The Consumption of Katherine Mansfield - William Cook

Please click on title above ^ for full text

I. Dragging Mansfield Out of the Closet

The varied critical debate about Katherine Mansfield’s sexuality seems more of a biographically inclined criticism about her lifestyle, rather than her literature. Such criticism also tends to construct a reflection of the various political agendas of the critics, who carry out these treatments. Therefore, I will try to refrain from making any judgements about Mansfield’s sexual preference/s, and look at some select examples of the type of criticism that focuses more on Mansfield the ‘lesbian’, or ‘bisexual’, than on Mansfield the ‘writer’. I will treat these issues alongside relevant aspects of Mansfield’s life and literature.

The focus is primarily on the arguments of two feminist critics: Sydney Janet Kaplan and Alison Laurie. Both attempt to decode Mansfield's sexuality by analysing her influences and experiences, in the context of a repressive patriarchal society. A common thread that will guide my discussion, and that of the critics, will be the relationship of the influence of the ‘decadents’, in particular Oscar Wilde, on Mansfield’s life, sexuality, and art. I will also attempt to show the influence and biases present in her critics’ reactions, to issues of sexuality in Mansfield’s personal life, and in her writing. 

From a male perspective of Mansfield's art, Vincent O’Sullivan’s essay, The Magnetic Chain: Notes and Approaches to K.M., analyses her work by interpreting the symbolism; her (‘decadent’) influences, and the probability of her lesbianism under the title of ‘bisexuality’. He claims that “as a young woman (and to some extent all her life) Mansfield was bisexual. Its early appearance comes often in that ornate language she took from Wilde.” In this quote, we see O’Sullivan’s recognition that Mansfield's artistic ideals developed from Wilde’s ideas, manifesting themselves in her life and sexuality. In this respect, Kaplan’s view of Mansfield’s “bisexual nature” is empathetic toward O’Sullivan’s argument. I agree with O’Sullivan, concerning Wilde’s effect on Mansfield’s art and life, but I do not want to attempt my own definition of her sexuality. I will however, use O’Sullivan’s ideas (as well as my own), as a counter-claim to argue the limitations and strengths of the two radically different feminist viewpoints.

The influence of Oscar Wilde and ‘decadence’, on Katherine Mansfield, was profoundly significant in the development of her aesthetic ideals and literary practice. Both Kaplan and Laurie accept this (whilst not necessarily endorsing it). Her ideals, garnished with Wilde’s own concepts, were useful, yet problematic in the development of her identity and sexuality. While there was a profoundly positive influence on her growth and strengths as an artist, there was also a negative aspect to the effects of that ascendancy in her personal life. As she herself wrote in a candid letter of confession to a ‘friend’:

In New Zealand Wilde acted so strongly and terribly upon me that I was constantly subject to exactly the same fits of madness as those which caused his ruin and mental decay. When I am miserable now – these recur. Sometimes I forget all about it – then with awful recurrence it bursts upon me again and I am quite powerless to prevent it – This is my secret from the world and from you – Another shares it with me, . . . For she, too is afflicted with the same terror – We used to talk of it knowing that it w[oul]d eventually kill us, render us insane or paralytic – all to no purpose – It’s funny that you and I have never shared this – and I know you will understand why. Nobody can help –it has been going on now since I was 18 and it was the reason for Rudolf’s death. I read it in his face today. I think my mind is morally unhinged and that is the reason – I know it is a degradation so unspeakable that – one perceives the dignity in pistols.

Sydney Janet Kaplan suggests in her essay, The Problem of Oscar Wilde, that this letter of Mansfield’s “gives clear and painful evidence of the ways that society’s ingrained homophobia finally overcame her.” Other critics like Alison Laurie suggest emphatically that “the context within which Mansfield saw her lesbianism . . . was that of Oscar Wilde and other [?] male homosexuals; she saw her feelings as an abnormal and shameful perversion which would lead to insanity.” The title of Laurie’s essay, Katherine Mansfield – A Lesbian Writer, leaves no doubt as to her beliefs about Mansfield’s sexuality.
Although Mansfield continually wrote in her Journals and Letters of romantic liaisons with men as well as women, which would indicate bisexuality, Laurie denies any critic outside the realm of her critique, the luxury of such logical claims. She states that “lesbian writers, lesbian writing and lesbian readings can be addressed only within the context of lesbian – feminist theory.” She sees ‘bisexuality’ as an invalid notion, a “simplistic and inaccurate” socially acceptable label, used to trivialise lesbian relationships. Laurie also uses the letter (quoted above) to show “the context within which Mansfield saw her lesbianism. It was that of Oscar Wilde and other homosexuals [like “Rudolf”]; she saw her feelings as an abnormal and shameful perversion which would lead to insanity”. Toward the end of this essay, I will address the strengths and limits of Laurie’s critical judgements in relation to this issue.

Kaplan and Laurie, both tend to focus on the relationship between homosexuality (particularly Wilde’s) and influence. This has the effect that Mansfield's sexual experience is seen as the primary centre around which her life revolves. Consequently, the criticism focuses on sexuality as crucial to understanding her work. Sexuality is not considered as ‘just a part of life’ in this respect, it is seen as the biggest part of Mansfield’s identity. I feel that the treatment of such issues does not give us a greater enjoyment in the reading of the fictional short stories.

Whilst it may provide reasons why Mansfield conveyed ambivalent sexuality and gender sensibilities, in the majority of her compelling characters, it does not add to our appreciation of the fiction itself. The mystery of Mansfield’s characters, both male and female, is what compels the questions no doubt. However, the question must be asked if the same compulsion to determine the author’s own character would have occurred, if her Journals and Letters were not as well written (and available), and provocative, as her prose. In order to place the criticism in context we must look at the reasons (which are largely biographical in detail), why the critics I discuss, believe what they believe about Mansfield’s sexuality.

2. The Immoral Influence

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

“While there were many times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning. Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility.”
OSCAR WILDE from De Profundis

‘Humility’ was a characteristic of Katherine Mansfield’s life and art. Whilst never losing her strong sense of aestheticism, her work reflects an image of one who was too aware of her own mortality, to ever consider herself above the ordinary characters that she wrote about. While she had empathy with her character’s and other writers, Mansfield’s work and life was renowned for the sense of loneliness it conveyed.

Whether this isolation and loneliness was intended or not, driven by her sexuality and/or art, it flavours Mansfield’s work with a profundity of depth that is characteristic of modernist literature. The sense of loneliness and suffering, conveyed through the characters of her stories, gives an impression of the trials she endured through her short life, along the route of her commitment to art. Her identification with the decadent Oscar Wilde, seemed to cause Mansfield a great deal of mental anguish as she tried to fulfil the aesthetic prophecies of her idol, through her own conscious experiments with decadent sexual behaviour and aestheticism.

Whilst Wilde’s example carried with it a risqué ‘anxiety of influence’ for Mansfield, it also served as a liberating model for her own self expression and sexuality. The freedom she sought in Wilde’s ‘immoral’ influence could only take her down the same path of martyrdom and struggle. Resulting, from similar excesses, in a symbolic incarceration of disease and misfortune, that was far from the desired form of liberty she sought. Kaplan, from a feminist perspective, suggests the dangers of Wilde’s influence on Mansfield’s being, particularly upon her ‘womanhood’:

Although Wilde provided her with the impetus to seek experience, to express sexuality and not deny the body, following such advice proved dangerous, as her later pregnancies, abortion, and related illnesses gave sad evidence. Moreover, the call to burn oneself out for experience, to destroy the body in service to art, and all those other exaggerated aesthetic poses were intended rather to suggest a certain kind of masculine initiation into art.

Whilst Kaplan’s feminist reading attributes an immoral influence to Wilde, that is ‘masculine’ in nature, she points out that we should not “assume that Mansfield’s innovations are attributable primarily to literary influence[s].” This may well be true of Mansfield’s literary innovations and style, but yet Kaplan also deals largely with the fact that Mansfield’s character and ideas were influenced, more so than by any other, by Oscar Wilde. Kaplan relays Mansfield’s early sexual experience and identification as a woman, as being negative because a male model of sexuality (the homosexuality of Wilde) encouraged it. This is one of the few weak points that I found in Kaplan’s argument.

Kaplan’s strong feminist view of stereotypical notions of gender, is contradictory in this instance; because of her own political notions expressed as to what a feminist should be and how a woman should act. Here Kaplan herself conforms, and subsequently supports, stereotypical assertions about gender related notions concerning experience and emotion i.e., that aggressive, self-sacrificial behaviour, and artistic idealism are ‘masculine’ in nature, and therefore not suitable as ‘feminine’ artistic and sexual prerogatives.

Combining select ideals with her own philosophy and the urge to create, Mansfield refused to exist within archetypal models of belief and practice. This useful ambivalence is as much a part of her character and style, as is her humility. Using impressionism, symbolism, imagism, realism, and other aesthetic concepts of practice, she developed an aesthetic style that was a fusion of imagination, influence, experience, and eclecticism. Her rebellion within conventional models of society and literary tradition, which were predominantly male dominated, suggests a strong feminist sense of self that had to be aggressive to ‘make it new’ and to develop her own identity and personal freedom.

 Mansfield’s rebellious nature led to trial and tribulation that was on a par with Wilde’s own suffering. His maxim that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life” (from The Decay of Living), fuelled the fire of Mansfield’s imagination and her complete involvement in the creation of experience and disposition as an ‘artist’. This conscious and motivating desire led her life to become as aesthetic and stylised as her work. The symbiotic relationship between the artist’s life and the her work, may not have been as profoundly relevant, to her stories and to criticism, if it were not for the extent of personal literature that is available about Mansfield. Her fiction enveloped fact, and vice versa, as Mansfield’s body of works (her fiction) coupled with the body of her being (personal life).

Distance, between reader and writer, diminishes because of the carefully constructed realism of her fiction and the relation of her fiction to her personal experience (as described in her published Letters and Journals). It is interesting that both Kaplan and Laurie do not address the validity of Katherine’s personal writing. They never dispute the factuality of her highly romantic personal style. Just because Mansfield’s journals and letters are available, does not mean that they are untainted by the fictional fingers of their author.

The importance of art to Mansfield seems to be diminished and underwritten by the critics I discuss in this essay. They tend to focus their criticism on determining her sexuality, through the filter of Wilde’s homosexual escapades, in a sort of symbolic trial that parallels his own. Except in the case of Katherine Mansfield, there seems to be no conviction forthcoming. One thing that stands out for me in my reading of Wilde, Mansfield, and her critics, is that ‘art’ was the supreme and most constant influence on her life. As Wilde is so much a part of the criticism I will use him to sum up the power of the influence of art on the imagination: “I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction. I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me . . . I became the spendthrift of my genius and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy.”

3. The Mask of Ambivalence

The façade, for Mansfield, was an important means of both identity and protection. This applied not only to her persona, but also to her sense of style and aestheticism. The importance of character development and personal identity, within her stories and her own life, caused Mansfield to try on many different ‘masks’ of character and experience. Alison Laurie believes that the most transparent mask Mansfield wore throughout her life, was that of the heterosexual. She used this ‘mask’ to disguise her identity as a lesbian, and she did this because of the “patriarchal ideologies of gender” that forced her into a ‘theatrical’ state of pretence. 

Laurie discusses Mansfield’s position as a “lesbian writer”, in relation to negative social views of homosexuality (both male and female) within the context of early twentieth century history. She also looks at the reasons for and behind Mansfield’s renowned multiplicity of character, citing select examples to support her claim that Mansfield’s lesbianism was the cause of assumed identities and deliberate heterosexual relations. Laurie implies that nearly every man, whom Mansfield had more than fleeting relationships with in her life, was homosexual. In fact, she states that the main evidence for this claim lies between the pages of Mansfield's Letters, which Laurie sees as “theatrical” disguises that try to mask her true but “secret and marginal self”:

Mansfield constructed the fiction of a heterosexual self, engaged in romantic relationships with men such as Garnet Trowell and John Middleton Murry. She then attempted unsuccessfully to translate her own romantic construction into heterosexual reality . . . Many other women of her time also concealed their lesbianism . . . most lesbians learn to live double lives, and to deceive at least some of the people around them, because they fear the consequences of exposure. I see Mansfield’s romantic letters to men as theatrical presentations of various identities, which are acceptably heterosexual, despite their flamboyant and made-up quality (pp. 213 – 214).

Laurie dismisses all other accounts of Mansfield’s heterosexual abandon as negative (if she even mentions them at all). I feel that Laurie’s argument is weakened by the narrow focus of her political agenda, which is in proving that Mansfield was a lesbian. Another flaw is her uncompromising view that same-sex relationships are ‘normal’ and heterosexuality is somehow an archetypal social construct characterised by homophobia. She also relies heavily on Mansfield’s life long relationship with Ida Baker (or LM) as more evidence of her Lesbianism. Although she admits the lack of factual proof of such a relationship, she implies that the love Mansfield expressed for her closest friend was lesbian in nature. While there is a lack of definitive proof about LM and KM’s sexual relationship, Laurie insists that “the absence of such information does not provide evidence that a lesbian relationship did not exist”(p. 220). 

While there seems to be much contradiction and conjecture in Laurie’s essay, I feel that she makes some insightful comments about Mansfield’s difficulty with relationships and the effect of her terminal illness on her friendship with Ida Baker. She also points out Mansfield’s early identification of death and tragedy with homosexuality. The death by suicide of her young homosexual friend, Rudolf, obviously had a profound effect on Mansfield. In relation to her secrets of sexuality and decadence and the connection between Wilde’s suffering and Rudolf’s, she is obviously greatly troubled by her own connections. She exclaims that “Wilde acted so strongly and terribly upon me that I was constantly subject to exactly the same fits of madness as those which caused his ruin and his mental suffering . . . and it was the reason for Rudolf’s death” (p. 219). 

Like Kaplan, Laurie suggests that this letter is evidence of Mansfield’s context in which she sees her ‘lesbianism’. It is the best case Laurie puts forward to support her argument. The letter is highly emotional and personally subjective; it links figures of homosexuality with her own anxiety, and it expresses a moral dilemma that seems to point toward despair because of a “degradation so unspeakable”, that Mansfield felt she had to keep it secret. The letter is interesting, as it seems so obvious, because of the links between sexual identities, that the secret of Mansfield’s is that she too is homosexual. Yet, the letter remains highly ambivalent because of its suggestive nature; she is not explicit and for a letter that is meant to be opened after her death, it is not exactly a Pandora’s box of definitive personal revelation. 

Laurie believes that the letter was intended for Mansfield’s ex-husband, George Bowden, to explain her lesbianism, “because she believed that he was, like her, a homosexual” (p. 219). Laurie also disputes C. K. Stead’s claim that Mansfield had previously given Bowden cause to believe she was a lesbian. She dismisses Stead’s suggestion as a “typical trivialising heterosexist device”. She bases her conclusion on her political agenda and in doing so she neglects the fact that Bowden had indeed acknowledged Mansfield’s sexual ambivalence, in a letter to Mansfield’s father: “The lady I married, though of excellent and well-to-do people, and herself of some literary reputation, was sexually unbalanced and at times was irresponsible, although at others perfectly normal”(p. 219). Why would Mansfield need to write a letter (as encoded as it was) explaining her sexuality, to someone whom was already aware and obviously forgiving of her sexual identity? Like the letter, the question is as ambivalent and elusive, as is a definition of Mansfield’s sexual identity. 

Laurie’s analysis, along with Kaplan’s, of Mansfield’s sexual identity, in her writing and in her personal life, contain references to Oscar Wilde and the ‘decadent’ nature of her own sexuality. Like Mansfield’s life and art, his influence is present in the criticism also. Wilde’s notorious ‘homosexuality’ and ‘decadent’ philosophies affect the critic’s treatment of Mansfield’s sexuality, by making ‘it’ the connecting experiential factor, between her and her mentor. Rather than her profound sense of aestheticism and artistic ideals, which I feel Wilde influenced more than her sexual preferences, sexuality has become the compelling life force that these critics try to wring out of Mansfield's cadaver. It is almost as if, because Wilde influenced her literary art, and was present in her personal writing (which so many critics treat as non-fictional doctrine), then therefore the crossover between fictional and factual worlds must become the bridge to deciphering Mansfield the person, rather than Mansfield the writer. That ‘bridge’ being Wilde’s most infamous claim to fame, his homosexuality. In other words, the critic becomes a juror, in the trial of the defendant’s character, in relation to a case of crime by association.


Ibid, pp. 41 – 59, in particular, see p. 52 in relation to O’Sullivan’s perception of Mansfield’s sexual disposition.

See Sydney Janet Kaplan’s, Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 25 – 26, 36 – 37, 88, and 169 – 70.

The mystery and ambivalence that surrounds Mansfield's life, sexuality, and art, is the perfect foil for contemporary feminist critics of socio-political cultural theory. In the process of such politicised critique, we unfortunately tend to lose sight of the literary object itself. However close we are to finding out about the writer (and the critic) through biographical interpretation, ultimately, as literary criticism, the critique must focus on the writing or else it becomes mere biography. A fault I find with this criticism is that the search for such prudent meaning narrows the response to the text, and thereby its accessibility. This has the tendency to negate the work in question and the critic’s response to it, i.e. we are looking for something that may not be there. This ultimately renders the literary work near impossible to enjoy, for the mere quality of its art. As an activity, or mode of interpretation, it then becomes about as devoid of objectivity as is criticism of a particular subjective bias.

See Sydney Janet Kaplan’s, Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 26-27, for citation of this letter. Kaplan adds the following footnote that is useful to see the critical response its discovery generated:

This is a fascinating letter. Its origin is unclear, and also its recipient. O’Sullivan and Scott (Letters I, p. 90) suggest it was written to Ida Baker. They mention . . . “on either side of the paper wrapped around it she wrote, ‘never to be read, on your honour as my friend, while I am still alive. K. Mansfield.’” Cited by Alpers, Life, p. 91. Tomalin is dubious, however, about the sincerity of Mansfield’s angst in this letter, believing the letter might have played a role in her efforts to rid herself of her husband, George Bowden. (p. 27)

Ibid, pp. 19 – 35, in particular p. 26.

See Alison Laurie’s essay, Katherine Mansfield – A Lesbian Writer, reprinted in ENGL 316 – New Zealand Literature 3: Katherine Mansfield Anthology (University of Canterbury: Dept. of English, 1999), pp. 213 – 224, in particular p. 219.

Ibid, p. 214.

Ibid, p. 28.

Ibid, ‘Introduction’, p. 5.

From Wilde’s De Profundis. I feel that this quotation is especially significant in relation to Mansfield’s philosophies on life, experience, art, and fame. I think that this quote also applies to Laurie’s reading of Mansfield’s “construction of a heterosexual self”. I feel that M. constructed herself through experience, sexual or otherwise, as a means to exist in a constant state of fiction that she could control as a living art form. While this may sound vague, I think it explains a lot about her journals and letters, and her adventurous and imaginative nature, that remains unexplainable. In light of her battle through adulthood and adolescence with misunderstanding, sickness, tragedy, and toward her later years – the constant worry of imminent death from her tuberculosis, I feel that the construction of any self, would be a conceptually imaginative one that centred around a world that was as far away as possible, from the grim reality of her deteriorating physical state. The constant presence of the ticking clock would also motivate an over-immersion in experience and life, which was as sensually aesthetic as possible.

These men are Garnet Trowell, George Bowden, and John Middleton Murry. Laurie goes as far as to justify her accusatory claims about Murry’s ‘latent’ homosexuality, using as evidence his confession in a private journal that he had been homosexually raped and also his rejection of D. H. Lawrence’s sexual advances, (which Laurie perceives as a “homophobic” reaction, p. 221, ENGL 316 Anthology). She also cites Mansfield’s propensity for pseudonyms and affectionate pet/nick-names: “she referred to him as ‘Betsy’” (p. 222), among other names.
Back to Top


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...