Katherine - The Star Guest
This week The Katherine Mansfield Society gathered for the first time since the pandemic in Bavaria. Sue Casson imagines what KM would make of it all.
Would you rather your work was celebrated whilst you were alive, even if it fell out of fashion once you were gone? Or would you take pleasure in knowing the fruits of your creativity would be enjoyed and analysed a hundred or more years after your death, even if you died unknown and unappreciated?
Artists are seldom offered this sober choice and no doubt Van Gogh would be astounded at the prices his paintings now fetch, just as Mozart might find it mind boggling that his music was a fixed feature of the global repertoire.
I was mulling this over this week as academics and artists gathered in Bad Worishofen in Germany for the first Katherine Mansfield Society Annual Conference in 3 years.
One can only guess what mixed feelings Mansfield herself might experience were she to return to this pretty Bavarian spa town. (Spoiler – she never did.) It was a place of trauma and parental abandonment, where she miscarried her only child, and where she met and fell in love with the man her biographer Claire Tomalin suggests not only gave her the gonorrhoea that led to so many of her later health complications, but who also blackmailed her out of the first real money she made from her writing.
Kathe Beauchamp Bowden - Schriftstellerin
Of course, her satirical observations of her experiences there also marked the beginning of her life as a published writer. Although she later dismissed the resulting book In a German Pension as ‘early, early work’ not worthy of re-publication, it nonetheless gave her early literary success on which she could build.
When she died at the age of only 35, nearly 500 miles away in France, she had two further, well reviewed collections of stories to her name, but was only just starting to attract the fame and significant money from her writing that had eluded her for most of her life. Despite dedication to her craft in those final years, when her declining health made it so difficult to continue, she had no inkling of how this single-minded determination would be rewarded in her after life.
For Katherine never enjoyed a formal university education, unlike her husband Murry, so although she had shown herself to be a perceptive weekly book critic for the Athenaeum for a number of years, he was able after her death to talk of her as ‘never (being) what we understand by a professional writer.’ (What he meant by that is unclear.) How entertained KM would therefore be perhaps, to find now that her writing (unlike that of her well-educated husband) was being thoroughly dissected over a weekend of academic talks and panels.
The breadth of that programme, and the number of international contributors, is a vivid illustration of how the writing of Katherine Mansfield continues to touch and absorb readers today. In amongst the talks that put her German visit ‘in situ’ and biographical context, there is close textual study of the language and themes of individual stories, alongside exploration of wider cultural and historical significance. Each lecturer it seems, like a latter-day Ancient Mariner, has an aspect of Mansfield that has brought them up short and on which they can fix the power of their intellectual gaze.
And here she is...
What Katherine herself would have made of this I can’t help but wonder. She would surely be gratified at the interest - after all, it was what she was working towards all her short life - but also perhaps slightly mystified at its’ range and intensity. Leonard Woolf describes her wicked sense of humour, and perhaps she couldn’t have stopped her satirical eye from wandering over the assembled gathering, just as it did when she lived amongst the Germans over 100 years ago. Oh that she could be a fly on the wall as the Pescatore intersection in Bad Worishofen, connecting Hauptstraße, Türkheimer Straße and Irsinger Straße is renamed Katherine-Mansfield-Platz before the first conference plenary.
She could certainly be inveigled upon to do some readings of her work. After the publication of The Garden Party in 1922 she wrote to Ida Baker suggesting she might ‘take the Bechstein Hall’ (now the Wigmore Hall in London) to give readings, like Dickens, recognising that ‘it would be a great advertisement’. Although advertising would be scarcely what was needed with this assembled group of her devotees. She would as they say, have them at ‘hello’.
It's likely that she'd take great interest in the range of interpretations under discussion. Would she maybe take an academic to task about their reading or interpretation, saying in words that echo her contemporary TS Eliot in the Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,
“that's not what I meant at all... that's not it at all.”
The more I think about it, the more I wish Katherine could be there – what a sensation she would be! For as philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote,
‘her talk was marvellous, much better than her writing.’
The gathering would be in for a huge treat. If she wished, she could clarify all the speculation about what happened during her life where only a sketchy record remains and biographers have been forced to turn detective, interpreting the clues left behind. The events that occurred whilst she was in Bad Worishofen fall into this category, so having a true account would be a noteworthy literary event. The letters she sent to Ida Baker during this part of her life were destroyed at KM’s request while she was still alive.
Perhaps she would choose not to. She might find it distasteful to have the ‘dirty linen’ of her life picked over in this way. She might even express surprise that her stories are so bound up with her personal life and I’m sure she would be withering if she felt her personal privacy were being intruded.
But rather like the choice of enjoying lifetime or posthumous fame, that is another decision not left to the author. Perhaps after all it is just as well that the academic community continue to meet, without Katherine, their star guest.
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Find out more about The Katherine Mansfield Society https://katherinemansfieldsociety.org