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Katherine Mansfield and World War One, Alice Kelly and Isobel Maddison eds. Katherine Mansfield Studies. Gerry Kimber, Todd Martin, Delia da Sousa Correa, eds.

Vol. 6, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014 (194 pages), ISBN: 9870 7486 9534 8
Julie Sauvage
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Katherine Mansfield and World War One, Alice Kelly and Isobel Maddison eds. Katherine Mansfield Studies. Gerry Kimber, Todd Martin, Delia da Sousa Correa, eds. Vol. 6, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014 (194 pages), ISBN: 9870 7486 9534 8

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1In the wake of the recent interest in World War One literature sparked by the 100th anniversary of the conflict, Katherine Mansfield and World War One, the 2014 Yearbook of the Katherine Mansfield Society, guest-edited by Isobel Maddison and Alice Kelly, proves a valuable addition to Mansfield studies.

2At first sight, though, editing a volume on Katherine Mansfield and the war may seem to be a challenge or, at least, to raise a series of serious questions. Indeed, the short story virtuoso cuts a paradoxical figure in her time. The genre she excelled in is commonly considered not to have inspired the war writers, who rather turned to poetry or opted for the novel. Besides, although she was directly affected by the conflict when her younger brother Leslie died in military training, Mansfield did not often mention the war in her fiction, not explicitly at least, except in a few well-known short stories like ‘The Fly’ or ‘An Indiscreet Journey’, and lesser-known pieces like ‘Two Tuppeny Ones, Please’ or ‘Stay-Laces’. A biographical approach may thus seem unlikely to help interpret her fiction in relation to the war. Cultural history and gender theory may prove equally confusing when it comes to defining her attitude to the conflict–if Mansfield did have to face personal trials and tribulations caused by her condition as a woman in her time, her take on the war is not quite typical.

3Isobel Maddison and Alice Kelly successfully meet these challenges by combining biographic or genetic approaches, on the one hand, and more reader-centered approaches, on the other. The first and main part of their volume, devoted to literary criticism, includes a series of nine essays. The second focuses on creative writing related to Katherine Mansfield, which I won’t presume to assess here, and offers recent creations–two poems by Kevin Ireland and Seamus Heaney, with a short story by Emily Perkins. The third section includes three reports, the first two on influences exerted either on Katherine Mansfield (by her contemporary and acquaintance, if not friend J. W. N. Sullivan) or by her (on C. K. Stead, possibly New Zealand’s most famous living writer), the last one about the statue of Katherine Mansfield that Virginia King created in 2013 for the Wellington City Council. The volume ends with reviews of recent works (both fiction and criticism) related to Katherine Mansfield.

4Following Alice Kelly’s introduction, the ‘Criticism’ section opens on Josiane Paccaud-Huguet’s article on ‘An Indiscreet Journey’, which was awarded the Katherine Mansfield’s Society Prize and offers an enlightening new reading of one of the author’s most famous short stories. Paying close attention to the text, Paccaud-Huguet analyses the intricacies of love and death in the light of the notion of jouissance. She relies on Agamben’s analysis of the contemporary, to show how Mansfield uses fairy tale intertexts and creates a timeless atmosphere. She thus cogently demonstrates that, in Mansfield’s text, the historical catastrophe plays out ‘in the archaic and immemorial dimension of the sacred’.

5Using a radically different approach, J. L. Mitchell’s essay offers a biographical take on Mansfield and the war, analysing her journal and correspondence to dispel the confusion between her own attitude to the war and John Middleton Murry’s. He highlights Mansfield’s ‘patriotic streak’ and shows that she may have intended to become a war correspondent at the beginning of the conflict–‘Stay-Laces’ and ‘Two Tuppenny Ones, Please’, bearing testimony to her experiments with a more explicitly committed type of writing. Drawing from Mansfield’s correspondence with and about her brother Leslie, he also demonstrates that her special relationship to her younger brother rested on both siblings’ ‘androgynous nature’, which entailed a shared feeling of guilt and may explain the contradictory accounts of her response to his death.

6With yet another approach, Isobel Maddison’s analysis of Mansfield’s German short stories, which replaces them into their publication context, can be also considered as a valuable contribution to the study of modernist periodicals. She shows how nuanced Mansfield’s attitude to the German enemy was at the time and demonstrates how this both reflected the zeitgeist and departed from her contemporaries’ take on the conflict.

7Helen Rydstrand focuses on Mansfield’s immediate response to the events of the war, which accounts for the later sense of ‘severance from the past’ that her generation was to experience. She shows that rhythm is a key concept to understand Mansfield’s works and, much more interestingly, how she absorbed poetic techniques into her prose in order to suggest the pervasive presence of the war in every aspect of everyday life, all the better to challenge the very principles of heroism and patriotism it was fought on. This makes the ‘persistence of the ordinary’ in Mansfield’s fiction both appalling and expressive of a vaster, ‘natural rhythm of life’.

8The next two essays, by Alex Moffett and Richard Cappuccio, respectively, both tackle ‘The Aloe’, and nicely echo one another. The former emphasises the revision process the text underwent before the publication of ‘Prelude’ and focuses on the changes Mansfield decided on. It seems that she deliberately worked on making the presence of the war less obvious, limiting her use of military vocabulary and harsh imagery, for instance. This also bears testimony to her reflection on the way a responsible artist should respond to the war. In this respect, Moffett argues that her initial reaction was ethical, but also aesthetic—Mansfield perceived the war as both dangerous and sometimes wonderful to behold, like the Zeppelin raids over Paris she described in her journals, which, he notes, were closely followed by the surge in creativity during which she composed ‘The Aloe’. Nicely complementing his essay, Richard Cappuccio’s article focuses on material culture to show this very same short story still remains filled with allusions to the wartime context and uses Mansfield’s personal writing to demonstrate how it becomes a ‘tale of paternal hubris and ominous foreboding’. With different but complementary perspectives, both essays analyse how the presence, however subtle, or the knowledge of the war imbues Mansfield’s writing with a ‘grim teleology’ (Moffett) that transforms her texts and informs their reading.

9Finally, Erika Baldt devotes her attention to ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ to show how Mansfield uses both classic mythology (Philomela and Procne) and the Shakesparean intertext (Titus Andronicus) to draw a parallel between women’s experience of war through the ages. Mansfield thus manages to use some of the tropes and common myths of wartime propaganda, all the better to subvert them.

10As must now be obvious from this account, the first section of the volume could be criticized for lacking in consistency. Yet, its overall effect is quite stimulating and would probably have been impossible to achieve, had the editors opted for a more conventional organisation. As it is, the volume may prove less easy to use for the readers interested in one specific approach but the essays complement and echo each other. They offer a nice overview of Mansfield’s work by weaving together various perspectives both on the author’s writing process and the wealth of interpretations it fosters, which also appears in the following ‘Creative Writing’ section highlighting the importance of Katherine Mansfield’s legacy to major contemporary poets and writers.

11The ‘Reports’ section nicely completes the collection, by explicitly tackling influences and legacies. David Bradshaw’s ‘speculative reassessment’ of the role J.W.N. Sullivan played in Mansfield and Murry’s life and work sheds light on a complex relationship which has been hitherto overlooked by Mansfield scholars. Relying on Mansfield’s journals and letters, but also on Sullivan’s correspondence, Bradshaw accounts for the ups and downs of the writer’s relationship to this prominent scientific commentator, who was also a specialist of Beethoven. The speculations he draws from a careful analysis of the writer’s correspondence and its chronology are quite convincing. Gerri Kimber’s report explores the influence Katherine Mansfield exerts on C. K. Stead and, consequently, the seminal role she continues to play in New Zealand’s literature today. In the same perspective, Robin Woodward’s contribution finally provides an interesting description of Virginia King’s statue of Katherine Mansfield, the 3.4-meter ‘Woman of Words’ commissioned by the Wellington City Council in 2012. It accounts for the sculptor’s creative process, explains her choices, and mentions the selection of texts by Katherine Mansfield featured on the statue’s clothes – although it could have been interesting to find out more about this aspect of the artist’s work. The report is illustrated with a few pictures of the work and a nice reproduction of the artist’s layout for the statue.

12Among the reviews, C.K. Stead’s own account of Janet Frame’s In the Memorial Room stands out. Frame’s novel was posthumously published in 2013 but written in 1974 during her one-year residence at the Villa Isola Bella in Menton (where Mansfield herself used to stay) with the Winn-Manson Katherine Mansfield Fellowship. Stead’s polemical review of Frame’s satirical novel shows how Mansfield keeps shaping today’s literary landscape, be it directly or indirectly.

13On the whole, this rich, albeit slightly disconcerting, volume creates an interesting dialogue between various theoretical approaches and foregrounds some hitherto ignored aspects of Mansfield’s life or work.

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Julie Sauvage, « Katherine Mansfield and World War One, Alice Kelly and Isobel Maddison eds. Katherine Mansfield Studies. Gerry Kimber, Todd Martin, Delia da Sousa Correa, eds. »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 21 novembre 2016, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Julie Sauvage

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier – EMMA

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