Review of Katherine Mansfield: The Early Years by Aimee Gasston

Katherine Mansfield: The Early Years by Gerri Kimber,

Edinburgh University Press

272 pagekms

120 b&w illustration(s)

Published September 2016


Hardback: 9780748681457

eBook (ePub): 9780748681471

eBook (PDF): 9780748681464



Mansfield recorded in a well-quoted journal entry of 1917 her reluctance to leave ‘scraps’ and ‘bits’ behind. In reality, though, scraps and bits are precisely what the biographer has to work with, some deliberately preserved, others at random. In her essay ‘Virginia Woolf’s Nose’, Hermione Lee describes the art of the biographer as partly ‘making up’, making a whole from various parts or ingredients, and partly ‘making over’, presenting a subjective version of the individual in question.

As if in testament to the need to tread carefully between these two activities, in her new biography of Mansfield’s early years, Kimber has taken the brave editorial decision to include large chunks of original material in her biography, not only textual excerpts but also previously unpublished photographs. This not only allows readers to participate in the ‘making up’ and ‘making over’ of Mansfield directly, but also increases its value exponentially to scholars and researchers who are able to consult and cite these new sources, as if visiting the Harry Ransom Center (Texas) and the Alexander Turnbull Library (Wellington) simultaneously and from the comfort of their living room or study. The book takes on the feel of an extremely well-marshalled compendium, while at the same time allowing Kimber the space to perform her duties of making up and over with dexterity.

Kimber gives full and resonant context to the journal entries which are a difficult read on their own, unshored from external facts, providing illuminating counterpoints from friends and family members as well as those frames of reference provided by Mansfield’s fiction. Kimber also does extremely deft work in filling in numerous gaps in the record. By way of example, one of my own personal mysteries was a photograph Mansfield describes in a letter to Murry – a picture of herself as a child, grasping a spade as if about to dig for treasure (Mansfield’s summation was that she instead resembles a ‘solemn little monster’). There it is sitting casually on page twenty-eight. As a cricket enthusiast, another issue of personal curiosity was Mansfield’s infatuation with a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club’s team, who was also sailing to New Zealand aboard the S. S. Corinth in 1906. There is no definite identity for the object of Mansfield’s attentions but Kimber presents a trio of possible candidates from the team, including photographs and even descriptions of bowling techniques – practically a dossier. Her fastidious research is likely to satisfy a host of divergent Mansfieldian whims.

In taking Mansfield’s until now almost undocumented childhood and teenage years as her subject, Kimber also allows the reader the unusual pleasure of spending time with Mansfield without the illness which overshadowed her adult life. That said, we do come to find that in the case of Mansfield, adolescence was almost experienced as its own type of illness, with Mansfield the unruly teenager tortured by hormones as much as by the Wellington she yearned to leave then spent the rest of her life trying to get back to. ‘KM’, as Kimber refers to her throughout her book, comes across as pretentious, adventurous, unconventional and ambitious in roughly equal measures.

One of this book’s key strengths lies in its careful setting out of the early trajectory of Mansfield’s later successes which would have her shaping the landscape of literary modernism. It is clear that Mansfield was committed to becoming an artist of some type from a relatively early age, and Kimber shows how she was also tempted by the roles of poet and cellist. Her borrowing record at the parliamentary library in Wellington revealed a rapacious interest in philosophy and Kimber also delineates the substantive influence of the Decadents on the young Mansfield’s life and writing. Other traits which would find her way into Mansfield’s best prose as an adult were manifest as a very young child – a reverence for the natural world (fostered by time spent in Karori orchards with Pat Sheehan and the scent of heliotrope and the sea) and a keenly felt sense of justice (brought to life in an incident where the ten-year-old Mansfield came between the cane of a teacher and fellow-pupil Percy Jones, who had fallen asleep in class after waking at 3am each morning to milk cows).

This is surely a book of which Mansfield would have approved. In 1920, she wrote with disdain of William Knight for his introduction to Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal which revealed his editorial decision to omit some of the ‘trivial details’ of the Wordsworth household’s daily business. While Knight explained that there was ‘no need’ for their inclusion, Mansfield’s scribbled retort ran: ‘There is! Fool!’ Kimber has avoided such pitfalls – her meticulous work navigates easily between the macro- and microscopic. It makes room for the minutiae of clothing, spectacles, the mascot penguin at Thorndon Baths, the child writer pretending to be a dragon, the rock-pools at Day’s Bay, a lily lawn bordered with violets. Of such trivial details full lives are made up, and made over.

Aimee Gasston

Aimee Gasston is finalising her PhD on modernist short fiction at Birkbeck, University of London, where she will take up a Wellcome Trust ISSF research fellowship to work on a project about literary stammering.