One from the Archive: ‘The Life of Katherine Mansfield’ by Ruth Elvish-Mantz and John Middleton Murry ****

I have read several biographies and biographical works relating to Katherine Mansfield, undoubtedly one of my absolute favourite authors, as well as volumes of her own journals and letters.  I thought that this book, told by the man whom she married and spent almost all of her entire adult life – short though it was – with, would be both fascinating and enlightening.  I was intrigued to see which stance John Middleton Murry would take in his recollections of Mansfield’s life.

Katherine Mansfield

Thinking that the majority of this book had been written by Murry, particularly as his name appears first on the volume which I read, I was quite surprised when I learnt that Ruth Elvish-Mantz, an author who I can find little information on, was the main writer of this text.  Murry states in his introduction that ‘at least nine-tenths of the actual narrative’ was penned by Elvish-Mantz.  He states at the outset that, ‘In scope Katherine Mansfield was a tiny artist; but because she was a pure artist, she was a great one’.

The main body of the book has been written almost in a prose-like style, complete with some rather lovely descriptions.  Each one of its chapters deals with a different section of Mansfield’s life, and is subsequently split into short essays.  This makes it a book which the reader is able to dip in and out of at whim without losing the main thread of the story.  I liked the way in which it set out the lives of Mansfield’s ancestors at the start, and the history of how New Zealand came to be an inhabited country.  The social history is strong from start to finish, and the folklore of New Zealand particularly is fascinating.

One of the strengths of the book for me was the way in which the authors spoke about how the experiences which Mansfield went through so influenced her writing.  I very much enjoyed all of the anecdotes and memories from Mansfield’s childhood which were woven in.  The inclusion of fragments of stories and unpublished manuscripts was a lovely touch, and I was pleased that her letters made up great chunks of each chapter and were then built upon by the authors.

Katherine Mansfield and her siblings (From L-R) Charlotte Mary, Vera, Katherine, Jeanne and Leslie Heron

I did not enjoy The Life of Katherine Mansfield as much as I thought I would before I began it.  It seemed lacking in comparison to Ida Constance Baker’s Memories of L.M., which I read last year and adored.  This book seemed more distant somehow, and it was curiously rather emotionally detached.  My least favourite aspect of The Life of Katherine Mansfield was the religious comparisons which were made between Mansfield and Jesus and the like throughout.  It was not overly relevant to her story as far as I am concerned.  I also did not like the way in which people were referred to using different names throughout – for example, Katherine’s eldest sister, Charlotte Mary, was called Charlotte, Chaddie and Marie on separate occasions.  This gave the book no sense of constancy throughout.  Some of the quotes included which have been written or spoken by other contemporaries or critics of Mansfield’s have not been attributed to their authors.  The end of the volume felt very rushed too.  There were also a lot of spelling and grammatical mistakes within the Kindle edition which I read, which was a real shame.

Despite this, I am still giving The Life of Katherine Mansfield a four star rating because it contains so much of Mansfield’s beautiful writing, and it is well put together.  If you have not read a biography of Katherine Mansfield before and would like to, however, I would recommend searching out Claire Tomalin’s Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, or the aforementioned Ida Constance Baker’s The Memories of L.M, rather than this one.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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