KATHERINE AND THE FLYING WHEEL
A review of The Story-Teller By Vincent O'Sullivan.
The Listener August 2010
Kathleen Jones takes two extraordinary gambles that pay off amply in her richly detailed and compelling new biography of Katherine Mansfield. Kathleen Jones wrote several highly regarded biographies - of Christina Rossetti, of the women who lived with the Lake Poets, of Catherine Cookson - before she turned to her expansive account of Katherine Mansfield, the fourth since Antony Alpers's judicious benchmark in 1980.
Jones has produced by far the biggest book, and the most challenging. She writes with insight and verve, and an intelligent sympathy not only for Mansfield, but for that entire cast who are now familiar players, as her story is set out against those overlapping literary and social worlds the writer passes through, rather than being deeply part of.
A mass of new material unavailable to earlier biographers makes this new telling richly detailed and compelling. Jones revises and expands on what was known about Mansfield's health, and leads the reader through what it was like, often week by week, for a brilliant young woman dying over several years.
To see Mansfield more clearly means to see her more starkly. The woman who now appears is rather more troubled, more constantly baffled by choice and circumstance, than we may have thought. She is also gutsier, more resilient, more defiant, as she moves towards the razor-sharp clarity of facing the end on her own terms.
If one assesses a life by how it realises what it aimed for, this is a chastening story, apart from that glowing haul of prose that survived it. To tell it both accurately and fully, with its spread of intricacies and confusion, Jones makes two crucial decisions. A hundred and fifty pages into Mansfield's life, at the point when she meets the man who will mean more to her than anyone else, the book becomes a biography of another kind, as you are taken into a long account of what happens to John Middleton Murry after Mansfield's death. You realise that the misleadingly titled Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller might have been something rather closer to Mansfield and Murry: The Unending Story. The Mansfield narrative is again picked up, but similar leaps to other lives, to other times, occur later in the book. You will read about Murry's last years and his death before Mansfield has decided on joining George Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau.
It is a bold move to fracture the conventions most of us so firmly have in mind when it comes to biography. Jones is far too serious a writer to play at what by now are rather faded postmodernist games with genre and technique. What she intends is that the entire span of Murry's life, with its macabre hauntings and flaunted wretchedness once Mansfield died, is drawn back to her, the abiding ghost in the more than 30 years her husband survives her. What the biographer does, narratively speaking, is a hell of a risk to take. But it comes off. Everything is backlit by Mansfield, alive or dead. "We are like the wings of one bird," she had once written to Murry, with rather less Gothic intent than turned out to be so. This wide-angle account of Murry makes gruesome reading. For a long time, in the face of those commentators who so readily put their righteous boots into the man, I would counter that think what you like, Mansfield loved him, married him, thought of him constantly, and in her last weeks was planning how they could spend more of their lives together.That is the relevant point when considering her life. One of the ironies of the Mansfield scholarly marketplace is that Murry so conscientiously provided the ammunition that was fired at him. Whatever writing of hers he did not publish, or edited out, or rearranged, he carefully preserved for others to sift, and so level their charge against him. I believe that defence of him still holds.