The term they use in the television world is ‘edutainment’, a blurring of the lines between an entertaining tale and informative education.
And this is what Joanna Fitzpatrick has done with In Pursuit, an absorbing account ofKatherine Mansfield’s extraordinary life, from the moment she left New Zealand aged 18, through to her early death at 34.
Particularly captivating are the conversations with the Bloomsbury crowd, especially the intimate discussions between Virginia Woolf and Mansfield. For those accustomed to reading Woolf, it can be difficult to imagine that she speaks or thinks in anything other than flow of consciousness.
Whilst the conversation is never that of hair braiding and boy crushes, tender words expressed between the two women over a cup of chamomile tea adds a personal dimension so often missed in the image of this author’s persona.
Disputes between Lawrence and Mansfield, dinners with HG Wells and correspondence across the literary scene sweep out the pedestal from under these authors, illustrating their very human essence, whilst never removing the reverence that their literature deserves.
A rebellious young woman, Katherine was keen to not fit into society’s norms, and I’m sure would have admired this unconventional way of retelling her life. Lesbian love affairs, disobeying parents, a difficult marriage; Fitzpatrick manages to wrap the emotional reality of these events with the enigmatic author that Mansfield has come to be.
Fitzpatrick has clearly done her research, and the novel is peppered with excerpts from Mansfield’s journals and letters, sketches of her surroundings (‘on a wild hill slope, covered with olive and fig trees, and tall yellow flowers…and in the evening the cicada shakes his tiny tambourine’) and the vacillation between harmony and heartbreak of her marriage to Jack Murry (‘just wait till I get home…all the house ours and a perfect table and the new cups and saucers with their flowers and fluting’ and ‘I feel violently most physically sick’).
Fitzpatrick has so well drawn this multi-dimensional character, that by the end of it the reader is still not sure whether they like Katherine Mansfield. She is weak and frail, yet has such strength of character (‘I am the one who needs saving and only I can do it’).
She is selfish in her treatment of her ‘albatross’ carer LM, but at other moments she is warm and tender towards her, inviting her to be her companion and take tea at three in the morning.
Lifting the skin of minor characters can be difficult in novels such as this that have a very clear objective in tell the story of an already renowned character, but Fitzpatrick manages to reveal aspects of LM’s character through her conversations with Katherine, and her reactions to Katherine’s sometimes abominable behaviour.
Direct parallels have been drawn between Mansfield’s stories and her real life events, such as promiscuous love affairs resulting in a story titled Poison, but these do not feel forced into the narrative.
By carefully detailing the process of writing, and Mansfield’s desire to, in her own words ‘capture the magic of life’ through observance, it is clear that the writing does shed light on the writer. ‘My favourite readers are the ones who see my characters as real,’ says Mansfield, and this is because in so many cases they were drawn from life.
As well as a passionate writer, Mansfield was a devoted reader, and fond of Chekhov, whose writings and attitude as a fellow consumptive encouraged her through her illness.
Although it appears midway through the book, one quote that Chekhov gives, taken fromDaudet, seems to be to capture the essence of this novel, in its acceptance of the excellence of Mansfield and yearning for more, tinged with the poignancy that her young death meant she could never deliver:
‘Why are thy songs so short?’ a bird was once asked. ‘It is because they are short of breath?’
The bird answered, ‘I have very many songs and I should like to sing them all.’