When Virginia Woolf asked Katherine Mansfield for a story for the Hogarth Press in 1917, Mansfield reworked a piece she had begun during the First World War intended to be a novel about her childhood in New Zealand. Renamed ‘Prelude‘, the story Mansfield sent Woolf is based on her family’s move from Wellington to nearby rural Karori. Hand-printed and published as a 68-page booklet by the Hogarth Press in July 1918, Prelude was the Woolfs’ second publication. Two years later it was published in Mansfield’s collection Bliss and Other Stories (1920).
Set in New Zealand, Prelude is a beautifully evocative, lucid story told in twelve parts with a fluid point of view that shifts effortlessly from two little girls, Kezia and Lottie Burnell, to their languid dreamy mother Linda; their romantic energetic father Stanley; grandmother; servant; and longing-filled aunt Beryl. The carefully observed deliberate strokes of Mansfield’s prose were enriched by the 1910 Japanese exhibition in London and Roger Fry’s exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, particularly the wildflowers of Vincent Van Gogh, which inspired a new sense of freedom in Mansfield. Her story’s discontinuous structure, with its twelve intercut sections, was shaped by the movement of cinema, and its multiple perspectives were influenced by Mansfield’s observation of Cubist painting, especially Picasso’s. Mansfield’s urge to create new forms for the short story was intensified by her sense that following the war, which in 1915 had taken the life of her beloved brother Leslie, nothing could ever be the same again: ‘I can’t imagine how after the war these men can pick up the old threads as tho’ it had never been.’
Prelude opens abruptly, with the arrangement of baggage, children and two women on a buggy: ‘There was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy.’ Their mother is willing to forsake her two little girls for her mountainous luggage of ‘absolute necessities’: the girls can stay behind to follow later, the luggage cannot. Immediately Mansfield plunges the reader into the drama of her story. In spare, sharp prose, she vividly evokes the two little girls: ‘Hand in hand, they stared with round solemn eyes first at the absolute necessities and then at their mother.’ Mansfield can evoke whole emotional histories in one sentence, so precise and economical is her writing. As she said of her process: ‘I feel as fastidious as though I wrote with acid.’ Yet from acid she creates stories of haunting suggestiveness. She wanted to ‘speak to the secret self we all have—to acknowledge that.’
In Mansfield’s hands, the material world and the otherworldly merge, and her prose is as adept at conjuring solid substance and landscape as it is at evoking the unformed hinterlands of experience, the half-glimpsed shadowy worlds of dreams, longings and visions: ‘Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots.’ Mansfield conveys her characters with affection and humour, as well as capturing the subtle interweaving of their relationships. Her portrait of Stanley, the worldly, hasty man of action, is brilliant:
“Oh, damn! Oh, blast!” said Stanley, who had butted into a crisp white shirt only to find that some idiot had fastened the neck-band and he was caught.
Stanley and his family also come vividly to life in Mansfield’s story of their beachside holiday At the Bay, a companion piece to Prelude.
Mansfield, born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, experimented all her short life with different names, looks, styles of dress—her fluid identity a natural source of her stories’ shifting narrative point of view. Mansfield first left New Zealand in 1903 with her family to study with her two sisters in Queen’s College in London. Three years later she returned to New Zealand, where she had a number of passionate affairs with men and women, and took up music, planning to become a cellist. Although she became a writer, not a musician, Mansfield brought a musical ear to her stories, attending to the length and sound of her sentences, reading them aloud ‘just as one would play over a musical composition’, as she wrote after completing her compact short story ‘Miss Brill’. In 1908, aged 19 and with an annual allowance from her banker father, Mansfield left New Zealand again, never to return.
In England, Mansfield married George Bowden in 1909 (he thought she looked like her hero, Oscar Wilde) but left him the day after their wedding to resume her affair with violinist Garnet Trowell (T.S. Eliot warned Ezra Pound she was a dangerous woman). Her first stories were published in 1910 by A.R. Orage, the influential editor of The New Age, London’s first socialist weekly, and then in 1911 in her first collection of stories, In a German Pension. The same year, Mansfield sent a story to John Middleton Murry, editor of the cutting-edge magazine Rhythm, which aimed among other things to ‘familiarise us with our outcast selves’. Murry rejected her story but published the next one, ‘The Woman at the Store’. Soon Murry and Mansfield became lovers, known as ‘The Two Tigers’ for their passionate belief that art must be brutal in order to renew its humanity, and in 1916 they moved to Cornwall, near D.H. and Frieda Lawrence. Mansfield and Murry had a tempestuous relationship characterised by separations, affairs and jealousy, but they remained ardently attached to each other. Mansfield completed the first draft of Prelude when she was at her happiest with Murry, writing opposite him at the same table while he worked on his first book, on Dostoyevsky. After her divorce from Bowden, Mansfield and Murry were married in 1918.
Mansfield’s health, always fragile, deteriorated in 1918 when she began to spit blood; she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. From then on, Mansfield travelled constantly on the Continent, unable to spend winters in England, and in 1920 she moved to Menton on the French Riviera. After periods with Murry in Switzerland, in October 1922 Mansfield travelled to Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau to seek a cure for her tuberculosis. Here she died aged 34 in January 1923, on the evening after Murry’s arrival from England.
After Mansfield’s death, Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘When I began to write, it seemed to me there was no point in writing, Katherine wont read it.’ Mansfield was perhaps the only woman Woolf knew who cared as much about writing as she did, and was the only writer of whom Woolf confessed jealousy, for the beauty and exactness of her prose.