Wednesday, October 6, 2010


KATHLEEN Jones is the author of a new biography about Katherine Mansfield. There is also a large section of research devoted to the life of John middleton Murry, particularly the turbulent years following Mansfield's death. Following is a letter of appreciation to the author, and following that is the author's emailed reply.


Dear Kathleen,

This is a quick note to thank you for the recently published biography of the intriguing Katherine Mansfield which has greatly preoccupied me the last few days, until 6:00 PM tonight when I finished it. It is fresh in my mind and I felt that I would like to send you some impressions from a humble school teacher of High School English living in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

I first encountered KM, the writer, when I completed Year 12. She, and other brave, unorthodox women like Sylvia Plath and Kate Chopin, interested me more than the male writers that I was studying at that time at university. I remember Carson McCullers was another. I read the Bliss and Garden Party collections, and this naturally led on to an interest in writers in her circle, like Virginia Woolf, Huxley, and D H Lawrence in particular. Then I read Gillian Boddy’s beautifully photographed text, as well as the revised Alpers. I thought the Alpers biography was dry and a bit disconnected, and I realise now that it may be because of a lack of knowledge in his subject, and a difficulty on his part to locate and utilise enough resources.

I showed Bliss (the story) to an intelligent Literature bunch at school many years ago, and we were all fascinated by it, and became involved in trying to interpret its symbolism. I have now visited the birthplace cottage in Wellington, and proudly carry my KM key ring with me everywhere- the Alexander Turnbull library awaits. A few years ago I also had the opportunity to purchase the three slim volumes of The Signature which I can see from my bookcase shelf as I write. I collect books nowadays- most of them are by or about DHL, but I have three Constable first editions with wrappers n fine condition- Something Childish, The Scrapbook and Novels & Novelists. I saw Dove’s Nest in similar condition in London at Ulysses Bookshop, but couldn’t afford it.

So KM is someone that I have kept at the back of my mind throughout my reading life. An excellent short story writer and an equally fascinating subject. Your book has resuscitated a great interest in her, and I thank you for it, although it has come at a bad time in that I am about to go back to work, after holidays, hopelessly underprepared. It is the most detailed and enthralling book I have encountered about her, and it is better than many biographies I have read on other literary subjects. Your hard work has paid off and here are some of the qualities I have enjoyed:

- You haven’t created a ‘saint’ in KM, in that you fully explore her foibles and weaknesses- her damaging episodes of indecision, her inexperience upon arriving in London, her unfortunate ability to create mess after mess in her private life and her difficulty in being honest and the need to constantly wear a mask (which frustrated those like Kot who truly loved her).

- At the same time, KM comes across as unconventional, determined, incredibly brave and prepared to give up so much for (to use a cliché), ‘her art.’ We can see in the more conventional lives that her sisters led how easily it would have been to stay in NZ, or marry and live respectfully in England, and be popular with her wealthy, aristocratic parents. The number of house changes, and the amount of times she lived in cold and almost decrepit conditions, makes you shiver as a reader. On top of her brave battle with her all encompassing illness and her desperate search for better health, I can see why she has become greatly admired.

- There must be a temptation to not only glorify KM, but to also demonise some of those around her, especially DHL, who we associate with KM so much. But while acknowledging the awful moments- probably the worst being the ‘stewing in consumption’ quote, you also acknowledge the undoubted generosity, seen in such moments as the simple postcard from Wellington, and especially the beautiful and tender letter he sent her after the death of her beloved brother, Leslie. No, Lawrence doesn’t come under anywhere near as much dark scrutiny as Murry (and to a lesser extent, LM) , which seems to me fair.

- I found the chapters about Murry fascinating, particularly the ones post- Katherine. In these stages of the book you must have been tempted to acknowledge Murry in the title. Perhaps it was an afterthought to include so much research on Murry? Or is it because KM is strangely enough so much still a spiritual force in Murry’s life, right up until his death? I didn’t know any of the details about Murry and this nightmare existence with Betty, and the incredibly sad details of the lives of his children, and the terrible outcome of his marriage to Violet. Murry is such an intriguing character, and the intensity of his life with DHL has been written about numerous times before. There seems to me something in the history of Murry and KM’s life that is repeated in the story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and how her memory came to equally haunt him. DHL’s comments about him being a ‘dirty worm’ seem reasonable on balance don’t they?

- Your knowledge, too, of KM’s creative life, not just her personal life, is very good. I would have preferred a bit more analysis of her writing- after all, what she wrote comes from her, and tells us just as much about her than what she actually did- the best biography I have read in this regard- in which we come to intimately know the author though his actual writing- is the DHL biography by Mark Kinkead- Weekes (the second CUP biography). Nevertheless I really appreciated commentary on a number of stories and journal fragments, and it has led me to want to rediscover her work.

- Finally, the way you evoke the time- England, NZ and Europe in the period up to and after the war- is brilliantly done. We must remember the social mores were very different then- Murry hiding when visitors come around! The unfortunate episode when KM thinks she has to contact George Bowden- the ‘incomprehensible decision’- and the ever increasing threat of war, especially in the poignant moment in Paris when sees a zeppelin when staying in Carco’s flat.

My wife and I visited Fontainebleau for the express purpose of seeing KM’s grave. We were rushed for time and fortunately it was about the sixth or seventh headstone I scanned. I didn’t know as much about the journey then, s I wish I could go again now. I have seen some of the houses from the outside- ones in Hampstead Heath, the Acacia Road house. Alas, I never went to Bandol, but a beautiful experience was seeing Lawrence and Frieda’s Villa Mirenda in Florence. I thought that Frieda and KM had a better relationship displayed in your book, but you have altered this perception. KM’s sad and bitter experience in the end gives us all some hope- just as much a ‘savage pilgrimage’ surely, as Lawrence. Thank you once again- I am sure that KM, and your book, will stay with me forever.

Darren Harrison.

Kathleen Jones' reply:

Dear Darren

Your letter gave me so much pleasure. I can't tell you how much it means to an author to have such a detailed, enthusiastic response from their readers. I didn't write the book as an academic exercise, but because I'm passionate about KM's work and fascinated by her life and it's good to know that some of that communicates.

Thank you very, very much for letting me know that you enjoyed the book. Biography isn't doing so well in Europe at the moment - hit by the economic downturn. Good to know that the odd copy is selling in Australia!

best wishes

Kathleen Jones

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