Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield.

Detail of a portrait of Katherine Mansfield by Anne Estelle Rice (1918).  

Katherine Mansfield is one of those writers everyone seems to like except me. When I first read a collection of her stories (Selected Stories published by Oxford World Classics, 2002) I was very disappointed, but I decided a while ago to give her another chance and read her 1920 collection Bliss and Other Stories. I finished yesterday and they bored me. 

I first heard of Katherine Mansfield via Virginia Woolf: the two were friends (sadly none of their letters survived, however) and in a sense rivals. Woolf famously wrote in her diary on 16th January 1923 a few days after Mansfield's death, "I was jealous of her writing - the only writing I have ever been jealous of." It was that, that quote often on the back of Mansfield's books or in articles and what-have-you, that drew me to her - I wanted to see what Woolf was jealous of. Having since read a great deal of Virginia Woolf's letters and diaries I see now that Virginia Woolf went on to feel 'threatened' creatively by other writers. Proust, for example - "Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures—there's something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can't write like that." Whatever the case, that initial quote is why I sought out Katherine Mansfield.

There's fourteen stories in Bliss and Other Stories:
  1. Prelude (1918)
  2. Je ne parle pas français (1917)
  3. Bliss (1918)
  4. The Wind Blows (1920)
  5. Psychology (1920)
  6. Pictures (1917)
  7. The Man Without a Temperament (1921)
  8. Mr Reginald Peacock's Day (1920)
  9. Sun and Moon (1920)
  10. Feuille d'Album (1917)
  11. A Dill Pickle (1917)
  12. The Little Governess (1915)
  13. Revelations (1920)
  14. The Escape (1920)

What was interesting about them was this early modernism, the stream-of-consciousness method that would later be mastered by James Joyce in Ulysses and Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway (Jacob's Room being her first attempt). We see the inner lives of a variety of female characters and the contrast between the outer world and the perception of it, and the thoughts and interpretations from individual. The two perspectives are often juxtaposed, and I do appreciate her attempt to communicate that. But, despite having just finished them yesterday there's not one story that is memorable enough for me to go into. As I said before, they bored me. I didn't care for a single character, and after a while my concentration simply lapsed. Had Mansfield have not died so young (at the age of 34) I belive she would have mastered her technique, but for me, on the whole, these were imperfect snapshots of uninteresting characters. I doubt very much I will go on to read more of her works: it was all just too disappointing.

Comments

  1. it's probably just me, but reading Woolf has something of the cosmic in it, like looking through a telescope, but the Mansfield i've tried is more like a tempest, well, a slight breeze, maybe, in a teapot...

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    Replies
    1. That is exactly how I felt!

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