Biographies. They’re weird things for me because I find them sort of cold and detached. They lack the personal nature of an autobiography and the present moment intensity of a piece of fiction yet they can be the most heart breaking stories you read because they are true and usually a relatively unbiased presentation of the facts.
Katherine Mansfield was one of the Modernist writers I studied for A-level and I bought this biography then as extra reading. But I never had time to read it because I was busy reading the set texts for both the first and second year. Then, last year I had to write a case study on 1920’s fashion and so I read this book as research on the modernist lifestyle.
Now Katherine Mansfield was an incredibly complicated person. She lied about everything including who she was as she often put on different personae. She was rebellious, troubled and personally I bet she was a nightmare to be around, but Tomalin doesn’t gloss over this she discusses it in an honest yet sensitive way. Besides whether or not she was a bit of a handful doesn’t detract from the tragedy of her story.
There is plenty of juicy Modernist scandal in Mansfield’s story: illicit relationships, an oppressive family, rejecting the conventions of the time, but there is also so much that breaks your heart. She had an incredibly troubled marriage and although I imagine Mansfield was difficult to live with her husband sounds like a right git. It is also suspected that she contracted gonorrhoea something which at the time could kill you, her mother shipped her of to a German spa when she got pregnant where she had a miscarriage and to top it all off her premature death from TB.
It is all very sad but it is made even worse by the fact that she was such a talented writer. She threw herself into her work and her short stories are incredible they capture what it is to be alive in such a small space of time; it is like Mansfield had this inherent understanding of how to portray the human existence. Virginia Woolf once said Mansfield was the only writer who she could think of as an equal which is high praise indeed. It breaks my heart to think that Mansfield could have produced so much more literature over her lifetime if she hadn’t been cheated by illness. Then again, had she never been ill would she have been able to write as she did?
Tomalin somehow manages to remove the distance between the subject and the biographer so that the reader doesn’t just learn about Katherine Manfield’s life, they feel it as well.
Would recommend to: lovers of Modernism otherwise it’s a bit much.