Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin (Viking £14.95)
ST Paul exhorts us to "be all things to all men" and though Katherine Mansfield was no saint she followed his precept. To her
husband she was a fragile genius; with her life-long friend, Ida, she played a tyrannical mistress and for D H Lawrence she provided the role-model of Gudrun in Women in Love. But these conflicting facets of her character never managed to coalesce and even those closest to her failed to
plumb the depths of Mansfield's Secret Life.
Claire Tomalin throws light on this enigmatic woman by using one chapter of her life as explanation for her subsequent behaviour. Whilst pregnant by a man who was unable to marry her because of youth and lack of prospects, she was yanked off to Germany by her mother and abandoned by her there. A miscarriage followed and then a fateful meeting with Sobieniowski, the man who became her evil genius; for it was from him she contracted gonorrhea and an operation to eradicate the disease led instead to arthiritis and tuberculosis, from which she died.
With no anchor Katherine drifted not only into relationships, restlessly turning away from the ever-faithful Murry, a scholarly, celebrityhunting publisher, to various flirtatious attachments but in her writing also: she seemed unable to build on any one achievement but strove for different effects. So we have her comically contemplating a foreigner's view of an Englishwoman, then savaging a mother in The Young Girl to fatally re-telling a nonattributed story of Chekhov. For
this last omission she was later accused of plagiarism and, as Tomalin thinks, blackmailed by Sobieniowski.
Yet her random choice of style and tone lent a freedom to her work and her lack of stamina led to a spare, clear style. From being a young colonial who edited the magazine at her London school, Katherine went on to write some of the finest short stories. Had she lived beyond a meagre 34 she might have rivalled Virginia Woolf in output and acclaim. Of her Prelude Woolf noted, "it has the living power, the detached existence of a work of art".
She was no saint, but to the crippling illness that dogged most of her life she became a martyr. And for all this we may also care to remember Leonard Woolf's tribute to her, "She was gay, cynical . . . . extraordinarily amusing. I don't think anyone has made me laugh more".
An extravagent life has been put together with sympathy and scholarship. Previously unpublished letters and exhaustive footnotes unlock some secrets and add to Claire Tomalin's fascinating account of a remarkable woman.