Feuille d’Album by Katherine Mansfield

James Jacques Joseph Tissot - Holyday

“Feuille d’Album” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in the Bliss collection. The word ‘album’ comes from Latin, neuter of albus ‘white’, and used as a noun means ‘a blank tablet’. This is the story of a man who appears to have no personality. Because of this, a group of women become fascinated by him, imagining he has deep, dark secrets. They endeavour to find out how he lives.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot – The Rivals (aka In the Conservatory)

NARRATION OF “FEUILLE D’ALBUM”

The narrative voice of “Feuille d’album” has a strong personality. This is ‘the village voice’ of a subculture of women, society ladies, with the leisure to speculate about the life of an unfathomable young man of their acquaintance.

If this story were adapted for screen, I’d love Scottish actress Shirley Henderson to narrate in one of her English accents, for example that of Edith Dubarry in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.

Although the viewpoint character is this nosy unseen narrator, the ‘main character’ is the story of Ian French. We must see her as unreliable. Here’s what she can know via the gossip mill:

  • He is socially awkward in the women’s presence.
  • He keeps a neat house (because some of them have visited)
  • He gave an egg to the young woman who lives opposite.
  • He may or may not have said “Excuse me Mademoiselle, you dropped this.” The gag is too perfect, a society tall tale (with a shaggy dog ending), and the result of many retellings.

Because she has such a distinctive voice, and feels so much a part of the society she describes, this narrator is clearly not omniscient. She is never present in Ian’s rooms. She doesn’t see him watching, scribbling things down. Therefore, the bulk of the story must be pure imagination on the narrator’s part. Highly imaginative narrators/characters are very useful in stories.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot – The Artist’s Ladies

STORY STRUCTURE OF “FEUILLE D’ALBUM”

SHORTCOMING

He is probably the son of a wealthy family, highly trained in the arts. He may have been sent to France as a ‘remittance man‘ to keep him out of the way, as he may be embarrassing, socially. (Some commentators have speculated that Katherine Mansfield might have been a remittance woman, sent to Europe because she was a woman who loves woman.)

Through my contemporary lens, I understand Ian French as autistic. At first I suspected social anxiety, but as the story progressed, a number of autistic-esque features hoved into view.

  • Ian is very good at what he does, and he does that thing a lot (painting).
  • He appears to freeze in social situations. Perhaps this is because he has a disability when it comes to reading social cues, and his way of dealing with this is to simply be quiet.
  • He has a surprisingly well-ordered house.
  • He has developed strategies to get things done on any given day. He writes himself notes, perhaps in the voice of a mother or nanny, who he still needs to hear from, if only in his head.
  • He fixates on the woman with few clues. Obsessive love is common across the breadth of human experience, but Ian seems to fixate on her motherly aspects. He seems to see someone who could take care of him. The details he fixates on are unusual.
  • Case in point, the egg. He (supposedly, and supposedly based on what the narrator has previously observed) really loves that egg, and he is perhaps attracted to it in a sensory kind of way. The flipside of sensory processing issues is that unexpected things can feel immensely pleasurable.

The character of Ian French was surely inspired by Mansfield’s interactions with human beings in real life, even if Ian French is a conglomeration. There is no ‘autism epidemic’ — in previous eras there was simply no name applied to neurodifference.

DESIRE

None of Ian’s issues would be a problem, except it appears he does want social connection, on his own terms, preferably one-on-one.

OPPONENT

Harold C. Harvey (1874 - 1941) The Critics, 1922
Harold C. Harvey (1874 – 1941) The Critics, 1922

Ian’s opponents are the society ladies who speculate about his private life, epitomised by the voice of the unseen narrator. These women position themselves as allies, checking up on him, but are counterproductive when it comes to Ian finding the social connections he wants. They clearly consider him a figure of fun. We deduce that he knows this, for he turns them away whenever they darken his door.

A man who is a figure of fun is unlikely to find his people. He must find a new connection, with a person outside the social clutches of these particular ladies of leisure.

Unfortunately for Ian, we can also deduce that whatever he said to the young woman about the egg has got back to the ladies of leisure. So in fact, the object of his affection has revealed herself (off the page) to be as dismissive as they are.

PLAN

Ian watches the girl until he knows her weekly schedule, then he plots a way to meet her. We don’t know he has plotted this, in the veridical truth of the story. Because of the unreliable narration, it’s possible he never talked to the young woman at all, and that the entire interaction with the egg is a comical fabrication. Nevertheless, that is the level zero story. Any metadiegetic discourse in which we’re told, “Psst, that’s not actually what happened!” is missing. We must check our own tendency to believe these stories. We must. not. listen. to this gossip. Leave the poor guy alone.

Back to the level zero story. Because Ian is so passive, the ‘planning’ comes from his opponents in the form of three women who visit his house. Notice how Mansfield is making use of the Rule of Three.

BIG STRUGGLE

The climax of this story is the meeting with the young woman who likes eggs. The story finishes after this scene.

the last few paragraphs of a novel are relatively unimportant. … A short story is much different. The climax may be the ending.

Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Until this moment, the storyteller has invited us into her gossipy world. I confess that I was expecting some sort of dark act — a stabbing, perhaps? This is entirely set up, of course. Plus there’s the history of salacious stories about women murdered by stalker men. So this climax is an example of an anticlimax, which also subverts our expectations of crime and melodrama.

The story has closed with a perspectival shift. In many short stories, a notable change of perspective marks that the narrative may now come to a halt.

ANAGNORISIS

These final two steps are left for the reader to ‘write’.

The plot revelation, arrived at via deduction is the part where we realise the young woman may have gone back to the ladies of leisure and told them the story about the egg, making Ian look hopelessly silly and an object of fun.

NEW SITUATION

Ian has found himself in the wrong society. He may find like-minded people eventually, perhaps in the art world. I hope he did.

Header painting is byJames Jacques Joseph Tissot – Holyday. I imagine Ian stands partially hidden by the tree trunk on the leftmost edge.

Psychology by Katherine Mansfield

Edwardian Interior c.1907 by Harold Gilman 1876-1919

“Psychology” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, redolent with sexual tension which unexpectedly morphs into something else at the end. As expected from the title, the bulk of the story comprises a character’s interiority. After first setting the mood, Mansfield gets right into a woman’s feelings. Yet do we feel we know her? We must read between the spaces, what I call ‘Mansfield Gaps’. Everyone fills the gaps differently in a lyrical short story; this is my interpretation.

Katherine Mansfield liked to explore the theme of retaining one’s individuality. Characters seem terrified of losing themselves, of being subsumed by the roles expected of them. They wish for individuality. Mansfield’s stories, when taken as a whole, show that there are many pitfalls in love.

“Psychology” is an exploration into the emotional variability that goes hand in hand with intimacy. This variability is also pronounced in “The Swing of the Pendulum“, “Taking The Veil” and “The Singing Lesson“.

Walter Richard Sickert The Little Tea Party- Nina Hamnett and Roald Kristian 1915–16
The Little Tea Party: Nina Hamnett and Roald Kristian 1915-6 Walter Richard Sickert 1860-1942

Fear of Engulfment

This is all related to what commentators have called Fear of Engulfment. An excellent example of a Fear of Engulfment story is “The Frog Princess“, in which a young woman is terrified of being trapped by matrimony and the ensuing (forced) pregnancy. This is a fear specific to people with child-bearing capacity, and many stories have cropped up to try and assuage this fear, or to persuade young women that everything will be all right, or at least, that they are not alone in this particular fear.

Is “Psychology” a Fear of Engulfment story? Quite possibly. A woman of reproductive age risks much in an era lacking reliable birth control, let alone social welfare payments for unwed mothers. Then there’s the intense social ostracisation.

Safer instead to develop a taste for The Erotics of Abstinence, replacing the sensual pleasures of sex with that of cake, augmented with a nice cuddle with your Auntie Virgin neighbour.

What did Katherine Mansfield think about human psychology?

If you really want to immerse yourself in how Katherine Mansfield viewed people, you probably want to readPrinciples of Psychology by William James.

William James was a ‘vitalist’ (alongside Henri Bergson). James believed that behaviour influences emotion. Previously it had been thought that a person’s emotion influences behaviour. Modern psychologists now know that emotion is more of an interacting cycle than a cause and effect kind of thing. James also came up with the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, which describes modernist authors.

VITALISM, MODERNISTS AND CHARACTERISATION

Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’. Beforehand, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change. (Bergson added to this theory by making a distinction between superficial personality and deeper consciousness, which is exactly how storytelling gurus tell writers to create characters today.) This is partly what made Mansfield feel so modern. She challenged the ideology of the one true self (which we still see in much children’s literature today, as in ‘Be yourself’ stories). What does it mean to be yourself?

For Mansfield, the self is porous, caught between a virtual past and a virtual future. The self transforms moment by moment under the pressure of a past which breaks through into the present, and also by a future, essentially unknowable. 

VITALISM, THE MODERNISTS AND TIME

In this way, vitalism also probably encouraged Mansfield to question the nature of time. She does all sorts of interesting things with time in her stories. She achieves The Overview Effect in “Prelude” and links children to the elderly. She picks symbols (e.g. the aloe in “Prelude“) for their interesting relationships with time. According to Henri Bergson, these separate selves don’t begin and end (I guess the would tip a personality into the realm of dissociative identity disorder), but each personality extends into another.

By this view it’s impossible to respond in exactly the same way to a single thing twice in succession. That’s because you’ve already had one reaction, and that first reaction will inevitably influence all subsequent reactions. It’s impossible to remain the same person, even from moment to moment. This is why so often Mansfield’s characters seem to be high on something one moment — the next downcast. e.g. Beryl in “At The Bay“, first viewing herself as a ‘lovely, fascinating girl’, then ‘All that excitement and so on has a way of suddenly leaving you’. (She has become aware of a nearby ‘sorrowful bush’.) Bertha in “Bliss” is another stand-out example.

Here, too, in “Psychology”, Mansfield’s unnamed playwright spends most of the story erotically charged at the thought of an impending sexual encounter… then suddenly shifts this eroticism into something else, directed at her older female neighbour who happens to drop by with flowers, and who is portrayed as a lonely, non-sexualised eccentric.

NARRATION IN “PSYCHOLOGY”

As many critics have agreed the stories in narrational parallax are [Mansfield’s] greatest. They attempt to epitomise the complicated and multifarious world within a narrow space from a variety of positions in order to create an image of an Impressionist atomistic modern world.

Apart from the juxtapositional parallactic method of using more than two perspectives, the stories “Psychology” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” are worth mentioning, because here only two equally important perspectives are contrasted with each other and sometimes even combined into a hazy, oblique one. The contrasting or juxtaposed perspectives are often roughly similar in their degree of limitation and reliability. In “Prelude” and “At the Bay”, Linda’s and Beryl’s visions are both deluded, in their fantasies and distorted views, although they themselves regard their visions as invested with superior wisdom or social or marital respectability. No perspective is authentic or authoritative, but through the narrator’s ironic modulation between various contradictory perspectives the image of the world is confused and blurred.

The world is depicted as fragmentary, momentary. It lacks a centre. The narrator is merely a medium through which reality flows into words. Mansfield’s ironic use of juxtaposition and contrast suggests that man’s experience of the world is multi-faceted and that is what marks this particular modulation as Impressionist in concept. In “At the Bay”, ironic narrative juxtaposition is employed, contrasting the preoccupations of the different characters, Kezia, Beryl, Linda, Mrs Fairfield, Stanley, and Jonathan with the minor ones. Juxtaposed to their restrictive views are the narrative intrusions, the detached philosophical and pastoral framing by the narrator, and occasional general narrative comments.

the author’s intention is not to focus the material in a certain single character and thus achieve unity of vision. She centers the material upon all characters and thus obtains a number of visions which exist not in a hierarchy but in an anarchy. The very sectioning of the stories indicates the author’s intentions of avoiding characterisation. Each section is a piece of coloured glass, and all the pieces exist together not in subordination but in juxtaposition. Out of each piece comes a shaft of light, the point of view of a character.

Yuan-Shu Yen

The effect of these ‘shafts of light’ by means of ‘the coloured glass’ suggest the different moments of great intensity, varying in significance according to the perspective from which they are seen. The reader is led to consider the preoccupations of the different characters, sometimes from both an oblique abstract view and sometimes from one which identifies closely with the characters’ situations. This is one of the impersonal and objective ways in which Mansfield was able to reconcile intrusive narratorial passages with the restrictive assumptions of Literary Impressionism.

Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism by Julia van Gunsteren

SETTING AND SYMBOL WEB OF “PSYCHOLOGY”

FIRE AS EMOTIONAL STATE

As you read “Psychology”, notice how Mansfield uses fire as a metaphor for desire. The verbs could equally describe the feeling in a lover’s heart.

  • He ‘came over to the fire and held out his hands to the quick, leaping flame.’
  • ‘Just for a moment both of them stood silent in that leaping light.
  • ‘She lighted the lamp under its broad orange shade’
  • ‘Two birds sang in the kettle; the fire fluttered
  • ‘That silence could be contained in the circle of warm, delightful fire and lamplight. How many times hadn’t they flung something into it just for the fun of watching the ripples break on the easy shores.’
COLOUR

Also take note of the colours in this story. Mansfield emphasised colour and related it to character mood. Colour is used for more than simply describing something.

Colour images fall into two basic categories:

  1. Images related to the visual experience of the character who sees it and
  2. Images which express in colour the atmospheric mood or their mental state.

Some commentators have said that Mansfield’s technique of describing colour maps directly onto pointillism, in which artists use short brush strokes to create a lot of dots and avoid blending, instead requiring the viewer to stand back in order to make out a scene. (Stand too close and all you’ll see are the dots.)

The orange of the lamp and the flame in this room, the red chairs, the blue of the chair and teapot — these are complementary colours. Why complementary? The playwright’s two types of intimate experiences are are equally complementary, meaning they are opposites but also perfectly matched.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “PSYCHOLOGY”

SHORTCOMING

If we crudely divide selves into public, private and secret, Mansfield was especially interested in the secret self, and in this story she uses the actual phrase ‘secret self’, showing that she must have thought in these terms.

Their secret selves whispered: “Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?”

DESIRE

The exact nature of the ‘secret self’ is left to the reader’s interpretation. Clearly, from the body language, from the fact that a man is visiting a woman’s private rooms, checking they won’t be disturbed, these two are getting ready for some kind of erotic experience together.

But why does the playwright hold back? That part is left for the reader to extrapolate. I am taking the era into heavy account, as well as Mansfield’s own life. Biographers believe that Mansfield had at least one abortion. Penetrative sex with men was risky for almost any young woman living in a pre-birth control era.

It seems the playwright of “Psychology” wants an erotic experience with a man, but without the masculine, patriarchal, high-risk version of sex, which is almost certainly the kind he expects.

OPPONENT

The playwright and the writer are romantic opponents. He smiles in ‘a naive way’. Why naive? Perhaps he came for the transcendent experience with cake, not realising the playwright is getting far more out of this moment than high tea.

POTENTIAL, TRANSITIONAL SPACE

What does it mean to be a ‘romantic opponent’? Much has been said about the mind-meld that takes place in this particular story, referring to how two minds become one.

Donald Winnicott was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst who came up with a concept known as ‘potential’ or ‘transitional’ space. At first I wondered why the man is talking about a little boy. Which little boy? (Is he into little boys…?) But no, commentators have gone into that.

…touch, very lightly, that marvel of a sleeping boy’s head… I love that little boy

Apparently the little boy is to be coded as a ‘symbolic object’. The (non-existent!) ‘little boy’ exists in the transitional space between the man and the woman. This space both separates and unites them. When the man imagines he touches the boy’s sleeping head, he sees it happening only inside his head. Touching but not touching. This is how Mansfield creates both distance and closeness between two characters at once.

NEIGHBOUR AS SECONDARY ROMANTIC OPPONENT

The virginal neighbour may not in fact be virginal. Mansfield’s style of narration moves in and out of a main character’s head — it’s up to the reader to decide which details are veridical fact and which are character interpretations. ‘Virginal’ is how the neighbour strikes her.

But this ‘virgin’ drops in with flowers quite often. In Mansfield’s other stories, for instance in “Carnation“, flowers are connected to eros, including between women. When we offer another person flowers we are encouraging them to enjoy a sensual experience, be it from colour, smell, texture of the petals. An offering of flowers feels almost like a check: “Are you capable of enjoying a sensual experience? How about one… with me? At some point? Maybe?”

Has the playwright already realised this about the neighbour? Doesn’t really matter. She realises it later, I think.

By the way, the violets, like the ‘little boy’ are thought to be another ‘transitional object’ which distance the two women as well as bringing them together. ‘Even the act of breathing was a joy’, she says. I have no idea what it’s like to live with tuberculosis, especially while being a smoker (as Mansfield was) but I can imagine Mansfield felt a special pleasure in easy breathing.

PLAN

It’s clear the playwright has invited the writer to her room, and made sure they won’t be disturbed (though she does have that neighbour inclined to pop in without notice). The playwright must trust this man sufficiently to respect her boundaries. He is not the ‘sexual conquering’ type:

For the special thrilling quality of their friendship was in their complete surrender. Like two open cities in the midst of some vast plain their two minds lay open to each other. And it wasn’t as if he rode into hers like a conqueror, armed to the eyebrows and seeing nothing but a gay silken flutter — not did she enter his like a queen walking soft on petals.

Nothing suggests this is a well-thought-out plan, but the playwright’s plan is this: She will enjoy the frisson of a man in her private room. She seems to want what these days may be called a queerplatonic relationship with the man.

Queerplatonic has been used to describe feelings and relationships of either/both a nonromantic or ambiguously-romantic nature, in order to express that they break social norms for platonic relationships. It can be characterized by a strong bond, affect, and emotional commitment not regarded by those involved as something beyond a friendship.

Aromantics wiki

“if you’d picture romance with taper candles over dinner, and sexual relationship as a queen bed, I would try picturing the queerplatonic as string lights over tea and a bunk bed with tin can-and-wire phones between them. The same, but not.”

Aromantics wiki

BIG STRUGGLE

The entire story is one long big struggle between desire and restraint. The playwright uses food as children’s books use food — as a highly sensuous experience, where other works use sex.

ANAGNORISIS

Mansfield tended to leave anagnorises off the page. They happened between the gaps.

In the gaps of “Psychology”, the playwright does seem to realise something, though in true modernist style, she probably doesn’t fully understand it.

The stupid thing was she could not discover where exactly they were or what exactly was happening. She hadn’t time to glance back.

She seems to realise that she can have a rounded and satisfying emotional-sexual experience with a combination of hot guy followed up with a cuddle from her virginal older female neighbour. She’s getting one type of erotic stimulation from the man, and another complementary (though completely different) sort of care from the neighbour.

On the page, it is the neighbour who realises something. “Then you really don’t mind me too much?” she asks showing that, until this moment of shared tenderness, she’d been doubting her value in the playwright’s eyes.

NEW SITUATION

Perhaps the playwright and the neighbour will forge a closer friendship after this beautiful embrace.

It’s also possible that once the playwright has come down from her erotic high, lit by her time with the man and seeping into her moment with the neighbour, the playwright will feel uncomfortable with the neighbour — who seems to want more — and shrink away. Earlier in the story she has compared herself to a snail, who retreats into its shell, so I think this extrapolation is equally likely.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The Two Friends
1894
The Two Friends 1894 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
The Party after the Party, Norman Rockwell, 1922
The Party after the Party, Norman Rockwell, 1922

Header painting: Edwardian Interior c.1907 by Harold Gilman

Katherine Mansfield’s Influences

Virginia and Katherine

THE INFLUENCES OF PLACE AND ERA

  • Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.
  • Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).
  • Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.
  • New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’
  • Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.
  • In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.
  • Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.
  • Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.



THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

  • Mansfield was supported financially by her father but never had quite enough. Apart from writing, she also acted as an extra in early movies. The theatre is the subject of her short story “Pictures“.
  • Today’s readers are different from Mansfield’s contemporaries — we have all seen a lot of TV and movies and rarely realise how influenced we are by conventions of the screen. We are highly literate in reading screen narrative compared to early 20th century readers who had seen few moving pictures. But because of her experience in the theatre, Mansfield learned far earlier than most all about the single take, juxtapositions, abrupt openings, quick dissolves and the clarity that cutting can impose. Mansfield’s translation of the language of cinema onto the page antedated that of most Modernist writers. These cinematic techniques are partly what make Mansfield’s short stories feel so contemporary compared to many short stories from around the same era. (For more on that, read Sarah Sandley’s essay on Mansfield and cinema from 2011 and Cinema and the Imagination in Katherine Mansfield’s Writing by M. Ascari.)
  • Mansfield was really interested in Charlie Chaplin and starts talking about him in her letters from 1918. She named one of her cats after him. Chaplin’s talent for hyper-mimesis and self-parody contrasted with the commercial side of film acting. “Je ne parle pas francais” (written 1918) is the best example of self-parody produced by Mansfield, who grew critical of cinema as the emblem of consumerist mass culture. Note that this is the year she was really into Chaplin.

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

  • Plagued by illness all her adult life, death is a major theme. Her parents were told when Mansfield was a child that tuberculosis would probably see the end of her.
  • Facing early death from a young age, Mansfield located herself not only in the present but in the past and future.
  • Mansfield’s medical treatment was expensive and in her last two years she was faced with the task of making money quickly. She spent a lot more time writing book reviews. She’d write 2-3 a week when Murry was editor of the Athenaeum.
  • Because Mansfield knew she was short on time, she made the decision not to write the following: novels, problem stories and ‘nothing that is not simple, open’.
  • In “Psychology”, the playwright character appreciates the ease of breathing. Mansfield always had lung issues, and it’s likely she really did appreciate the otherwise invisible act of easy breathing, whenever it was afforded to her.

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

  • Mansfield surrounded herself in Bohemian types and these people influenced her.
  • Take Dorothy Brett, a painter. Dorothy was a correspondent, and afforded Mansfield the space to talk about images and the depiction of images in writing. Mansfield told Dorothy that she preferred to paint an image rather than to give a technical account.

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

  • Mansfield’s brother Lesley died early in the First World War during an army training exercise. After this Mansfield moved to southern France where she wrote ‘recollections of my own country’. The first New Zealand story she wrote was The Aloe (“Prelude“).
  • Various critics have said this marked a turning point in her writing. She seemed to be thinking a lot more about her time growing up back in Wellington, where she would have been with her brother. Stories she wrote after his death were about middle-class life and family dynamics.
  • However, the loss of her brother doesn’t explain all of the changes in Mansfield’s writing. She wrote “The Wind Blows” before he died. This story shows that Mansfield was already capable of manipulating time adroitly and unexpectedly. She had already started to delve into her Wellington childhood before Lesley’s death.

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

  • At the end of the 19th century people were starting to look into the concept of the ‘self’. Two major theories were being talked about. The first was the theory of Sigmund Freud. Freud divided the human psyche into consciousness and unconciousness (the Ego and the Id). Freud gave rise to the field of psychanalysis. The second was the theory of William James. James was all about stream of consciousness (what modernism is all about). His book The Principles of Psychology was published in 1890 and it’s said this is the book that founded the field of psychology in America. There is little evidence that Mansfield read the work of either Freud or James. But we know from her notebooks and letters that she was interested in notions of the self. She approached this as someone interested in the idea, not as an academic or philosopher. Her ideas about the self were complex, but she never really settled on a theory — concept of the self in her work is at times contradictory.

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

  • As a child she read fey fairy tales and fables.
  • Mansfield’s stories are strewn with Biblical references. “His Sister’s Keeper” (1909) refers to Genesis 4, 9: “Am I my brother’s keeper? In “Psychology” the playwright thinks of the Book of Genesis while offering cake to her man friend. In “Something Childish But Very Natural” she creates a version of Eden when describing two very young lovers’ paradise and mention of the apple tree. (The girl’s name is Edna >> Eden.) And then snakes appear at the end. “Marriage a la Mode” gives us a missing Noah’s Ark (missing because the house of the ‘new Isabel’ is filled with a parody of Bohemian poets and artists, in which the ark is the symbol of happy childhood.
  • She read Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. She despised the former, but enjoyed the latter upon re-reading. ‘Little in his [Joyce’s] writing is art.’
  • She felt the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse were generally poor, except for Shakespeare and Marvell and ‘just a handful of others’.
  • She thought lots of novels – ‘pastime novels’ – demanded little of the reader, rehashing the same old stories and settings, failing to challenge the reader.
  • She believed detail for the sake of detail was no good. She believed anyone could describe detail and that writers could only be set apart from the rest of the population by saying something about the greater mysteries of life. There must be an illumination.
  • Mansfield was influenced heavily by Chekhov, quoting him in her letters. She considered herself the English Chekhov. She admired his knowledge and truth. She particularly enjoyed “The Steppe”. Some commentators have said she plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired”. Mansfield owes a lot to Chekhov, but her style is her own. For instance, Mansfield made more heavy use of symbolism than Chekhov did.
  • Chekhov showed her that she was quite justified in writing stories of such uneven length. She realised that some of her writing failed to fit neatly into short stories, sketches, impressions or tales. Her longer works have been called novellas; Mansfield herself did not ever categorise her own form of writing. She felt hers were different from other short pieces.
  • Mansfield read D.H. Lawrence’s writing though there was much she didn’t like about it. But she wrote ‘he is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important.’
  • She also read Dorothy Richardson, and thought they had no plot and no depth.
  • She thought Bunin, Maupassant, Joyce and Proust did not achieve greatness.
  • Mansfield believed that writers who wrote with ‘purpose’ were little more than preachers, and less than artists. (She perhaps meant didacticism.)
  • Influenced by Dostoevsky, Mansfield believed that plot should arise naturally from situation and characters; that events should be seen rather than shown off. The climax should give a sense of inevitability. The atmosphere gives the story continuity. In other words, she believed stories should be character driven.
  • Mansfield believed that the weather was important in reflecting the inner-life of characters in a story and was surprised at how little this connection was explored by other writers, except in its most obvious form (happy because the sun is shining, perturbed because the wind is blowing etc.). A story such as “Pictures” suggests Mansfield herself was highly influenced by the sensory input of her surroundings.

  • Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.
  • Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).
  • Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.
  • New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’
  • Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.
  • In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.
  • Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.
  • Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.



THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

  • Mansfield was supported financially by her father but never had quite enough. Apart from writing, she also acted as an extra in early movies. The theatre is the subject of her short story “Pictures“.
  • Today’s readers are different from Mansfield’s contemporaries — we have all seen a lot of TV and movies and rarely realise how influenced we are by conventions of the screen. We are highly literate in reading screen narrative compared to early 20th century readers who had seen few moving pictures. But because of her experience in the theatre, Mansfield learned far earlier than most all about the single take, juxtapositions, abrupt openings, quick dissolves and the clarity that cutting can impose. These cinematic techniques are partly what make Mansfield’s short stories feel so contemporary compared to many short stories from around the same era.
  • Mansfield was really interested in Charlie Chaplin and starts talking about him in her letters from 1918. She named one of her cats after him. Chaplin’s talent for hyper-mimesis and self-parody contrasted with the commercial side of film acting. “Je ne parle pas francais” (written 1918) is the best example of self-parody produced by Mansfield, who grew critical of cinema as the emblem of consumerist mass culture. Note that this is the year she was really into Chaplin.

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

  • Plagued by illness all her adult life, death is a major theme. Her parents were told when Mansfield was a child that tuberculosis would probably see the end of her.
  • Facing early death from a young age, Mansfield located herself not only in the present but in the past and future.
  • Mansfield’s medical treatment was expensive and in her last two years she was faced with the task of making money quickly. She spent a lot more time writing book reviews. She’d write 2-3 a week when Murry was editor of the Athenaeum.
  • Because Mansfield knew she was short on time, she made the decision not to write the following: novels, problem stories and ‘nothing that is not simple, open’.

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

  • Mansfield surrounded herself in Bohemian types and these people influenced her.
  • Take Dorothy Brett, a painter. Dorothy was a correspondent, and afforded Mansfield the space to talk about images and the depiction of images in writing. Mansfield told Dorothy that she preferred to paint an image rather than to give a technical account.

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

  • Mansfield’s brother Lesley died early in the First World War during an army training exercise. After this Mansfield moved to southern France where she wrote ‘recollections of my own country’. The first New Zealand story she wrote was The Aloe (“Prelude“).
  • Various critics have said this marked a turning point in her writing. She seemed to be thinking a lot more about her time growing up back in Wellington, where she would have been with her brother. Stories she wrote after his death were about middle-class life and family dynamics.
  • However, the loss of her brother doesn’t explain all of the changes in Mansfield’s writing. She wrote “The Wind Blows” before he died. This story shows that Mansfield was already capable of manipulating time adroitly and unexpectedly. She had already started to delve into her Wellington childhood before Lesley’s death.

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

  • At the end of the 19th century people were starting to look into the concept of the ‘self’. Two major theories were being talked about. The first was the theory of Sigmund Freud. Freud divided the human psyche into consciousness and unconciousness (the Ego and the Id). Freud gave rise to the field of psychanalysis. The second was the theory of William James. James was all about stream of consciousness (what modernism is all about). His book The Principles of Psychology was published in 1890 and it’s said this is the book that founded the field of psychology in America. There is little evidence that Mansfield read the work of either Freud or James. But we know from her notebooks and letters that she was interested in notions of the self. She approached this as someone interested in the idea, not as an academic or philosopher. Her ideas about the self were complex, but she never really settled on a theory — concept of the self in her work is at times contradictory.

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

  • As a child she read fey fairy tales and fables.
  • She read Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. She despised the former, but enjoyed the latter upon re-reading. ‘Little in his [Joyce’s] writing is art.’
  • She felt the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse were generally poor, except for Shakespeare and Marvell and ‘just a handful of others’.
  • She thought lots of novels – ‘pastime novels’ – demanded little of the reader, rehashing the same old stories and settings, failing to challenge the reader.
  • She believed detail for the sake of detail was no good. She believed anyone could describe detail and that writers could only be set apart from the rest of the population by saying something about the greater mysteries of life. There must be an illumination.
  • Mansfield was influenced heavily by Chekhov, quoting him in her letters. She considered herself the English Chekhov. She admired his knowledge and truth. She particularly enjoyed “The Steppe”. Some commentators have said she plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired”. Mansfield owes a lot to Chekhov, but her style is her own. For instance, Mansfield made more heavy use of symbolism than Chekhov did.
  • Chekhov showed her that she was quite justified in writing stories of such uneven length. She realised that some of her writing failed to fit neatly into short stories, sketches, impressions or tales. Her longer works have been called novellas; Mansfield herself did not ever categorise her own form of writing. She felt hers were different from other short pieces.
  • Mansfield read D.H. Lawrence’s writing though there was much she didn’t like about it. But she wrote ‘he is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important.’
  • She also read Dorothy Richardson, and thought they had no plot and no depth.
  • She thought Bunin, Maupassant, Joyce and Proust did not achieve greatness.
  • Mansfield believed that writers who wrote with ‘purpose’ were little more than preachers, and less than artists. (She perhaps meant didacticism.)
  • Influenced by Dostoevsky, Mansfield believed that plot should arise naturally from situation and characters; that events should be seen rather than shown off. The climax should give a sense of inevitability. The atmosphere gives the story continuity. In other words, she believed stories should be character driven.
  • Mansfield believed that the weather was important in reflecting the inner-life of characters in a story and was surprised at how little this connection was explored by other writers, except in its most obvious form (happy because the sun is shining, perturbed because the wind is blowing etc.). A story such as “Pictures” suggests Mansfield herself was highly influenced by the sensory input of her surroundings.

Writing Without Backstory: In statu nascendi

Walter Langley - The New Arrival

In statu nascendi is a Latin phrase and means “in a state of being born”.

When a story begins in medias res (in the middle of things) and the character is given no backstory, we may say the character is presented to us in statu nascendi.

Modernist writers started this trend. You’ll see it in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. A character’s backstory is kept right off the page. To the reader, it seems as if they have just been born. 

Even more significantly, it seems this way to the narrator, as well. All our impressions of this character come from these particular events in the limited time scale of this particular story, with no flash backs, no flash forwards, and with no commentary about how they got here, or how everything turned out 20 years later.

In statu nascendi characterisation is the preferred mode for the contemporary short story reader, who expects brevity and conciseness. This zero-backstory mode of characterisation is best explained if we look at what stories typically came before.

A good example is the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, as the Grimm brothers wrote it. Before the story gets to the story of Rapunzel herself, the reader is given numerous paragraphs of back story. Before we can understand Rapunzel as a character, storytellers of the 1700s and 1800s believed narratees would need to know all about the girl’s parents and how they met.

There’s a not-so-hidden ideology in stories that begin with a character’s ancestry: The importance of bloodline. Modern storytellers don’t necessarily believe a character’s bloodline says anything useful about them. A modern view: people are products of our environment. Paint the environment and you’ve painted a person.

There are other advantages to this form of characterisation.

ADVANTAGES TO WRITING WITHOUT BACKSTORY

  1. Brevity
  2. A mood of spontaneity
  3. If a character has little backstory, they become more universal. The character could be almost anyone, including you, the reader. 
  4. Backstory always slows down narrative drive. Leaving it out avoids that pitfall, opening an aperture for more imagery and symbolism. 

SEE HOW IT’S DONE IN THE LYRICAL SHORT STORY

Header painting: Walter Langley – The New Arrival