Random Thoughts

The short stories of Katherine Mansfield

... "Her touch is certain, her magic timeless."said Trevor.

by Ed Boyd


In “Women and Men Together: an anthology of short fiction” I was captivated by a short story written by
Katherine Mansfield, “Psychology”. It opens, “When she opened the door and saw him standing there…” As I read
on, my attention was captured by the soothing quality of Mansfield’s writing. This is probably why I like short
fiction, brief and soothing. The story is about a man and women attracted to each other but very hesitant as if
both want something that they shouldn’t. No names are mentioned. He leaves abruptly. She feels hurt. She writes
him a note, “Good night my friend. Come again soon.”

This prompted me to go to my library to see if I could find other writings of Katherine Mansfield who died in
1923. The only copy at Melrose Library was “Journal of Katherine Mansfield”. I brought that home and on the web
sent for “Katherine Mansfield Short Stories” edited by William Trevor. I like Trevor so it would be of interest
to see what he has to say.   

There is a long introduction to “Journal of Katherine Mansfield” edited by J. Middleton Murry, Mansfield’s
husband, he points out that the journal does not begin until 1910 when Mansfield was all ready 22. He says that
other journal writings were destroyed earlier.

The “Journal” has a finished quality about it as if Mansfield expected to get published. “It was exquisitely
hot: white clouds lay upon the sky like sheets spread out to dry.” And below, “The river was full of big silver
stars; the trees shook, faintly glinting with light.”  This note was written in 1915.

In a note on from 1916 she says, “But why didn’t I listen to the old Principal who lectured on Bible History
twice a week instead of staring at his face that was very round, a red dark colour with a kind of bloom on it
and covered all over with little red veins with endless tiny tributaries that ran even up his forehead and were
lost in his bushy white hair.” This was meant to keep her quiet as if in church but, more importantly, it gives
the great detail of what it has become in her marvelous writing. Her detail is exquisite!

I have looked through “Journal of Katherine Mansfield” in search for romance and find none. On the very last
page she says, “I wrote this for myself. I shall now risk sending it to J. He may do with it what he likes. He
must see how much I love him.” J. of course, is J. Middleton Murry.

In his Introduction to Katherine Mansfield Short Stories, The Folio Society, London, C.2000, William Trevor
says, “And few writers of fiction have written as instinctively or been as successful in touching an instinct in
their readers as Katherine Mansfield.” “She simply discovered that she was good at very swiftly, without fuss,
getting the effect she was after and leaving it at that.” Trevor ends, “Her touch is certain, her magic

Trevor also makes a comment about her husband and editor of her writing, J. Middleton Murry, “…whose devotion to
her and to her writing-both before and after her death-was fetishistic (blind devotion) and consuming.”     

Biographies of Katherine Mansfield tell of her troubled life. She was promiscuous since late teens, frequently
using men till the thrill faded. She contracted reoccurring gonorrhea and died of tuberculosis when only thirty-
five. Her marriage to J. Middleton Murry was more stable but not much.

Trevor selected thirty-two stories that give the scope of Mansfield’s writing, some are fairly long others very
short. She is truly a master of the short form, timeless, as Trevor has said. “The Canary”, page 225, in only
four pages is an example of her masterly work.

It begins, “…You see that big nail to the right of the front door?” This nail leads you to know that before a
cage was hanging from that nail, “There must have been a cage hanging there.” Then we learn that a canary lived
in that cage, “…You cannot imagine how wonderfully he sang.” “For instance…he used to hop, hop, hop from one
perch to another, tap the bars to get my attention, sip a little water just as a professional singer might, and
then break into a song so exquisite that I had to put my needle down to listen to him.”

There is a whole section where the narrator, not named, tells of taking care of this singing bird. “…Company you
see-that is what he was. Perfect company. If you have lived alone you will realize how precious that is.”

“…And now he’s gone…I realized that never again should I hear my darling sing, something seemed to die in me.”
“But isn’t it extraordinary that under his sweet, joyful little singing it was just this-sadness?—Ah, what is
it? – that I heard.”

Ordinarily I am not astute enough to interpret meaning into what I read, preferring to be soothed by a writer.
In this, though, Mansfield seems to be anticipating her death as in the 1920’s tuberculosis was incurable. “The
Canary” was composed in 1923, two years before her death.   

December 6, 2013  

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