Writer’s Diaries: Part 1 Katherine Mansfield



I am working on a piece about how women writers make use of their diaries in different ways to as what Virginia Woolf called a “practice-ground for fiction.”  As my own writerly imagination tends to draw me back and back again to certain key images, sounds, and words from my childhood and my writing practise engages with creative ways to confront and reimagine this “primal” material, I have always been curious about how other writers negotiate this challenge. The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield ( 1888-1923) is a case in point.  One only has to read twenty or thirty pages into her journals to see the similarity between the imagery Mansfield used in her journals and in her fiction. To read more than thirty pages of her journal is to be shocked at the limitations of her palette.Mansfield’s fiction is wide-ranging and encompasses urbane ‘bad marriage’ tales, stories about and for children, fairy tales, rural and urban stories. Her repetitive use of windows, mirrors, trees and dreams in all of those stories and in her journals and notebooks is therefore the more startling. The changing frame through whichMansfieldunderstood her own place in literary history, however, is revealed by her varying approaches to these images over time.

Mansfield’s younger brother Leslie died in army training in 1915, soon after he had visited her inLondon. Her reflections on this event stand out as one of few moments of revelation about her sources for writing in the notebooks. In an entry written as if to Leslie, soon after his death, Mansfield noted:

I want to write poetry.  I feel always trembling on the brink of poetry. The almond tree, the birds, the little wood where you are, flowers you do not see, the open window out of which I lean and dream that you are against my shoulder […] but especially I want to write a kind of long elegy to you—perhaps not in poetry. No, perhaps in Prose. (Notebooks 2:33).


That prose elegy found its form in Mansfield’s most well-known story, Prelude (1918) that begins with the child Kezia standing at a window and continues with further images of trees, flowers, birds, woods and the rhythms of poetry. What Mansfield’s notebooks illustrate, however, was that these same tropes had already surfaced repeatedly in her writing—indeed they appear in the first extant sample of her fiction, composed when she was nine years old.  This early piece begins withMansfield’s central trope—that of the protagonist at a window, judging the temperature of the outside world:


‘Oh, mother, it is still raining, and you say I can’t go out.’ It was a girl who spoke; she looked about ten.   She was standing in a well-furnished room, and was looking out of a large bay window. ‘No, Enna dear,’ said her mother, ‘you have a little cold and I don’t want it made worse.’ (Notebooks 1:1)


This scene, so like that of Kezia pressing her palms against the ‘big bay window’ in Prelude, is just the first example of this image inMansfield’s fiction: story after story on page after page of her notebooks begin and/or end in this same way. Such images, moreover, provide a haunting foreshadowing of illness and sick-room enclosure from a writer who was an invalid for much of her career.

At twelve, Mansfieldwrote several versions of a story entitled ‘She’ that begins with a gravely ill boy in a dark room. ‘Out of the window he saw the night, the stars, and the tall dark trees[…] He had been in pain all day.’  As he ‘lay in his little bed and gazed out,’ a stranger enters his room, ‘Death’ (Notebooks 1:31).  In these childhood tales, the window suggests the character’s fragility and the dangers of the outside world but also implies that separation from the world is itself deadly.  Thus from the start of her writing life, windows frame the gaze of the Mansfield’s protagonists, either representing the division between them and the world, or, instead, the eyes of the soul—the gatekeeper between the private and the public.

Women and Hard Work

Kids home, house to spring clean, a book proposal in gear and working on a funding bid to do life writing workshops for women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions in post conflict regions.  And I am having a meeting with my agent and a dinner party next week.  Typical week in the life of many working women, and has been for some time.  But nothing compared to the hard work done by sensation novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon author of one of my very favourite Victorian novels: Lady Audely’s Secret  

Here’s a bit about Braddon:

Mary Elizabeth Braddon (October 4, 1835February 4, 1915)

• A crooked, womanizing lawyer who abandons his family.
• A strong-willed, independent woman who becomes the main bread-winner.
• Assumed names. Secrecy.
• A withered cripple with Svengali like powers.
• Adultery. A wife hidden in a lunatic asylum. Accusations of bigamy.
• A close friend imprisoned for homosexuality.
• An actress who becomes a leading figure in Victorian society.

These may seem like a list of probable ingredients for a ‘novel of sensation’. In fact, they are elements of Mary Braddon’s own life story. While her readers may have read her novels as a form of literary escapism, for Braddon they reflected a lived reality.

Born in London, Braddon was privately educated and worked as an actress for three years in order to be able to support herself and her mother Fanny, who had separated from her father Henry  when Mary was just three.

In1860 Braddon met John Maxwell, a publisher of periodicals, and began living with him 1861. Maxwell was married with five children and his wife was living in an asylum. Mary acted as the stepmother of the children till 1874, when Maxwell’s wife died, and they could get married. She then had six children by him.

Braddon was an extremely prolific writer, producing some 75 novels. The most famous is her first, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)which won her fame and fortune. The novel has been in print ever since, and has been dramatised several times.

Braddon also founded Belgravia Magazine (1866), which presented readers with serialized sensation novels, poems, travel narratives, and biographies, as well as essays on fashion, history, science. The magazine was accompanied by lavish illustrations and offered readers a source of literature at an affordable cost. She also edited Temple Bar Magazine.

75 novels, 6 children, 5 stepchildren, journalist, editor, publisher – and I think I’m busy?

Here’s what one of the male characters in Lady Audely has to say about women and work:

“Who ever heard of a woman taking life as it ought to be taken? Instead of supporting it as an unavoidable nuisance, only redeemable by its brevity, she goes through it as if it were a pageant or a procession. She dresses for it…and gesticulates for it. She pushes her neighbors, and struggles for a good place in the dismal march; she elbows, and writhes, and tramples, and prances to the one end of making the most of the misery. She gets up early and sits up late, and is loud, and restless, and noisy, and unpitying. She drags her husband on to the woolsack, or pushes him into Parliament. She drives him full butt at the dear, lazy machine of government, and knocks and buffets him about the wheels, and cranks, and screws, and pulleys; until somebody, for quiet’s sake, makes him something that she wanted him to be made. That’s why incompetent men sometimes sit in high places, and interpose their poor, muddled intellects between the things to be done and the people that can do them, making universal confusion in the helpless innocence of well-placed incapacity. The square men in the round holes are pushed into them by their wives. The Eastern potentate who declared that women were by the bottom of all mischief, should have gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are never lazy. They don’t know what it is to be quiet. They are Semiramises, and Cleopatras, and Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeths, and Catharines the Second, and they riot in battle, and murder, and clamor and desperation. If they agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they’ll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills, and social storms in household teacups. Forbid them to hold forth upon the freedom of nations and the wrongs of mankind, and they’ll quarrel with Mrs. Jones about the shape of a mantle or the character of a small maid-servant. To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the more self-assertive sex. They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators — anything they like — but let them be quiet — if they can.” Robert Audeley,  in Lady Audeley’s Secret (1861)

As Louisa May Alcott once wrote “Housework is no joke” and a writer like Braddon demonstrates that such tasks are only part of the hard work that women take upon themselves for the good of themselves and their families. Speaking of which, I’d better go see what the kids are doing.

By the way – here is a very nice (though sadly unusual I think) male perspective on parenting: http://brianbrivati.com/2012/04/14/indifference/

The Hunger Games











I went with my daughters to see The Hunger Games this week.  Although I knew the basics of the plotline as the girls are avid readers of the series – I was unprepared to actually witness the violence perpetrated by children against one another which is central to the film. The fact that the central character (Katniss Everdeen) is, like my daughters, a teenage girl, who has two attractive but dangerous young men vying for her attention (like Bella in the equally popular Twilight series) is obviously one important draw for fans of the books, but so too is the relative power she wield.  In a society of beaten down sheep,  Katniss is tough, resourceful, non-sentimental (except where her younger sister is concerned) and unbeatable with a bow and arrow.  And although we watch her offer succour to a younger rival, Katniss is nevertheless willing to kill other rivals when necessary with little sign of remorse.  I winced repeatedly at the forms of power this teenage fantasy is making palatable to my daughters – though as my older daughter said – “the killing doesn’t seem as bad in the books as it looks in the film, mommy”. Another instance of the difference between how our minds process verbal and visual information differently, I guess, but I know what she means. 

I appreciate science fiction fantasy, and the ways in which it comments on contemporary social concerns and debates – in fact the film most reminded me of the fantastic and equally brutal short story by Shirley Jackson called “The Lottery” first published in 1948 in the New Yorker


 The story, set in an unnamed suburban town moves from small town intimacy to fully-fledged horror in the space of fewer than 4,000 words.  The suggestion of violence among women and children and within families evoked a perfect storm of controversy and this story received more negative responses than any other in the New Yorker’s history – a sure sign it struck a nerve. Like the novel The Hunger Games, Jackson’s story hints at the violence rather than relishing the gory details. Moviemakers take the gory road – and indeed a film version of “The Lottery” shown in my school caused me any number of nightmares throughout my childhood (why couldn’t they just get us to read the story?). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIm93Xuij7k

Is Katniss a heroine or a victim in her violent society?  And what does it mean when we root for her to win and the other children to die in her place?  Am I overreacting?

Lethal Weapon Syndrome

I have had a very busy few days, coming to the Easter break, lots of meetings, the kids home from school and doing reading for my book club.  This week’s book is John Le Carre’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – an absolute classic and the very first spy novel I ever read.  I loved it so much that I read all the rest of Le Carre (no mean feat) http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Spy-Who-Came-Cold/dp/0340937572.  After all my years of reading literary fiction and in the past twenty years, mostly literary fiction written by women, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a whole new genre to embrace. But when I finished with the LeCarre books, I was bereft and starving for more spycraft so I tried Len Deighton and some other so-called spy novelists, only to find they were no good (to me anyway). Turns out it wasn’t really spy fiction I liked- it was Le Carre’s fiction. And I do like it still, despite such work being the antithesis of what I usually read, teach and research (or maybe because of that).  Most such fiction (and the films that are based upon these books) ignores the female part of the human race, or relegates us to very, very small parts (usually as one dimensional betrayers, prostitutes, unwitting accomplices or innocent, though beautiful,  victims.) I call this the “Lethal Weapon Syndrome” derived from the film of that name starring the once desirable Mel Gibson.  This syndrome occurs in much male fiction and film in which the central characters are two men – one a family man, wishing to flee his responsibilities and seek freedom, and the other a wild man who has no such ties as his wife, daughter, girlfriend or mother is dead or gone  (usually brutally murdered  but sometimes just disappeared) and is torn between the freedom this allows him and a death wish (usually signified by heavy solitary drinking).  This format can be found in tales from Moby Dick and Huck Finn (Ishmael and Huck are the man fleeing civilisation and seeking freedom, Jim and Ahab the men with a death wish- one chasing a white whale and one travelling south to escape slavery) Gatsby and On The Road (Nick Carraway in Gatsby and Sal Paradise in On the Road want rid of their family ties, Jay Gatsby and Dean Moriarty are obsessives and self-destructive) and of course in good-cop bad cop films like 48 hours, Midnight Run and Gibson’s Lethal Weapon.  What such stories do of course is set women up in an impossible and contradictory position: they are both the ball and chain – the domestic handcuff keeping these men from freedom, but are also the angels that will rescue them from self-destruction.  And this formula is used everywhere in storytelling, from film to television to fiction.  Any three dimensional females in brilliant and multi-Oscar nominated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?  No, not really.  Though the George Smiley’s relationship with his wife, Anne, is at the heart of much of the tension – she is, like many female characters, the “absent” heart of the story, present only as an absence, a lack, a loss.  Which is probably why, with the exception of LeCarre,  I have spent the last twenty years reading literary fiction writing by women.

Can anyone recommend a female spy fiction writer? Or is that like asking a cat to bark?