Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather

Katherine Mansfield

I

Late in the autumn of 1920, on my way home from Naples, I had a glimpse of Katherine Mansfield through the eyes of a fellow passenger. As I have quite forgotten his real name, I shall call him Mr. J— . He was a New Englander, about sixty-five years of age, I conjectured; long, lean, bronzed, clear blue eyes, not very talkative. His face, however, had a way of talking to itself. When he sat reading, or merely looking at the water, changes went over his thin lips and brown cheeks which betokened silent soliloquy; amusement, doubtful deliberation, very often a good-humoured kind of scorn, accompanied by an audible sniff which was not the result of a cold. His profession was the law, I gathered, though he seemed to know a great deal about mines and mining engineering. Early American history was his personal passion, Francis Parkman and Sir George Otto Trevelyan. Though in both writers he found inconsistencies, he referred to these not superciliously but rather affectionately.

The voyage was very rough (we were delayed three days by bad weather), the cabin passengers were few and the wind and cold kept most of them in their staterooms. I found Mr. J— good company. He wore well. Though I have forgotten his name, I have not forgotten him. He was an original, a queer stick, intelligent but whimsical and crochety, quickly prejudiced for or against people by trifling mannerisms. He dined alone at a small table and always dressed for dinner though no one else did.

He was an agreeable companion chiefly because he was so unexpected. For example: one morning when he was muttering dry witticisms about the boat’s having lost so much time, he threw off carelessly that he was trying to get home for his mother’s NINETIETH birthday celebration, “though we are not on good terms, by any means,” he chuckled.

I said I had supposed that family differences were outlawed at ninety.

“Not in our family,” he brought out with relish.

He was a true chip, and proud of the old block. He was bringing a present home to her — a great bundle of leopard skins, which he showed to me. (He had lately been in Africa.)

He was a bachelor, of course, but when we were filling out declarations for customs, he had a number of expensive toys to declare (besides the leopard skins) and sport clothes for young men. Nephews, I asked? Not altogether, with a twist of the face. Some of his old friends had done him the compliment of naming sons after him. Yes, I thought, a bachelor of this kidney was just the man who would be welcome in other men’s homes; he would be a cheerful interruption in the domestic monotony of correct, sound people like himself. Possibly he would have friends among people very unlike himself.

One afternoon as he sat down in his deck chair he picked up a volume of Synge’s plays lying on my rug. He looked at it and observed:

“Trevelyan is the one English writer I would really like to meet. The old man.”

He glanced through my book for a few moments, then put it back on my knee and asked abruptly: “What do you think of Katherine Mansfield?”

I told him I had read her very little (English friends had sent me over a story of hers from time to time), but I thought her very talented.

“You think so, do you.” It was not a question, but a verdict, delivered in his driest manner, with a slight sniff. After a moment he said he had letters to write and went away. Why a specialist in the American Revolution and the French and Indian wars should ask me about a girl then scarcely heard of in America, and why he should be displeased at my answer —

The next morning I saw him doing his usual half-hour on the deck. “Climbing the deck,” he called it, because now, in addition to the inconveniences of rough weather, we had a very bad list. Mr. J— explained that it came about because the coal hadn’t been properly trimmed and had shifted. Very dangerous with a heavy sea every day . . . disgrace to seamanship . . . couldn’t have happened on a British steamer . . . Italians and French in the engine room. After climbing and descending the deck until he had satisfied his conscience, he sat down beside me and flapped his rug over his knees.

“The young lady we were speaking of yesterday: she writes under a nom de plume. Her true name is not Mansfield, but Beauchamp.”

“That I didn’t know. I know nothing about her, really.”

He relapsed into one of his long silences, and I went on reading.

“May I send the deck steward to my cabin for some sherry, instead of that logwood he would bring us from the bar?”

The sherry appeared. After we had drunk a few glasses, Mr. J— began: “The young lady we were speaking of; I happen to have seen her several times, though I certainly don’t move in literary circles.”

I expressed surprise and interest, but he did not go on at once. He sent the steward for more biscuit, and got up to test the lashings of his deck chair and mine. We were on the port side where the wind was milder but the list was worse. At last he made himself comfortable and began to tell me that he had once gone out to Australia and New Zealand on business matters. He was very specific as to dates, geography, boat and railway connections. He elaborated upon these details. I suppose because they were safe and sane, things you could check up on, while the real subject of his communication proved to be very vague. I did not listen attentively; I had only the dimmest conception of those distant British colonies. He was telling me about a boat trip he had made from New Zealand to some Australian port, when gradually his manner changed; he rambled and was more wary. As he became more cautious I became more interested. I wish I could repeat his story exactly as he told it, but his way of talking was peculiar to himself and I can only give the outline:

Among the people who were coming on board his steamer when he left New Zealand, Mr. J— noticed a family party: several children, a man who was evidently their father, and an old lady who seemed of quite a different class than the other passengers. She was quiet, gentle, had the children perfectly under control. She conducted them below as soon as the boat took off. When they reappeared on deck they had changed their shore things for play clothes. Mr. J— remembered very little about the father, “the usual pushing colonial type,” but he distinctly remembered the old lady, and a little girl with thin legs and large eyes who wandered away from the family and apparently wished to explore the steamer for herself. Presently she came and sat down next Mr. J— which pleased him. She was shy, but so happy to be going on a journey that she answered his questions and talked to him as if he were not a stranger. She was delighted with everything; the boat, the water, the weather, the gulls which followed the steamer. “But have you ever seen them eat?” she asked. “That is terrible!”

The next morning Mr. J— was up and out very early; found the deck washed down and empty. But up in the bow he saw his little friend of yesterday, doing some sort of gymnastic exercises, “quick as a bird.” He joined her and asked if she had breakfasted. No, she was waiting for the others.

“Mustn’t exercise too much before breakfast,” he told her. “Come and sit down with me.” As they walked toward his chair he noticed that she had put on a fresh dress for the morning. Mr. J— said it was “embroidered” (probably cross-stitched) with yellow ducks, all in a row round the hem. He complimented her upon the ducks.

“I thought they would astonish you,” she said complacently.

As they sat and talked she kept smoothing her skirt and settling her sleeves, which had a duck on each cuff. Something pleased Mr. J— very much as he recalled the little girl, and her satisfaction with her fresh dress on that fresh morning aboard a little coasting steamer. His eyes twinkled and he chuckled. “She adopted me for the rest of the voyage,” he concluded.

No, he couldn’t say exactly what the charm of the child was. She struck him as intensely alert, with a deep curiosity altogether different from the flighty, excited curiosity usual in children. She turned things over in her head and asked him questions which surprised him. She was sometimes with her grandmother and the other children, but oftener alone, going about the boat, looking the world over with quiet satisfaction. When she was with him, he did not talk to her a great deal, because he liked better to watch her “taking it all in.” It was on her account he had always remembered that short trip, out of many boat trips. She told him her name, and he easily remembered it “because of Beauchamp’s Career, you see.”

“And now do you want chapter two?” Mr. J— asked me. He twisted his face and rubbed his chin.

A few years ago he had been in London on a confidential mission for a client who was also an old friend. The nature of his business took him more or less among people not of his kind and not especially to his liking. (He paused here as if taking counsel with his discretion, and I wondered whether we were to have another version of Henry James’ The Ambassadors.) In the places frequented by this uncongenial “circle” he heard talk of a girl from New Zealand who “could knock the standard British authors into a cocked hat,” though she didn’t very easily find a publisher. She scorned conventions, and had got herself talked about. He heard her name spoken. There could be no doubt; from the same part of the world, and the name he had never forgotten. The young lady herself was pointed out to him once in a restaurant, by the young man whose affairs he had come over to manage. She was just back from the Continent, and her friends were giving a dinner for her. As he expected; the same face, the same eyes. She did not fit the gossip he had been hearing; quite the contrary. She looked to him almost demure, — except for something challenging in her eyes, perhaps. And she seemed very frail. He felt a strong inclination to look her up. He decided to write to her, but he thought he had better inform himself a little first. He asked his client whether he had anything Miss Mansfield had written. The young man, doubtless with humorous intent, produced a pamphlet which had been privately printed: Je ne parle pas français. After reading it, Mr. J— felt there would be no point in meeting the young writer. He saw her once afterward, at the theatre. When the play was on and the lights were down, she looked, he thought, ill and unhappy. He heartily wished he had never seen or heard of her since that boat trip.

Mr. J— turned to me sharply: “Je ne parle pas français — and what do you think of that story, may I ask?”

I had not read it.

“Well, I have. I didn’t dismiss it lightly; artificial, and unpleasantly hysterical, full of affectations; she had none as a child.” He spoke rather bitterly: his disappointment was genuine.

II

Every writer and critic of discernment who looked into Katherine Mansfield’s first volume of short stories must have felt that here was a very individual talent. At this particular time few writers care much about their medium except as a means for expressing ideas. But in Katherine Mansfield one recognized virtuosity, a love for the medium she had chosen.

The qualities of a second-rate writer can easily be defined, but a first-rate writer can only be experienced. It is just the thing in him which escapes analysis that makes him first-rate. One can catalogue all the qualities that he shares with other writers, but the thing that is his very own, his timbre, this cannot be defined or explained any more than the quality of a beautiful speaking voice can be.

It was usually Miss Mansfield’s way to approach the major forces of life through comparatively trivial incidents. She chose a small reflector to throw a luminous streak out into the shadowy realm of personal relationships. I feel that personal relationships, especially the uncatalogued ones, the seemingly unimportant ones, interested her most. To my thinking, she never measured herself up so fully as in the two remarkable stories about an English family in New Zealand, “Prelude” and “At the Bay.”

I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday “happy family” who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavour. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking-point.

One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbour’s household, and, underneath, another — secret and passionate and intense — which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works.

Katherine Mansfield’s peculiar gift lay in her interpretation of these secret accords and antipathies which lie hidden under our everyday behaviour, and which more than any outward events make our lives happy or unhappy. Had she lived, her development would have gone on in this direction more than in any other. When she touches this New Zealand family and those faraway memories ever so lightly, as in “The Doll’s House,” there is a magic one does not find in the other stories, fine as some of them are. With this theme the very letters on the page become alive. She communicates vastly more than she actually writes. One goes back and runs through the pages to find the text which made one know certain things about Linda or Burnell or Beryl, and the text is not there — but something was there, all the same — is there, though no typesetter will ever set it. It is this overtone, which is too fine for the printing press and comes through without it, that makes one know that this writer had something of the gift which is one of the rarest things in writing, and quite the most precious. That she had not the happiness of developing her powers to the full, is sad enough. She wrote the truth from Fontainebleau a few weeks before she died: “The old mechanism isn’t mine any longer, and I can’t control the new.” She had lived through the first stage, had outgrown her young art, so that it seemed false to her in comparison with the new light that was breaking within. The “new mechanism,” big enough to convey the new knowledge, she had not the bodily strength to set in motion.

III

Katherine Mansfield’s published Journal begins in 1914 and ends in 1922, some months before her death. It is the record of a long struggle with illness, made more cruel by lack of money and by the physical hardships that war conditions brought about in England and France. At the age of twenty-two (when most young people have a secret conviction that they are immortal), she was already ill in a Bavarian pension. From the time when she left New Zealand and came back to England to make her own way, there was never an interval in which she did not have to drive herself beyond her strength. She never reached the stage when she could work with a relaxed elbow. In her story “Prelude,” when the family are moving, and the storeman lifts the little girl into the dray and tucks her up, he says: “Easy does it.” She knew this, long afterward, but she never had a chance to put that method into practice. In all her earlier stories there is something fierce about her attack, as if she took up a new tale in the spirit of overcoming it. “Do or die” is the mood, — indeed, she must have faced that alternative more than once: a girl come back to make her living in London, without health or money or influential friends, — with no assets but talent and pride.

In her volume of stories entitled Bliss, published in 1920 (most of them had been written some years before and had appeared in periodicals), she throws down her glove, utters her little challenge in the high language which she knew better than did most of her readers:

But I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.

A fine attitude, youthful and fiery: out of all the difficulties of life and art we will snatch SOMETHING. No one was ever less afraid of the nettle; she was defrauded unfairly of the physical vigour which seems the natural accompaniment of a high and daring spirit.

At thirteen Katherine Mansfield made the long voyage to England with her grandmother, to go to school in London. At eighteen she returned to her own family in Wellington, New Zealand. It was then the struggle against circumstances began. She afterward burned all her early diaries, but it is those I should have liked to read. Exile may be easy to bear for those who have lived their lives. But at eighteen, after four years of London, to be thrown back into a prosperous commercial colony at the end of the world, was starvation. There is no homesickness and no hunger so unbearable. Many a young artist would sell his future, all his chances, simply to get back to the world where other people are doing the only things that, to his inexperience, seem worth doing at all.

Years afterward, when Katherine Mansfield had begun to do her best work but was rapidly sinking in vitality, her homesickness stretched all the other way — backwards, for New Zealand and that same crude Wellington. Unpromising as it was for her purpose, she felt that it was the only territory she could claim, in the deepest sense, as her own. The Journal tells us how often she went back to it in her sleep. She recounts these dreams at some length: but the entry which makes one realize that homesickness most keenly is a short one, made in Cornwall in 1918:

“June 20th, The twentieth of June 1918.

C’est de la misère.

Non, pas ça exactement. Il y a quelque chose — une profonde malaise me suive comme un ombre.

Oh, why write bad French? Why write at all? 11,500 miles are so many — too many by 11,499 3/4 for me.”

Eleven thousand five hundred miles is the distance from England to New Zealand.

By this, 1918, she had served her apprenticeship. She had gone through a succession of enthusiasms for this master and that, formed friendships with some of the young writers of her own time. But the person who had freed her from the self-consciousness and affectations of the experimenting young writer, and had brought her to her realest self, was not one of her literary friends but, quite simply, her own brother.

He came over in 1915 to serve as an officer. He was younger than she, and she had not seen him for six years. After a short visit with her in London he went to the front, and a few weeks later was killed in action. But he had brought to his sister the New Zealand of their childhood, and out of those memories her best stories were to grow. For the remaining seven years of her life (she died just under thirty-five) her brother seems to have been almost constantly in her mind. A great change comes over her feelings about art; what it is, and why it is. When she prays to become “humble,” it is probably the slightly showy quality in the early stories that she begs to be delivered from — and forgiven for. The Journal from 1918 on is a record of a readjustment to life, a changing sense of its deepest realities. One of the entries in 1919 recounts a dream in which her brother, “Chummie,” came back to her:

“I hear his hat and stick thrown on to the hall-table. He runs up the stairs, three at a time. ‘Hullo, darling!’ But I can’t move — I can’t move. He puts his arm round me, holding me tightly, and we kiss — a long, firm, family kiss. And the kiss means: We are of the same blood; we have absolute confidence in each other; we love; all is well; nothing can ever come between us.”

In the same year she writes:

“Now it is May 1919. Six o’clock. I am sitting in my own room thinking of Mother: I want to cry. But my thoughts are beautiful and full of gaiety. I think of our house, our garden, us children — the lawn, the gate, and Mother coming in. ‘Children! Children!’ I really only ask for time to write it all.”

But she did not find too late the things she cared for most. She could not have written that group of New Zealand stories when she first came to London. There had to be a long period of writing for writing’s sake. The spontaneous untutored outpouring of personal feeling does not go very far in art. It is only the practised hand that can make the natural gesture, — and the practised hand has often to grope its way. She tells us that she made four false starts on “At the Bay,” and when she finished the story it took her nearly a month to recover.

The Journal, painful though it is to read, is not the story of utter defeat. She had not, as she said, the physical strength to write what she now knew were, to her, the most important things in life. But she had found them, she possessed them, her mind fed on them. On them, and on the language of her greatest poet. (She read Shakespeare continually, when she was too ill to leave her bed.) The inexhaustible richness of that language seems to have been like a powerful cordial, warmed her when bodily nourishment failed her.

Among the stories she left unfinished there is one of singular beauty, written in the autumn of 1922, a few months before her death, the last piece of work she did. She called it “Six Years After”: Linda and Burnell grown old, and the boy six years dead. It has the same powerful slightness which distinguishes the other New Zealand stories, and an even deeper tenderness.

Of the first of the New Zealand stories, “Prelude,” Miss Mansfield wrote in answer to the inquiries of an intimate friend:

“This is about as much as I can say about it. You know, if the truth were known, I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. Well, in the early morning there I always remember feeling that this little island has dipped back into the dark blue sea during the night only to rise again at gleam of day, all hung with bright spangles and glittering drops. (When you ran over the dewy grass you positively felt that your feet tasted salt.) I tried to catch that moment — with something of its sparkle and its flavour. And just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again. . . . It’s so difficult to describe all this and it sounds perhaps over-ambitious and vain.”

An unpretentious but very suggestive statement of how an artist sets to work, and of the hazy sort of thing that almost surely lies behind and directs interesting or beautiful design. And not with the slighter talents only. Tolstoi himself, one knows from the different Lives and letters, went to work in very much the same way. The long novels, as well as the short tales, grew out of little family dramas, personal intolerances and predilections, — promptings not apparent to the casual reader and incomprehensible to the commercial novel-maker.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30