Beginning again with Katherine Mansfield

Following my week’s immersion in a Virginia Woolf summer school, I decided to give Katherine Mansfield another go. I started with In a German Pension.

Katherine Mansfield

She was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1888. In 1903 she came to England, at the age of 19, and became friends with some of the Bloomsbury Group. DH Lawrence was one, Virginia Woolf another. She had been writing for some time and had published in school and other local publications in New Zealand. She travelled in Europe in the next three years, somewhat unsettled she returned to New Zealand but returned to England in 1908. She had a small income from her father but was usually short of money.

She had an unsettled love life as well. She had relationships with both men and women, and at one point went to Germany to recover from a miscarriage. This was the background to the publication in 1911 of the first of her collections of short stories – In A German Pension. She was 23 years old.

At first the collection was successful, running into three editions. But the publisher went bankrupt and the collection disappeared. The author was not very unhappy about the loss. When her next collection Bliss was published and successful in its turn, she resisted the idea of the earlier stories being reprinted.

I cannot have The German Pension reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I mean I don’t ‘hold’ by it. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough. But if you send me the note that refers to it, I will reply and offer a new book by 1 May. But I could not for a moment entertain republishing the Pension. It’s positively juvenile, and besides that, it’s not what I mean; it’s a lie. Oh no, never! 
[Letter from Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry in 1920, quoted in his Introductory Note p8.]

Penguin Modern Classic cover showing Mrs Rayne’s Tea Party by Henry Tonks (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum)

In A German Pension

There are 14 short stories, some only a few pages long, all set in an unnamed town where people stay to take the cure. The narrator does not feature in all the stories, but where she does, she refers to herself in the first person, is usually dodging a question or impertinence of another guest at the pension and is described as English or possibly American. 

She writes about her fellow guests at the pension in a mostly unflattering way. Many of them are shown to be hypocrites, very ignorant and rude. For example, Frau Godowska and her daughter have just been introduced by the professor to ‘my little English friend’, when this conversation follows. 

‘I have never been to England,’ interrupted Fräulein Sonia, ‘but I have many English acquaintances. They are so cold!’ She shivered.
‘Fish-Blooded,’ snapped Frau Godowska. ‘Without soul, without heart, without grace. But you cannot equal their dress materials. I spent a week in Brighton twenty years ago, and the travelling cape I bought there is not yet worn out – the one you wrap the hot-water bottle in, Sonia. My lamented husband, your father, Sonia, knew a great deal about England. But the more he knew about it the oftener he remarked to me, “England is merely an island of beef flesh swimming in a warm gulf of sea of gravy.” Such a brilliant way of putting things. Do you remember, Sonia?’ (From The Modern Soul, p44-45)

Some of the German characters are very patriotic, often at the expense of the English. Then there are the monstrously selfish men, for example Herr Binzer who suffers so much when his wife is having a baby, lamenting that he is too sensitive (A Birthday). Then there is the brutish Herr Brechenmacher, a postman, who spoils his wife’s enjoyment of a wedding party by reminding her of the trouble she gave him on their wedding night. She checks on her children and then goes to bed. The story ends like this.

Then even the memory of the wedding faded quite. She lay down and put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in. (From Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding. P40)

Katherine Mansfield rejected these stories as not good enough, juvenile, a lie. Yet we see some clever character sketches, some subtle humour, and some engaging writing. But it is easy to see why the attitudes of the Germans and the ‘English’ guests at the pension towards each other might have struck the wrong note in the years after the First World War. 

Now after an interval of more than 100 years, rather than less than 10, we can judge the merits of In a German Pension better perhaps than Katherine Mansfield could, even if we still see some of the stories as containing juvenilia.

Katherine Mansfield by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1916-1917.

Virginia Woolf met Katherine Mansfield a few years after this collection was published, probably in 1917. In her first references to her new friend, Virginia Woolf frequently uses the term inscrutable. She was ‘intelligent and inscrutable’, ‘very inscrutable and fascinating’, and ‘inscrutable’. They admired each other’s writing and formed a close friendship which lasted until Katherine Mansfield’s death in 1923. Virginia Woolf told a friend in 1931 that she dreamt of Katherine often ‘- now that’s an odd reflection – how one’s relation with a person seems to be continued after death in dreams, and with some odd reality too.’

In A German Pension by Katherine Mansfield. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition, published in 1964 with an Introductory Note by John Middleton Murry. 117pp

Picture credit:
Katherine Mansfield by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1916-1917.
National portrait Gallery NPG Ax140568
Reproduced under the Creative Commons Agreement

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, short stories, Virginia Woolf, Writing

10 Responses to Beginning again with Katherine Mansfield

  1. I have enjoyed a lot of her short stories – and some of her descriptive passages are so evocative and she writes particularly well of moods and moments being spoilt by some action or memory. This prompts me to return and re-read some of the stories – thank you!

  2. Julie Fewtrell

    This is a really helpful piece, setting the book in its context. It’s now on my list! Thanks Caroline.

  3. Anne Gore

    I will definitely reread these stories. She died so young! What amazing insights she had at barely any age at all. I have always felt that one needs to be aware of the age of this author and marvel at her writing.

    • Caroline

      Yes, sadly she also died very young, and had she survived both her life and her writing might have changed how we think about writing from that time.
      Thanks for the comment Anne.
      Caroline x

  4. Carole Jones

    Many thanks for the column about Katherine Mansfield, Caroline: another major love of mine. When I went to University, (mature student, back in …1986?) the main first year module was based around the Modernists (Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Forster, Conrad, Lawrence, Yeats, etc.). Katherine Mansfield was prominent in the list, with many lecturers feeling that she was then underrated. I was delighted, as KM had become one of my main ‘Lit. Loves’, ever since I found a copy of her ‘Complete Works’ in a ‘remainder basket’ in Edinburgh’s wonderful bookshop (? name escapes me). KM is still prominent on my bookshelves – and (this is so sad) I still have my essays about her work, from that period.

  5. I haven’t read any short story in this collection, but it’s funny to find your post, because I picked up this exact edition of her volume at a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge.
    I made my way into her writings starting with “The garden party”, “The daughters of the late colonel”, “Bliss” etc. Now I’m in the mood for the letters, especially the ones exchanged with VW. Lovely to see you’re touching on the relationship between the two in the last paragraph.

    • Caroline

      Hi again Diana. I’ve had that edition of In a German Pension, plus the other two collections, for as long as I can remember. It was a great pleasure to put them into my reading pile, and to find some pleasures in her first collection. After hearing that first talk by Claire Davison at Waterstones, I would love to get into her letters too. But I’m busy with other things now, and still have two volumes of KM’s short stories to read.
      I hope I will read your thoughts on the letters in your blog soon.
      Caroline

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