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A People Passing Rude

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Anthony Cross

14. Chekhov and the Buried Life of Katherine Mansfield

Rachel Polonsky

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  • 1 Leon Shestov, Anton Tchekhov and Other Essays, trans. S. Koteliansky and J.M. Murry (Dublin and Lon (...)

‘Tchekhov is dead; therefore we may now speak freely of him...’
Lev Shestov1

  • 2 J.M. Murry, ‘In Memory of Katherine Mansfield’, Adelphi, I (1924), pp. 664-5. See also Jeffrey Meye (...)

1The critic John Middleton Murry marked the first anniversary of the death of his wife, Katherine Mansfield, with a notoriously bad poem, which he published in his own magazine Adelphi in January 1924. ‘Was she not a child’, the elegy asked, ‘A child of other worlds, a perfect thing/ Vouchsafed to justify this world’s imagining?’2 In casting Mansfield, a short story writer who died young of tuberculosis, as a ‘perfect thing’, Murry recycles the terms of his own characterization of Anton Chekhov. In a review of Constance Garnett’s translation of Chekhov’s Letters published in the Athenaeum less than four years earlier, in which he called him ‘the hero of our time’, Murry hailed the publication of his Letters as ‘an opportunity for the examination of some of the chief constituents of his perfect art’. For Murry, the chief constituents of the art are the moral and spiritual perfections of the artist:

  • 3 J.M. Murry, Aspects of Literature (London, 1920), pp. 86-7.

We do not consider [Chekhov] under the aspect of an artist. We are inevitably fascinated by his character as a man, one who, by his efforts [...] worked on the infinitely complex material of the modern mind and soul, and made it in himself a definite, positive, and most lovable thing...Somehow he achieved [...] the mystery of pureness of heart, and in that though we dare not analyse it further lies the secret of his greatness as a writer [...] measured by the standards of Christian morality, Tchehov was wholly a saint.3

  • 4 D.S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature From its Beginnings to 1900 (1926), ed. Francis J. Whi (...)
  • 5 Mirsky, p. 378.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 383.

2Unlike Murry, the Russian émigré critic D.S. Mirskii did not tremble before the sacred mysteries of Chekhov’s greatness. ‘Chekhov’s English admirers think that everything is perfect in Chekhov’, he complains, ‘to find spots in him will seem blasphemy to them’.4 Mirskii did dare to analyse Chekhov’s art in formal terms. ‘His method of constructing a story is akin to the method used in music’, he writes, ‘the lines along which he builds them are very complicated curves, but they have been calculated with the utmost precision’.5 With laconic respect, Mirskii adds that ‘if Chekhov has had a genuine heir to the secrets of his art, it is in England, where Katherine Mansfield did what no Russian has done—learned from Chekhov without imitating him’.6

  • 7 Katherine Mansfield, The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. J. Middleton Murry, 2 vols. (London, 1 (...)
  • 8 See A.P. Chekhov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow, 1974), Pis’ma, I, p. 6.

3When Mirskii wrote this, Murry was about to publish his two-volume edition of Mansfield’s Letters,7 imitating the example of Chekhov’s brother, Mikhail Chekhov, who published around 2000 of his letters in a six-volume edition between 1912 and 1916, creating a new model of literary ‘life and letters’.8 Chekhov arrived in England—through the translations of Constance Garnett and others—as simultaneously a great letter-writer, with a biography ‘perfected’ by early death, and as a dramatist and short story writer.

  • 9 Quoted in Beatrice Lady Glenavy, Today We Will Only Gossip (London, 1964), p. 69.
  • 10 In ‘Murry’s Cult of Mansfield’, p. 29, Jeffrey Meyers notes, ‘Murry [...] wanted to have it both wa (...)

4Murry’s publication of Mansfield’s Letters was a crucial part of his attempt to create a composite image of literary perfection out of her life and work. This so disgusted Mansfield’s close friend, the émigré translator, S.S. Kotelianskii, that he broke off relations with Murry, complaining that he had ‘left out all the jokes’ to make Mansfield into an ‘English Tchekov’.9 However, it was not just Mansfield’s jokes that Murry left out when he edited the letters left by her in his trust for publication, turning her into his (bestselling) hagiographical image of an English Chekhov.10 In the last 5 years of her life, in a dialogue with Chekhov that runs through her letters and notebooks, of which Murry left few traces, Mansfield worked at (rather than worked out) her thoughts on the writer’s vocation, literary form, illness, life, death, and time. Murry excised all but a few of the references to Chekhov in her letters, almost entirely erasing from the record the work she did on Kotelianskii’s literal translations of Chekhov’s letters for publication in the Athenaeum, which Murry himself edited. Murry also removed all traces of Mansfield’s discomfort with his part, as an influential critic, in creating the English cult of Chekhov.

5In a footnote in the preface of his 1927 edition of Mansfield’s Journal, in which assertiveness seems to stand in inverse relation to persuasiveness, Murry protested that Chekhov had had no influence on her imaginative writing:

  • 11 Mansfield, Journal, ed. J. Middleton Murry (London, 1927), pp. xiii-xiv.

There is a certain resemblance between Katherine Mansfield’s stories and those of Anton Tchehov. But this resemblance is often exaggerated by critics, who seem to believe that Katherine Mansfield learned her art from Tchehov. That is a singularly superficial view of the relation, which was one of kindred temperaments. In fact, Katherine Mansfield’s technique is very different from Tchehov’s. She admired and understood Tchehov’s works as few English writers have done; she had (as her Journal shows) a deep personal affection for the man, whom, of course, she never knew. But her method was wholly her own, and her development would have been precisely the same had Tchehov never existed.11

  • 12 Mansfield, Letters, ed. Murry, I, p. viii.
  • 13 John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield and Other Literary Studies with a forward by T.S. Eliot ( (...)

6Introducing his two-volume edition of Mansfield’s Letters, Murry expressed the hope that, ‘together with her Journal’, they would ‘form an intimate and complete autobiography for the last ten years of her life’. Mansfield’s ‘one concern was to leave behind her some small legacy of truth’, he explained: ‘because I believe that not a little of her ‘truth’ is contained in these letters, I have tried to make the record as complete as I could’.12 In a ‘literary study’ of Mansfield, Murry writes of her as a possession. He made up his mind, he says, that after her death, Mansfield ‘no longer belonged to me but to the world’. ‘It seemed to me a matter of cardinal importance that the world should know what manner of woman—or girl (for she wasn’t much more when she died) —Katherine Mansfield was’.13 Mansfield was 34 when she died: not at all a ‘girl’, as she herself had insisted. Someone like Murry, who claimed that he had read her letters ‘many times’, might have recalled this letter that she wrote to him from Paris in May 1915: ‘Whose fault is it that we are so isolated—that we have no real life—that everything apart from writing and reading is ‘felt’ to be a waste of time’, she asked, before setting out, over the course of a lengthy paragraph, all that she had seen and sensed as she sat on a bench in a flowering garden behind Notre Dame: mothers, nurses (one Chinese, in green trousers), grandfathers, and ‘little staggering babies with spades and buckets’:

Why haven’t I got a real ‘home’, a real life - why haven’t I got a chinese nurse with green trousers and two babies who rush at me and clasp my knees - Im not a girl - Im a woman. I want things. Shall I ever have them [...]

  • 14 Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, eds. Vincent O’Sullivan and Marg (...)
  • 15 See Mansfield, Letters, ed. Murry, I, p. 25.

7Registering the tension between ‘life’ and ‘writing’ that was to become a preoccupation of her later letters, and in which the figure of Chekhov was to become imbricated, Mansfield ends, ‘Oh, I want life - I want friends and people and a house. I want to give and to spend (the P.O. savings apart, darling.)’14 When Murry edits this letter (without indication) for publication, he cuts everything after ‘waste of time’, deleting her vivid paragraph about the Parisian babies, her protest that she is ‘not a girl’, and her dig (laced with the endearment ‘darling’) about his tight-fistedness.15 This was just one of many passages in her letters that contradicted the perfect image of the writer that Murry was trying to create out of the materials left, with ambiguous instructions from Mansfield, in his trust. For Murry, shaping her letters, journals, and short stories into a ‘single whole’ (following the model of Keats, and implicitly of Chekhov) involved de-professionalizing Mansfield. ‘She was never what we understand by a professional writer’, he wrote; ‘her art was not wholly distinct from her life’:

  • 16 Murry, Katherine Mansfield, p. 73.

She was distinguished by the peculiar gift of spontaneity’ which ‘means [in this critical sense] an absence of any cleavage or separation between the living self and the writing self... When the human being is confused, at a standstill, bewildered in its own living experience, then the voice of the art is silent.16

  • 17 Ibid., p. 81.

8However, the lines that he has cut from Mansfield’s letters are, precisely, ‘bewildered’; they register a ‘standstill’, a sense of painful cleavage and separation between the living self and the writing self. The voice is not silent, rather it has been silenced by the now all-powerful editor. Murry is at pains to present her writing as something other than a ‘technical achievement’17:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 73.

She was not a person who constructed patterns of objective beauty; she was not a person who ‘told stories’; she was essentially a person who responded through the instrument of a ‘more than ordinary organic sensibility’ - to her experience of Life.18

  • 19 Ibid., pp. 88-93.

9He writes of the ‘last perfection of her work’, which is achieved through a ‘serene’, ‘completely submissive’, acceptance of hopelessness.19

  • 20 See Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (London, 1987), pp. 71-4.
  • 21 See Tomalin, pp. 208-11 and 261-72.

10Like a Chekhov story, Mansfield’s encounter with Chekhov follows a ‘very complicated curve’, which gathers into itself the interwoven themes of illness and short-story writing. The evidence suggests that Mansfield first encountered Chekhov’s writing through her Polish lover, Floryan Sobienowski, in the German spa town where her mother had deposited her, embarrassingly pregnant, in 1909.20 As is now well-known, Mansfield’s first published story, ‘The-Child-Who-Was-Tired’, was an unacknowledged version of Chekhov’s story, ‘Spat’ khochetsya’.21 Mansfield turned to Chekhov in a new way after her own diagnosis with consumption in 1918. He became a powerful imagined presence at the very points in her illness when creative writing seemed no longer possible. In her notebook, she wrote:

...I’d like to put on quiet record that the physical pain is just not unbearable
- only just not.
At four 30 today it did conquer me and I began, like the Tchekov students, to ‘pace from corner to corner’, then up and down, up and down and the pain racked me like a curse and I could hardly breathe.. .I feel too ill to write. I could dictate I think praps - but write, no. Trop Malade.

11She consoled herself with thoughts of heaven, which for her, was the living presence of Chekhov:

  • 22 Katherine Mansfield, The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, ed. Margaret Scott (Minneapolis, 2002), II, (...)

I must start writing again... Ach, Tchekhov! Why are you dead! Why cant I talk to you - in a big, darkish room - at late evening - where the light is green from the waving trees outside. Id like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one. 22

  • 23 Collected Letters, V (2008), p. 318.

12She writes of what she has learned from Chekhov about the right length of a short story, and about the race against time of the writer who lives in fear of imminent death.23 When Mansfield was overcome by the horror of her illness or the fear of death, she would invoke Chekhov almost as an Orthodox believer would invoke a beloved saint. She addresses him as ‘dear Chekhov’, greets him in her notebooks, and says she thinks of him every day. She wrote to Kotelianskii from the Italian Riviera in 1920:

  • 24 Mansfield, Collected Letters, IV (1996), pp. 160-1.

I am ashamed that I broke down in my last letter. That night I went to bed with pneumonia. That was why I was so depressed. Of course I am still in bed but it does not matter. All is well [...] I shall try and get well here. If I do die perhaps there will be a small private heaven for consumptives only. In that case I shall see Tchekov. He will be walking down his garden paths with fruit trees on either side and tulips in flower in the garden beds. His dog will be sitting on the path, panting and slightly smiling as dogs do who have been running about a great deal.
Only to think of this makes my heart feel as though it were dissolving […]24

  • 25 Collected Letters, II (1987), p. 354, and III (1992), p. 354.
  • 26 Mansfield, Notebooks, II, p. 202.

13Chekhov’s presence in her private writings remains vivid to the end. She fantasized about moving to Yalta.25 ‘Dead Tchekhov’, she wrote in her notebook, was one of the ‘two good men’ she had known. The other she named as the physician Dr Sorapure (himself a consumptive), who had finally diagnosed the venereal infection that had destroyed her health years earlier, and which she had contracted in all probability, from Sobienowski, who had also introduced her to Chekhov. Sorapure was ‘pure of heart as Tchekhov was pure of heart’, Mansfield wrote, and ‘helped me not only to bear pain but [...] suggested that perhaps bodily ill health is necessary, is a repairing process’. ‘It is hard to make a good death!’ she noted, telling herself to ‘leave Life on this earth as Tchekhov left Life [...]’.26 On Kotelianskii’s recommendation, she moved from the Swiss Alps to Paris to be treated by a Russian doctor, Ivan Manoukhin (whom, she says, ‘Tchekhov would have liked [...] very much’), who promised a ‘cure’ for tuberculosis using X-rays. The sound of Russian being spoken in Manoukhin’s office made her think of Chekhov. She fantasized about another way of communing with Chekhov in this life rather than the next:

  • 27 Ibid., p. 316.

...I begin to plan what I will do when - Can it be true? What shall I do to express my thanks? I want to adopt a Russian baby, call him Anton & bring him up as mine with Kot for a godfather and Mme Tchekhov for a godmother. Such is my dream.27

  • 28 Mansfield, Collected Letters, V, p. 315.
  • 29 Ibid., p. 43.
  • 30 Ibid., p. 285.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 347.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 295.
  • 33 See Collected Letters, III, p. viii.

14Through Manoukhin, Mansfield met a group of Russian émigré writers in Paris, including Bunin, Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, and Zinaida Gippius (Hippius), who fascinated her with their stories of the horrors of Bolshevism, and about whom she was gaily satirical. ‘Russians seem to haunt me’, she told her father.28 She repeatedly asked for Chekhov to be sent to her, by Murry, ‘when you have finished with them’,29 and from Ida Baker, the school friend who became her devoted and longsuffering caregiver. By October 1922, it was clear that Manoukhin’s treatment had failed. On 4 October, she wrote to Murry that Chekhov was ‘much nearer to [her] than he used to be’.30 She resolved to move to the Gurdjeff Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau outside Paris, a commune of about fifty or sixty people (‘mostly Russians’, as she wrote to her sisters),31 disciples of the Caucasian guru George Gurdjeff. The last book she asked Murry to send her before she left for Fontainebleau was Garnett’s translation of Love, and Other Stories, with Murry’s review of the volume for the Times Literary Supplement.32 (For several years, as editor of the Athenaeum, Murry had kept for himself the task of reviewing Garnett’s volumes of Chekhov as they appeared, while sending Mansfield second-rate works of fiction to review for much-needed income.)33 The day after repeating her request for his TLS review, she adds an exasperated postscript to a letter to Murry:

  • 34 Collected Letters, V, p. 299.

About being like Tchekhov and his letters. Don’t forget that he died at 43. That he spent - how much? - of his life chasing about in a desperate search after health. And if one reads ‘intuitively’ the last letters are terrible. What is left of him. ‘The braid on German women’s dresses - bad taste’, and all the rest is misery. Read the last! All hope is over for him. Letters are deceptive, at any rate. Its [sic] true he had occasional happy moments. But for the last 8 years he knew no security at all. We know he felt his stories were not half what they might be. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture him on his deathbed thinking ‘I have never had a real chance. Something has been all wrong [...]34

  • 35 See Murry, Katherine Mansfield, p. 81.

15Mansfield’s last letters to Murry tend to skid between deferential requests for books, declarations of love, workings out of her spiritual longings, and exasperated semi-veiled critiques of his literary-critical essays. In emphasizing Chekhov’s final sense of failure and defeat, she rejects Murry’s hollow aesthetics of ‘moral and spiritual victory’,35 the very aesthetics that would envelop her own writings after her death. Mansfield’s exasperation with Murry’s misreading of Chekhov is even more evident in the version of this insight that she recorded in her notebook on the previous day:

  • 36 Mansfield, Notebooks, II, pp. 286-7.

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.
True, Tchekhov didn’t. Yes, but Tchekhov died. And let us be honest. How much do we know of Tchekhov from his letters. Was that all? Of course not. Don’t you suppose he had a whole longing life of which there is hardly a word? Then read the final letters. He has given up hope. If you de-sentimentalize those final letters they are terrible. There is no more Tchekhov. Illness has swallowed him. But perhaps to people who are not ill this is nonsense. They have never travelled this road. How can they see where I am? All the more reason to go boldly forward alone. Life is not simple. In spite of all we say about the mystery of Life when we get down to it we want to treat it as though it were a child’s tale [.. .]36

  • 37 Mansfield, Collected Letters, V, p. 303.
  • 38 Ibid., p. 304.
  • 39 Ibid, pp. 303-4.

16Was it Murry, who was ‘not ill’ and had ‘never travelled this road’, who could not read Chekhov’s last letters ‘intuitively’, without sentimentalizing? Was it Murry who treated the mystery of life like a child’s tale? The next day, she wrote to Murry that she wanted no more books of any kind, that she was ‘sick and tired of them’.37 What she has discovered in being so ‘near’ Chekhov, is not harmony, but an intimation of the writer’s sense of failure in the face of early death. In the end, she does not want to ‘leave this life’ like Chekhov, who was reduced to pointing out the poor taste of the German women’s dress in his final letter. Instead, she wants to stop writing, and, as she tells Kotelianskii, ‘to try to live—really live’.38 At the Gurdjeff Institute, she immersed herself in Russian company, Russian habits and food, and the Russian language. As soon as she arrived, she wrote to Kotelianskii, and a few days later to Murry, that she had ‘been through a little revolution’.39 Immediate daily life is all she now wishes to inscribe in her notebook. In the last pages she wrote are lists of words for which she needed the Russian:

  • 40 Notebooks, II, p. 343.

I am cold/ bring paper to light a fire... No more fire/ because there is no more fire... what is the time/ it is late/ it is still early/ good!/ I would like to speak Russian with you40

  • 41 Collected Letters, V, p. 342.

17In her last letter to Murry, written 10 days before she died (the last day she sent letters), she was still yearning for any kind of closeness to the living Chekhov: ‘I hope you will decide to come, my dearest [...] I hope Tchekhov’s wife will be here [...]’.41

  • 42 Notebooks, II, p. 171.

18Mansfield’s veiled contest with Murry over Chekhov dates back at least to the early summer of 1919, when she was working on Kotelianskii’s English renditions of Chekhov’s letters. ‘I realize how little Jack shares with me’,42 she wrote in her notebook, and then called Dr Sorapure ‘quite the right man to have at one’s dying bedside’. Sorapure’s ‘view of medicine’, which seemed to her ‘just completely right’, led her to think about the meaning of disease— parasites and strange viruses, dysentery, hydrophobia, and lockjaw—about art and nature, and about another consumptive doctor, Chekhov:

  • 43 Ibid, p. 173.

I had a sense - of the larger breath - of the mysterious lives within lives, and the egyptian parasite beginning of being in a water snail affected me like a great work of Art. No, that’s not what I mean: it made me feel how perfect the world is, with its worms & hooks and ova. How incredibly perfect. There is the sky & the sea & the shape of a lily & there is all this other as well. The balance how perfect. (Salut, Tchekov.) I would not have the one without the other [...] I have consumption. There is still a great deal of moisture (&pain) in my BAD lung. But I do not care [...]43

19Mansfield happened to be living in London with Murry when she wrote this in June 1919. In August of that year, Murry published a review of one of Garnett’s Chekhov volumes, which included a prettified version of Mansfield’s insight, washing out all its complexity:

  • 44 Murry, Aspects of Literature, p. 78.

[Chekhov] is like a man who contemplates a perfect work of art; but the work of creation has been his, and has consisted in the gradual adjustment of his vision until he could see the frustrations of human destinies and the arbitrary infliction of pain as processes no less inevitable, natural, and beautiful than the flowering of a plant.44

  • 45 Mansfield, Notebooks, II, p. 187.
  • 46 Mansfield, Collected Letters, IV, p. 139.

20In March 1920, Murry published his ‘Thoughts on Tchekhov’, his review of Garnett’s edition of the Letters, in the Athenaeum. Mansfield was still working with Kotelianskii on a rival version of Chekhov’s letters, which they hoped to publish as a book: ‘Worked at Tchekhov all day’, she recorded in her notebook on 5 January.45 When Murry’s review was republished in his book Aspects of Literature at the end of that year, Mansfield wrote him a devastating letter from Menton, headlined ‘About your Book’. After a paragraph of fulsome praise—’Im your admirer. Accept my admiration [...] I want to make you feel what a great little fellow you are for this book!’—she launches her critique with the words, ‘here goes’.46 Mansfield senses a ‘faint breath of pride’ in his essay on Keats, detects insincerity in his praise of Edward Thomas, whom he has filled out ‘to suit what you want him to be’, and something similar in his ‘thoughts’ on Chekhov:

  • 47 Ibid., pp. 140-1.

Take your Tchekhov. Now you make Tchekhov ‘greater’ than one sees him but NOT greater than he was. This is an important dangerous distinction. A critic must see a man as great as his potentialities but NOT greater. Falsity creeps in immediately then. You ought to guard against this. Its another ‘aspect’ of your special pleading danger...47

  • 48 Ibid., p. 141. Mansfield had written to her friend Sydney Schiff a week earlier ‘about the Russians (...)

21She goes on to call a remark in Murry’s preface ‘naïve’, ‘silly’, ‘arrogant’, says that if he were to send her back his wedding ring on account of the letter, she would send it anyway, and ends by asking his forgiveness— ‘Forgive me if I hurt you—please forgive me!’—and telling him she loves and believes in him.48 Perhaps Murry could not forgive Mansfield for her well-judged criticism, despite all the sugaring of flattery and declarations of love. He excluded this letter from his two-volume edition, along with several other letters full of sharp literary insight and useful editorial advice about the Athenaeum written in the same month, leaving only 2 letters, mostly concerned with weather, scenery, and birdlife.

22One cannot adduce intentions, but a kind of quiet vengeance may have been at work when Murry suppressed the traces of Mansfield’s collaboration with Kotelianskii on Chekhov’s letters. Her ample correspondence about Chekhov with Kotelianskii, and with others, including Ottoline Morrell, Virginia Woolf, William Gerhardie, and Sydney Schiff, consisted of repeated references to hard work, payment, deadlines, and the post—all the tiresome business of being a ‘professional writer’—interwoven with fine insights into Chekhov’s art and literary significance, both to her as a writer, and to the future of English prose. In April 1919, after the first 4 letters had been published in the Athenaeum, she wrote to Kotelianskii:

  • 49 Mansfield, Collected Letters, II, p. 309. Between 4 April and 31 October 1919 the Athenaeum ran thi (...)

I was as much surprised as you to find that we were nameless. No reason was given. I shall ask M[urry] on your behalf tonight; I shall also mention the question of a cheque [...] I dislike IMMENSELY not going over the letters with you [...] I feel Tchekhov would be the first to say we must go over them together.49

  • 50 Mansfield, Letters, ed. Murry, I, p. 225.
  • 51 See Mansfield, Collected Letters, II, pp. 311-12.
  • 52 See Angela Smith, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two (Oxford, 1999), pp. 154-5

23All that Murry leaves of this letter are her expressions of desire that Kotelianskii would come in and have tea, a memorable comparison of her consumptive cough to a ‘big wild dog’, and chat about the weather and her cat Charlie’s kittens.50 He omits altogether 2 further letters dealing with the practical business of meeting to discuss ‘new letters’ and make revisions, and appreciative remarks on a letter of 1888, in which Chekhov decries the idea of ‘solidarity’ among writers.51 Likewise, he omits the letter in which Mansfield marvelled at Chekhov’s remarks on the ‘duty of the artist’, a treasured discovery for Mansfield, which was of profound value in her discussions with Virginia Woolf about literary fiction:52

  • 53 Ibid, p. 324.

I do not feel that all the money should be mine. And I WISH our collaboration were closer. However, I do my very best always with these wonderful letters & can do no more. Wonderful they are. The last one - the letter to Souverin [sic] about the duty of the artist to put the ‘question’ - not to solve it but to put it so that one is completely satisfied seems to me one of the most valuable things I have ever read. It opens - it discovers rather, a new world. May Tchekov live for ever.53

  • 54 Ibid, p. 341.
  • 55 Ibid., p. 345.
  • 56 See ibid., p. 341. Gerald L. Conroy, ‘“Our Perhaps Uncommon Friendship”: The Relationship between S (...)

24Though he published excerpts from her letters to Kotelianskii in his two-volume edition, Murry left out altogether a letter in which she revealed to Kotelianskii that she was working on the translations for ‘some hours of EACH day’, with the hope of racing ‘Mrs G’ to publication as a book, and that she believed that Chekhov carried the cure for the ‘English literary world’.54 He omits a letter in which she thanks Kotelianskii for a cheque and says that she believes ‘Tchekhov has said the last word that has been said... and given us a sign of the way we should go’, and exclaims, ‘if I am sitting on the back bench A.T. [Chekhov] is my master’.55 All that Murry leaves of an August 1919 letter to Kotelianskii is the news that she is going to the Italian Riviera where she will have ‘unlimited time to work’, editing out all references to payment for the Chekhov translations, and the hope she and Kotelianskii shared that the letters would soon appear as a book.56 Murry omits the letters she wrote to him in January 1920, which give an insight into the difficult financial aspects of their relationship as writer and editor:

  • 57 Mansfield, Collected Letters, III, p. 171.

I send a long Tchekov letter. If you don’t care to use it will you please have it typed for my (at my charge) & send the typed copy to Kot for our book? I hope to send off another review tomorrow’ [.] ‘I send you today [.] some autobiographical notes on Tchekhov. Do you care for them? [...] If you don’t would you have them typed (at my charge) and sent to Kot [...]57

25The only substantial trace that Murry’s edition mercifully retains of her work on Chekhov is a paragraph of acute literary appreciation on his story ‘The Steppe’—a story which succeeds in having ‘no beginning or end’— from a letter to Kotelianskii of 21 August 1919:

  • 58 Collected Letters, II, p. 353.

I have re-read ‘The Steppe’. What can one say. It is simply one of the great stories of the world - a kind of Iliad or Odyssey - I think I will learn this journey by heart. One says of things: they are immortal. One feels about this story not that it becomes immortal - it always was. It has no beginning or end. T. just touched one point with his pen (.------.) and then another point - enclosed something which had, as it were, been there for ever.58

  • 59 See Meyers, ‘Murry’s Cult’, pp. 24-6, and Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield, pp. 72, 80, and 261-72.

26Murry quietly dispossessed his late wife of credit for the work she did on Chekhov’s letters, and kept for himself the privilege of writing for the public about Chekhov, while he recycled her insight as his own. In doing so, he may have deprived posterity of the essays on Chekhov that Mansfield might have written, and obscured her deep and serious engagement with Chekhov’s art and life-story. In 1926, he also went against her express wishes and republished her first collection of short stories, In a German Pension, exposing her to the charge of plagiarism for ‘The Child-Who-Was-Tired’.59

27Mirskii, who tersely dismissed the English cult of Chekhov, in which Murry’s criticism had played an important role, and who respectfully noted Mansfield as a writer who had learned from Chekhov without imitating him, described the ‘construction’ of a Chekhov short story as ‘a series of points marking out with precision the lines discerned by him in the tangled web of consciousness’:

  • 60 Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature, p. 378.

An infinitesimal touch, which at first hardly arrests the reader’s attention, gives a hint at the direction the story is going to take. It is then repeated as a leitmotiv, and at each repetition the true equation of the curve becomes more apparent, and it ends by shooting away in a direction very different from that of the original straight line.60

28He praised Chekhov for his skill in bringing out the leitmotiv of ‘mutual isolation’ with ‘great power’. It would take a writer of Chekhov’s or Mansfield’s skill to describe the ‘tangled web of consciousness’ and the ‘mutual isolation’ in the short literary marriage of Mansfield and Murry. Certainly, notwithstanding all the infantilizing endearments in their correspondence, it was ‘not a child’s tale’. A letter to Murry, written on 11 October 1922, days before she turned away from books and writing, sketches its curve:

  • 61 Mansfield, Collected Letters, V, p. 294.

I think of the garden at the Isola Bella and the furry bees and the house wall so warm. But then I remember what we really felt there. The blanks, the silences, the anguish of continual misunderstanding. Were we positive, eager, real - alive? No, we were not. We were a nothingness shot through with gleams of what might be. But no more.61

29When Mansfield’s letters were finally published without Murry’s cuts, the ‘truth’ of Chekhov’s importance to her was revealed, as well as ‘gleams’ of what might have been if her editor-husband had given her the opportunity of writing about Chekhov, ‘under the aspect of an artist’, for the reading public.

  • 62 Ibid., p. 295.

30In the last sentence of her sad letter to Murry about their marital ‘nothingness’, Mansfield ‘shoots away in a very different direction’, writing: ‘You won’t forget the Tchekhov will you? Id like the Lit. Sup. with your review if it wasn’t too much of a bore to send it’.62

Notes

1 Leon Shestov, Anton Tchekhov and Other Essays, trans. S. Koteliansky and J.M. Murry (Dublin and London, 1916), p. 7.

2 J.M. Murry, ‘In Memory of Katherine Mansfield’, Adelphi, I (1924), pp. 664-5. See also Jeffrey Meyers, ‘Murry’s Cult of Mansfield’, Journal of Modern Literature, VII (1979), pp. 15-38.

3 J.M. Murry, Aspects of Literature (London, 1920), pp. 86-7.

4 D.S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature From its Beginnings to 1900 (1926), ed. Francis J. Whitfield (New York, 1958), p. 382.

5 Mirsky, p. 378.

6 Ibid., p. 383.

7 Katherine Mansfield, The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. J. Middleton Murry, 2 vols. (London, 1928). Here and elsewhere all incorrect spelling and punctuation in Mansfield’s quotes are in the original.

8 See A.P. Chekhov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow, 1974), Pis’ma, I, p. 6.

9 Quoted in Beatrice Lady Glenavy, Today We Will Only Gossip (London, 1964), p. 69.

10 In ‘Murry’s Cult of Mansfield’, p. 29, Jeffrey Meyers notes, ‘Murry [...] wanted to have it both ways: to affirm Katherine’s spiritual affinity and greatness by association with Chekhov and, at the same time, to deny any direct influence which might compromise her absolute originality. He wrote, somewhat mystically, in 1924, ‘Though Chekhov was dead, some essential communication seemed to pass between his spirit and hers. He was always living to her, always at her elbow to remind her of the necessity of that strange purity of soul which they shared’.

11 Mansfield, Journal, ed. J. Middleton Murry (London, 1927), pp. xiii-xiv.

12 Mansfield, Letters, ed. Murry, I, p. viii.

13 John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield and Other Literary Studies with a forward by T.S. Eliot (London, 1959), p. 71-2.

14 Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, eds. Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (Oxford, 1984-2008), I, p. 177.

15 See Mansfield, Letters, ed. Murry, I, p. 25.

16 Murry, Katherine Mansfield, p. 73.

17 Ibid., p. 81.

18 Ibid., p. 73.

19 Ibid., pp. 88-93.

20 See Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (London, 1987), pp. 71-4.

21 See Tomalin, pp. 208-11 and 261-72.

22 Katherine Mansfield, The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, ed. Margaret Scott (Minneapolis, 2002), II, p. 141.

23 Collected Letters, V (2008), p. 318.

24 Mansfield, Collected Letters, IV (1996), pp. 160-1.

25 Collected Letters, II (1987), p. 354, and III (1992), p. 354.

26 Mansfield, Notebooks, II, p. 202.

27 Ibid., p. 316.

28 Mansfield, Collected Letters, V, p. 315.

29 Ibid., p. 43.

30 Ibid., p. 285.

31 Ibid., p. 347.

32 Ibid., p. 295.

33 See Collected Letters, III, p. viii.

34 Collected Letters, V, p. 299.

35 See Murry, Katherine Mansfield, p. 81.

36 Mansfield, Notebooks, II, pp. 286-7.

37 Mansfield, Collected Letters, V, p. 303.

38 Ibid., p. 304.

39 Ibid, pp. 303-4.

40 Notebooks, II, p. 343.

41 Collected Letters, V, p. 342.

42 Notebooks, II, p. 171.

43 Ibid, p. 173.

44 Murry, Aspects of Literature, p. 78.

45 Mansfield, Notebooks, II, p. 187.

46 Mansfield, Collected Letters, IV, p. 139.

47 Ibid., pp. 140-1.

48 Ibid., p. 141. Mansfield had written to her friend Sydney Schiff a week earlier ‘about the Russians’: ‘though I hate to agree with so many silly voices I confess that Tchekhov does seem to me a marvelous writer.’ (Collected Letters, V, p. 131). She may have had Murry in mind as one of the ‘silly voices’.

49 Mansfield, Collected Letters, II, p. 309. Between 4 April and 31 October 1919 the Athenaeum ran thirteen installments of Chekhov’s letters translated by Kotelianskii and revised by Mansfield, see Collected Letters, IV, p. 312.

50 Mansfield, Letters, ed. Murry, I, p. 225.

51 See Mansfield, Collected Letters, II, pp. 311-12.

52 See Angela Smith, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Public of Two (Oxford, 1999), pp. 154-5.

53 Ibid, p. 324.

54 Ibid, p. 341.

55 Ibid., p. 345.

56 See ibid., p. 341. Gerald L. Conroy, ‘“Our Perhaps Uncommon Friendship”: The Relationship between S.S. Koteliansky and Katherine Mansfield’, Modern Fiction Studies, XXIV (1978), p. 363 for a letter from Kotelianskii to Mansfield which reveals how much he valued her work: ‘My ambition is to see our Tchekhov letters in book form [...] it is not sentimentalism, but a real desire that a book bearing both our names, should see the light. Perhaps, if you should like, that will not be the only one. I want this book as a token of our perhaps uncommon friendship.’

57 Mansfield, Collected Letters, III, p. 171.

58 Collected Letters, II, p. 353.

59 See Meyers, ‘Murry’s Cult’, pp. 24-6, and Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield, pp. 72, 80, and 261-72.

60 Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature, p. 378.

61 Mansfield, Collected Letters, V, p. 294.

62 Ibid., p. 295.

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