Mansfield without syrup; Katherine Mansfield, by Jeffrey Meyers. New York: New Directions. $17.50; The Life of Katherine Mansfield, by Antony Alpers. New York: Viking. $16.95.
At a time when English short stories had happy endings, staunch plots, and overbearing characters, Katherine Mansfield was an innovator. She wrote about forgettable people who shaved past memorable obstacles like off-course airplanes.She helped influence American and English writers ever since to try to capture the lingering impact of the unseen and unstated.
Jeffrey Meyers, whose book was published first in England in 1978, and Antony Alpers, in his second (and admittedly more candid) biography of Mansfield, carefully turn their lenses on the short and jumbled life of this New Zealand-born writer, who wrote in England and Europe.
Meyers prefers the wide-angle view; Alpers chooses close-ups. The Meyers book is a bridge span of connections; Alpers throws out facts like mosaics.
Readers who know little about Mansfield or who have read only the selective syrup poured out by her second husband, John Middleton Murry, May prefer Meyers's broad Scene-setting to Alpers's detailed chronology. In fact, when faced with still another Alpers account of Katherine Mansfield's dozens of moves to yet one more bed-sitter, damp hotel, clammy cottage, or drafty house (her address changed 29 times between 1908 and 1916), I began to feel like the chickens that belonged to Mansfield's grandfather (who emigrated from England to Australia and finally to New Zealand).Legend has it that "as soon as they heard the sound of packing, they lay on their backs with their legs up, ready to be tied."
Alpers notes that in spite of the flower-petal delicacy of the legend Murry self-servingly built around Mansfield after her death at age 34, she was actually erratic, caustic, and at times cruel during their life together, a life complicated by chronic illness.
Of Murry, Katherine Mansfield wrote: "His very frankness is a falsity. In fact it seems falser than his insicerity."
She was, according to Alpers, "never attracted to the bull male form" and positively disliked "robust, 'successful' men," mainly because they reminded her of her wealthy, domineering father, Harold Beauchamp. Murry, who had always wanted a woman to take care of him and who didn't have a regular salary until seven years after they met, found the tables turned as Mansfield's illness made her increasingly helpless.
Never belonging to either England or New Zealand but only to her writing, Mansfield became accustomed to movement. She would summer in England and winter in Italy, Switzerland, or France with her slave, scapegoat, and sometime friend, the doglike and dull Ida Baker. She envied Virginia Woolf for having a stable home and a husband who was with her (while Woolf envied Mansfield's writing ability).
Meyers records one of Mansfield's statements of her dissatisfaction: "Why haven't I got a real 'home' -- a real life -- why haven't I got a Chinese nurse with green trousers and two babies who rush at me and clasp my knees?I am not a girl -- I'm a woman, I wantm things. Shall I ever have them?"
After consulting dozens of doctors and finding no miracles, she was encouraged by A. R. Orage, editor of the New Age (which had published her first short stories in England), to follow Gurdjieff, the Russian jack of all trades and founder of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. In her desperation, Mansfield decided to turn to his mystical cure, even though in 1912 she had written: "Mysticism is perverted sensuality, it is a 'passionate' admiration for that which has no reality at all. It leads to the annihilation of any true artistic effort. It is a paraphernalia of cliches."
Alpers maintains that Gurdjieff was not a fraud and treats him kindly. Meyers insists that Mansfield's three-month stay at the institute, where she was supposed to spend several hours a day breathing the healthful smell of fresh manure and renewing her strength through the radiation of "animal magnetism," shortened her life.
After she passed on in 1923, Murry had an epitaph engraved on her tombstone which began: "Katherine Mansfield, wife of John Middleton Murry . . ." -- "as if that were her claim to fame," Meyers protests.
Alpers tells us that six years after Mansfield's passing, a fan visiting the Fontainebleau cemetery noticed that her grave had been moved to the paupers' section. Murry, who was busy publishing the 11 Mansfield books of stories, letters, and journals that appeared after her death (only three volumes of stories were published during her lifetime), had neglected to pay the undertaker. The bill was finally paid by Mansfield's father, while the task of clearing up the gross misconceptions about her life, spread by Murry to build up an adoring coterie, has been left to biographers like Meyers and Alpers.
Meyers capsulizes the picture given in both biographies, when he writes that "the Katherine that emerges from the ruins is a darker and more earthly, a cruelly and more capable figure than the legend."