Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 17, 2012

Mansfield, A Novel (2004), by C.K. Stead, read by Helen Morse


Hmm, I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about this.

I’ve had a copy of The Death of the Body on my New Zealand TBR for ages, but Mansfield, A Novel, is my first book by acclaimed New Zealand writer, C.K. Stead, and I was expecting to be very impressed.  Somehow, although there were moments when I quite enjoyed this book, it didn’t really engage me.  It was a mildly interesting ‘refresher’ about aspects of Katherine Mansfield’s life, but it didn’t seem to offer much more.

It was an advantage to have read Katherine Mansfield, The Storyteller by Kathleen Jones beforehand.  (See my enthusiastic review).  That was such a good, well-written and fascinating biography that I already knew enough about Mansfield’s life to make sense of – and augment – what I came across in this novel.

But I suspect that many readers of C.K Stead’s book would feel the same as I did: a bit nonplussed about his intentions.  What more was there for a reader to gain in a re-imagining of these three years in Katherine Mansfield’s life, the war years when she was tormented by her on-again-off-again relationship with Jack Middleton-Murry?   Is there more to this book than mere homage?  Is it for fans of KM, who already know a lot about her, or for newbies, who don’t know much about this remarkable author who changed the face of modern writing?

I wondered about Stead’s choice of period.  What was his intention in locating this novel in the war years, if not to contrast the apparently trivial concerns of the mainly pacifist literati with the horror of trench warfare when the battlefields of France were scarlet with pain?

Stead tells us little about Mansfield’s TB, which was to kill her at the age of 34.   In this period it was not then diagnosed, but she wasn’t well.  Clearly her peripatetic lifestyle and comparative poverty compromised her health, but it probably didn’t make much difference in the long run.  Without antibiotics (which had not been discovered), she was destined to die anyway.  Not till late in the novel is there a sense of tragedy that this brilliant writer, like so many others, was doomed to die of this cruel, frightening disease.

There is much more about the loss of her brother Leslie, and her lover Fred Goodyear on the battlefield,  which stymied both her writing and her relationship with Murry because of her intense grief.  Her contact with the Bloomsbury set is covered, and so is an abortive attempt to live in close proximity to DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

I expected more about her writing, but in this period she was handicapped by all the upheaval in her life.   ‘In a German Pension’ had been well-received and widely praised by the literati who mattered, but she wanted to move on in her writing and break new ground.  What she wanted to achieve isn’t very clearly articulated.

And then there is Ida.  Ida Baker is one of the most fascinating characters in literary history.  But I think that anyone not familiar with Mansfield’s life would have been a bit puzzled by the references to her, a friend of Mansfield’s since school, and one who remained devoted to her throughout her short life.  It is quite clear in Stead’s book that Ida irritated Mansfield, but it’s not clear why the relationship was sustained. From Jones’s biography I recall that Ida was a stout, stodgy, rather unimaginative person who was in no way Katherine Mansfield’s intellectual equal.  Her implacable ordinariness irritated Mansfield intensely, but Ida idolised her, and she made herself very useful to Mansfield, heroically providing financial support from her own limited means, and when Mansfield’s health declined, managing her household and nursing her.  In Stead’s book she’s the subject of Mansfield’s scorn and derision.  She’s not the loyal and steadfast friend who dealt with the grotty aspects of Mansfield’s illness when Murry was afraid to be near her in case he caught TB too.  Why is that?   For me, it’s Stead’s choices that make this book of interest, not the novel per se.   He is, apparantly a Stead scholar and a great admirer of Mansfield’s work.  (Who wouldn’t be, if they’d read it, eh?)  But is he an admirer of the woman?

The other problem I had with this book was the narration.  Helen Morse is one of our finest  actors, but I don’t like the way she narrated this audio book at all.  She reads it in a brittle, staccato voice, with so many gradations in pitch and volume that the hapless listener is constantly fiddling with the volume and tone controls to catch the ends of her sentences.

Mansfield, A Novel was a runner-up in the 2005  Montana NZ Book Awards and was also nominated for the 2006 IMPAC.

Catherine Ford at The Age wasn’t very enthusiastic, and neither was Hermione Leev at The Guardian, but guest reviewer Maggie Rainey-Smith at Bookman Beattie really liked it.

PS I haven’t given up on CK Stead because of this…I’m going to read The Death of the Body and will get back to you when I do.

Author C.K. Stead
Title: Mansfield, a Novel
Narrator: Helen Morse
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio
ISBN: 9780732030292
Source: Kingston Library

Fishpond? It seems to be out-of-stock but you can try these links and maybe they’ll chivvy the supplier for you:   Mansfield: A Novel (audio book) or Mansfield (book).

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