial interests in the maintenance of her posthumous reputation.
John Middleton Murry was Katherine Mansfield’s husband, editor, literary executor, and the guardian of her reputation. In 1927, he produced the best-selling The Journal of Katherine Mansfield. From it, he discarded everything that did not fit his idealised portrait of ‘a pure spirit’, which he associated with Blake, Keats and Jesus. This act of hagiography caught the attention of the French right-wing intelligentsia who seized on Mansfield as a saintly figure, an idealised woman writer, at once ‘perfectly pure and perfectly submissive’ as Murry described her.
Yska outlines this saga and discusses it with the literary scholar Christiane Mortellier, who describes how the writer’s tomb at Fontainebleau-Avon became a kind of Mansfieldian chapel between the World Wars. This cult of personality in more recent times has morphed into the Katherine Mansfield industry, aspects of which involve New Zealand’s national identity as heavily invested in the writer as a Kiwi cultural icon and prominent figurehead in various forms of lobbying. After World War II, ‘New Zealand diplomats viewed Katherine Mansfield as their greatest asset in France’.
In 1957, following the death of John Middleton Murry, Mansfield’s entire collection of notebooks and papers was bought at auction and deposited adjacent to what is now the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room at the National Library, a space Yska has described as his ‘headquarters’ for his researches into the life.
With Station to Station, Yska has found a novel and refreshing way of telling more about the Katherine Mansfield story that builds on the achievement of A Strange Beautiful Excitement. He elides, if not quite erases, the once-central British connection, a ‘sacrifice’ Mansfield surely would have winked at. She herself wrote in 1921: ‘I’ve been a camera … I’ve been a selective camera, and it has been my attitude that has determined the selection.’
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online.