Piazza del Duomo is my least favourite place in Florence. I always hurry through it. Probably San Marco (except at four in the morning) and St Peters are my least favourite places in, respectively, Venice and Rome so I guess I just don’t respond very well to the grandiose. I prefer what’s smaller, more secret, more superficially self-effacing. A criticism often levelled at Katherine Mansfield’s stories are that they are small things, limited in scope. Lawrence in Women in Love famously depicted her as Gudren, a brilliant but limited miniaturist. She herself, close to death, remarked that she’d only produced “little stories like birds bred in cages”.
She’s often compared (unfavourably) with Virginia Woolf. But it’s worth remembering that had Woolf died the same year as Mansfield she would only have written her first three books (The Voyage Out, Night and Day and Jacob’s Room) and consequently almost certainly would not now be known to us as one of the great moderns. In all probability her reputation would be on a par with many of the more obscure women writers of that time now published by Virago. Had she died at the same age as Mansfield she would only have written The Voyage Out. Herein lies the tragedy of KM’s early death. Had she lived even another ten years it’s not unlikely she would have gone on to equal Woolf’s achievement. The best stories in this collection are more innovative and fresh and lively than anything Woolf had written at this time. In fact she makes Woolf appear a bit of a stiff frumpy Victorian in comparison.
She knew she was going to die while writing many of these stories and this is evident in the wonder the natural world has for her ( easy to see why her and Lawrence got on so well – both take the same kind of delight in the natural world. Woolf’s nature descriptions, on the other hand, are always more aridly intellectualised.) It’s also evident in the depths of loneliness and longing in virtually all the characters, the alienation they feel from the warm vibrant central thrust of life. But never does she strike a morbid or self-pitying note. Mostly she writes with great wit and vitality and a keen eye for the telling detail of any given moment. She’s also brilliant at extracting nuggets of gold from the mundane. In one story, Ma Parker is a housekeeper whose beloved grandson has just died. She cleans for a literary gentleman every Tuesday. The literary gentleman offers his condolences but his real concern is to reproach her for mislaying a spoon of cocoa. People wonder how Nazism happened or Aleppo goes on happening. Here’s how – at bottom the absence of cocoa in the house is more likely to rouse us to protest than the suffering of a fellow human being we don’t know.
The first three stories – At the Bay, The Garden Party and The daughters of the Late Colonel are absolute gems. The other stories are mostly tremendously readable without quite hitting the heights of the first three and there’s a couple of duds towards the end.
My favourite photo of her –