'One Moment of Reality'

The Last Days of Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield—writer of short stories, friend and literary compatriot of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence—had a gift for arousing strong opinions. The reckless abandon with which Mansfield threw herself into sexual relationships with both men and women, and the acerbity of her tongue and pen, could provoke critics, family, and friends, not to mention her enemies. Critical estimates of Mansfield’s work—fewer than one hundred stories, an oeuvre curtailed by her premature death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four—have risen and fallen over the decades. Her stories fall into two categories: those set in the New Zealand of her childhood that contrast a corrupt adult world with the purity of the child’s experience; and those set elsewhere, frequently peopled by lonely and fearful young women whose attempts to confront their demons seem doomed to failure. Taken as a whole, the stories present a restless sensibility longing for the idyll of childhood and vainly seeking solace and security in adult love relationships.

Mansfield was a brilliant conversationalist who delighted in malicious wit, a writer with an exquisite sense of form who sometimes sacrificed honesty for aesthetic effect, and a freethinking woman whose bold exploration of her sexuality resulted in a number of liaisons that even her bohemian circle regarded as indiscreet. She found herself caught between the provincial Victorian values of her upbringing and a metropolitan world of literary self-expression in which art pointed the way to a thrilling new life. She struggled to resolve this conflict, and her work expressed—intemperately at times, and not always coherently—the many emotions it aroused. From this perspective, Mansfield’s life and work are of a piece, reflecting a passionate attempt to depict her inner journey: a going-forth from a place of innocence and certainty, a solitary passage through an inhospitable landscape, and—as the cloud of her illness increasingly darkened the horizon—a destination that seemed to offer little comfort. And yet her life ended in an episode that, like the finely crafted end of a meandering story, gave form and meaning to what had gone before.

Mansfield entered the Gurdjieff Institute in mid-October, 1922. On the verge of literary celebrity, she was deeply unhappy in her marriage to the critic and editor John Middleton Murry—and she was dying of tuberculosis. Occupying the Prieuré de Basses Loges, a magnificent chateau in the woods of Fontainebleau that had once been the residence of Mme. de Maintenon, the institute was directed by the enigmatic G. I. Gurdjieff, a mystic of Greek and Armenian parentage whose eclectic teaching combined Christian spirituality with Sufi practice. Putting herself under the direction of Gurdjieff (to whose methods she had been introduced by Alfred Orage, editor of The New Age and one of the foremost literary critics of his time), Mansfield put aside the reservations of husband and friends and unexpectedly found a home at the institute—and a chance to attain the inner peace and freedom that had eluded her throughout her life.

During the last months of her life—she died at the institute on January 9, 1923—Mansfield underwent what might be termed an examination, or perhaps an experience, of conscience that led her to an unflinching acknowledgment of her own shortcomings and an attempt to mend relations with family and friends. She also conceived of a different kind of writing—“stories that I would not be ashamed to show to God”—that she hoped would be an expression of a new spiritual health. Those stories would never be written. But this final episode in her life casts her and her work in a new and more sympathetic light. A series of remarkable stories from Mansfield’s last productive years—and her celebrated Journal and letters—reveal a sensitive young woman striving to heal herself of a spiritual malady while adumbrating the final passage of her life’s journey with all the literary skill and intuition at her disposal.

 

IN HER BEST WORK, Mansfield pursued an essentially religious ideal predicated upon the innocence and purity of the child. This ideal is explored in “The Doll’s House,” one of a series of stories set in New Zealand about a middle-class family engaged in passing on their social and cultural values to their children. The precocious middle child, Kezia, instinctively rejects this inheritance, and in her rebellion creates an alternative reality that opposes the bourgeois worldliness of her family.

The doll’s house itself, a gift from a family friend, smells so strongly of paint that it cannot be brought indoors. With her superior discernment Kezia quickly perceives its most special element: “an exquisite little amber lamp with a white globe...[and] something inside that looked like oil...that moved when you shook it.” The three children set about inviting school friends to see the doll’s house, but are forbidden to invite the Kelvey sisters, who are their social inferiors (“the daughters of a washerwoman and a jailbird”). When Kezia sees the Kelveys passing on the road, however, she ushers them into the courtyard to view the doll’s house. As the Kelveys peer inside, Kezia’s Aunt Beryl appears, rebukes Kezia, and rudely expels the Kelveys. The narrative follows the Kelvey sisters to a resting place by the side of the road, where the younger sister, who rarely speaks, shyly informs the elder: “I seen the little lamp.”

This conclusion creates a connection between Kezia and the Kelvey girl that affirms their capacity to “see the light” and sets at naught the social prejudices separating them. There is also a subtle criticism of a family life constrained by such prejudices in the description of the inhabitants of the doll’s house, “the father and mother dolls, who sprawled very stiff as though they had fainted in the drawing room.” Only the lamp is “perfect” and “real,” in the enlightened perception of Kezia; it serves as symbol of a life informed by awareness and a sensitivity to the feelings of others.

Kezia’s inner journey continues in two lengthy stories of family life, “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” which contain some of Mansfield’s best writing. Kezia is again a central, precocious figure, but the narrative also explores the inner lives of other family members, including her mother Linda and Aunt Beryl, to whom she looks for love and guidance. “Prelude” opens with the family in the midst of moving to the country. Kezia wanders about the empty house they are leaving, and feels, in the gathering darkness of evening, an unsettling sense of being watched by something “just behind her, waiting at the door, at the head of the stairs, at the bottom of the stairs.” This moment of heightened perception establishes a connection between Kezia and her mother, who seeks refuge from the demands of motherhood in a subjective world where “things had a habit of coming alive”:

Not only large substantial things like furniture but curtains and the patterns of stuffs and fringes of quilts and cushions.... But the strangest part of this coming alive of things was what they did. They listened, they seemed to swell out with some mysterious important content, and when they were full she felt that they smiled.... Sometimes when she had fallen asleep in the daytime, she woke and could not lift a finger, could not turn her eyes to left or right because they were there.

This shared sensitivity, however, does not lead to sympathy between mother and daughter. When the kindly grandmother who lives with them suggests that Linda should keep an eye on the children, Linda’s response is dismissive, and when Kezia asks her mother in a symbolic encounter if the aloe in the garden (“a fat swelling plant with...cruel leaves and fleshy stem”) ever has any flowers, Linda seems to take a perverse pleasure in responding: “Once every hundred years.”

The child’s search for love and security is thwarted by her mother’s self-involvement, and one wonders what this family life is a prelude to. Is there an adult character who can serve as a model? Or is Kezia doomed to adopt the solipsistic defenses of her mother—or the prejudices and the masks of her aunt Beryl, who bemoans her lot as a single woman attached to the family in a remote place where no eligible men will visit? Beryl pours out her troubles in a letter to her friend Nan. But it is not her “real self” who writes the “flippant and silly” letter.

If she had been happy and leading her own life, her false self would cease to be. She saw the real Beryl—a shadow...Faint and insubstantial she shone. What was there of her except the radiance? And for what tiny moments she was really she.... Shall I ever be that Beryl for ever? Shall I? How can I?

At this moment in her reflections Beryl is interrupted by Kezia, and the implication is that Kezia is the inheritor of her dilemma. Will Kezia maintain the child’s spontaneity of action and unmediated perception of the world? Or will she find herself conducting an increasingly frustrating search for an authentic self and for validation in the love of others.

In “The Garden Party” the Kezia figure appears in the character of a teenager, Laura Sheridan, who faces a choice between her own moral intuitions and the dictates of a similarly privileged family. Helping prepare for a family party, Laura is interrupted by the news that a man from a nearby street of working-class homes has been killed in an accident. Her reaction is immediate—“we can’t possibly just have a garden-party with a man dead outside the front gate”—but her sister Jose callously dismisses the idea: “If you’re going to stop a band playing every time someone has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life.” Laura’s mother, to her amazement, sides with Jose. As Laura continues to insist on the heartlessness of holding the party, Mrs. Sheridan places her new hat on her daughter’s head. “It’s made for you,” she exclaims. “I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” Distracted, Laura wanders off, deciding she has been “extravagant” and will put off thinking about the accident until the party is over. The hat becomes the symbol of her dilemma: everyone admires it, and Laura accepts the admiration, at the cost of setting aside her feelings about the accident.

Once the guests have left, Mrs. Sheridan impulsively decides upon a propitiatory gesture: Laura is to be sent to the widow’s house with a basket of leftovers. Still wearing the hat, Laura enters the lane of cottages, feeling acutely nervous and out of place. To her consternation, at the dead man’s home she is conducted to the room where the corpse is laid out, “a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again.” Fascinated, she wonders:

What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane.... All is well, said that sleeping face.

Stunned by the glimpse of a reality beyond garden parties and big hats, Laura stumbles out of the room, sobbing, “Forgive my hat.” To her brother Laurie who has been sent to meet her, Laura’s experience is incomprehensible. How should all be well in the face of a tragic accident? But Laura’s superior moral judgment has been rewarded by an almost mystical insight into the meaning of death.

 

YEARS LATER, INCURABLE illness brought Mansfield to confront these issues again—and to complete in her own life the journey of Kezia and Laura. By the fall of 1922 she “already seemed to me to be halfway to death,” noted P. D. Ouspensky, whose writings introduced Gurdjieff to the West and who facilitated Mansfield’s admission to the Institute. “But...one was struck by the striving in her to make the best use even of these last days, to find the truth whose presence she clearly felt.” In her final journal entries, written in the days before her departure for the Prieuré, Mansfield assesses her spiritual malady and describes her hope of surmounting it. “Let me take the case of K.M.,” she writes:

She has led, ever since she can remember, a very typically false life. Yet, through it all, there have been moments, instants, gleams, when she has felt the possibility of something quite other.... Now, Katherine, what do you mean by health? And what do you want it for? Answer: By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love—the earth and the wonders thereof—the sea—the sun.... I want to enter into it, to be part of it, to live in it...to learn from it, to become a conscious direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be...a child of the sun.

By now, as a letter to her friend Dorothy Brett reveals, Mansfield had given up all hope of a cure for her disease; her concern was with attaining the spiritual health outlined in Gurdjieff’s teaching. In Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, a 1949 exposition of this teaching, Gurdjieff describes conscience as a state of awakening in which one’s inner contradictions are seen and acknowledged. “Even a momentary awakening of conscience,” Gurdjieff taught, “is bound to involve suffering. And if these moments of conscience become longer and if a man does not fear them but on the contrary cooperates with them and tries to keep and prolong them, an element of very subtle joy...will gradually enter.”

At the Prieuré, Mansfield pursued this process of awakening to conscience. On October 18, 1922, a few days after her arrival at the Prieuré, she wrote to her husband, John Middleton Murry:

I have been through a little revolution since my last letter. I suddenly made up my mind...to try and learn to live by what I believe in, no less, and not as in all my life up till now to live one way and think another.... In the deepest sense I’ve always been disunited. And this, which has been my “secret sorrow” for years, has become everything to me just now. I really can’t go on pretending to be one person and being another any more.... It is a living death.

For perhaps the first time she was participating fully in a communal life, and she delighted in the company of people who shared her sincere wish to change. To the translator S. S. Koteliansky she wrote, on October 19, that she intended “to change my whole way of life entirely,” and vowed not to write any stories “until I am a less terribly poor human being.” To her lifelong friend and companion Ida Moore, frequently the object of her anger and criticism, she apologized “for the way I have treated you, for past sins of impatience, intolerance, and worse.” In a farewell letter to her father—once the representative of all that was vulgar and provincial—she wrote to celebrate the new year, and closed with a poignant valediction: “God bless you...darling Father. May we meet again.”

Feeling that her relationship with Murry was being transformed by the changes that she perceived within herself, Mansfield wrote him affectionately: “Oh my dearest Bogey, just wait and see how you and I will live one day—so happily, so splendidly.” But it was not to be. On December 31, perhaps realizing that her time was short, she invited Murry to visit. He arrived on the afternoon of January 9. “Katherine was very pale, but radiant,” he would write later; “she seemed a being transfigured by love, absolutely secure in love.” She introduced him to her friends at the institute, and that night they watched a performance of sacred dances together. But when she went to climb the stairs to her room, she suffered a fatal hemorrhage and, despite the attentions of two doctors, died within the hour.

 

AT THE CORE of Gurdjieff’s teaching was a process of self-observation designed to expose all pretense and deceit. “One must inwardly stop and observe, observe without taking sides, impartially,” Gurdjieff instructed. “And if you observe in this manner, paying from yourself, without self-pity, by giving up all your imaginary riches for one moment of reality, then you may suddenly see what you have never seen before.” Mansfield had seen two natures in herself (which she styled Katherine True and Katherine False), and she was drawn to the idea of a purifying self-knowledge that would allow a free and compassionate self to come forth. She was a difficult person to know and love, and even her closest relationships were marked by mistrust and evasion. But she perceived that her imminent death presented her with an opportunity to change, to be guided by something higher in herself.

Perhaps it is not too much to suggest that she was reaching for an infallible moral awareness—the synderesis of St. Jerome, a spark of original conscience that disposes all human creatures to good. Mansfield wished to cut through the pretenses and prejudices of her “false self,” but unlike Aunt Beryl in her story “Prelude,” she understood that such an effort entailed suffering, and she was willing to pay the price, separating herself from husband and friends and confronting her fear of the unknown. In the last months of her life, like her child alter-ego Kezia, Mansfield committed herself to the light, reimagining herself as a “child of the sun.” Who is to say that she did not achieve her wish?

Published in the June 12, 2015 issue: 
Tags

Pierce Butler is writer-in-residence at Bentley College, Waltham, Massachusetts. His most recent book is the novel A Riddle of Stars (Zoland).

Also by this author
The Church Bells of Easter

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections
Collections