Last weekend I met a lovely friend of mine on Sunday morning. We did the normal rituals of discussing our Saturday nights and catching up on each other’s lives but we also something entirely new. We attended a literary lecture. Held in Camden, we went to an event that celebrated the life and work of Katherine Mansfield – work that is full, rich, detailed and a life of vibrancy and scandal.
In front of us were three writers: Dame Margaret Drabble, Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Professor Kirsty Gunn. These women were discussing the inspiration and the influence of Mansfield upon modern writing and expression. They talked without the royal accolades and the academic statuses, but as women, as individuals of equal creativity and domesticity, as mothers and sisters and daughters. Both Drabble and Wilson described reading Manfield’s The Dolls House as young girls and feeling that moment of literary realisation, that moment and space where the words talk directly to the conscious. Here were three women talking about one woman and the very nature of being a writer and of being a certain type of woman writer.
Mansfield’s use of detail has often been the main focal point of discussion surrounding her work. Her short stories – those perfect, compressed bodies – are tight with thought and observation: the lamp in The Dolls House, the nut in Sun and Moon, the insight of childhood war and adult love affairs. Every paragraph, every sentence is filled with details, precision, extraordinary vision and sight, images that can almost be touched and felt. As Kirsty Gunn noted, the very nature of her short stories are that they can be read in ten, twenty minutes and then they are kept, “small and perfect” for the day.
Her writing is not cosy and comfortable, however; her insight into human nature and actions makes these small portraits sharp, painful, almost – as Drabble comments – cruel. It is this that prompted a question from the floor, asking whether Mansfield would have ever written a novel and the panel answered that they were glad that she had not – that her writing is so sharp, sometimes so painful that a novel of such insight and accuracy would have been too much for the reader. As Rebecca West observes in her essay, Katherine Mansfield’s writing is of life, of “the necessary and the difficult”.
Her characters remain purely figures bound within the story. My friend wrote an interesting and provocative article about this idea of living on and outside the page. Mansfield’s use of the third person is “supple and subtle” (KG), perfectly positioning the reader to imagine the continuation of her characters’ lives. But as my friend comments, it is so unusual that Mansfield expressed a desire that we do not let our minds imagine further than the written word. We too are bound in the story, pin-pricked by Mansfield’s observation and caught in the polished compression of her writing.