The Failure of Biography - Katherine Mansfield and the anonymous author of 148 journals in a skip

How many of you out there write a journal?  I'm guessing quite a few.  I've been keeping one on and off since my sense of Self began to develop at around 13 or 14.  And, as I wanted to be a writer, I was fascinated by other writers' diaries.  The journals of Kathrine Mansfield, edited by her husband John Middleton Murry, were the first ones to really grab me by the metaphorical throat when I found them at the age of 17.  They had a raw, vulnerable quality that entranced me, though I never dreamt I would one day become her biographer and hold the originals in  my hands.
One of Katherine Mansfield's notebooks, a few months before she died.

They also gripped a young woman in Cambridge, who read Mansfield and had ambitions to become a writer or an artist. She kept a journal every day, recording her own life at great length for 60 years.

I've been reading Alexander Masters' intriguing book 'A Life Discarded', after hearing him talk about it at the Keswick Words by the Water festival.  A friend of Masters discovered 148 journals, written in an assortment of notebooks and diaries, thrown away in a skip beside a house that was being demolished in Cambridge.  Being a historian, the friend rescued them and they were eventually passed on to the biographer.  Masters was fascinated by the idea of writing the life of an 'unknown person'.

Initially he thought of the 'I' of the diaries as a man, but then the subject began menstruating and referring to the self as 'Not-Mary', so was obviously female.  She was writing a couple of thousand words a day, amounting to millions of words in total - a very daunting task for anyone to read - but Masters was hooked by the story.  Some of the journals were written as comic book strips and they were all illustrated with very competent drawings, just to add to their attraction.  The mystery deepened.
One of the 148 diaries found in a skip

Something very traumatic had happened to the writer of the diaries, who shrinks from a lively, curious, ambitious girl to a fearful, inadequate, reclusive older woman - a change revealed by the handwriting, which starts out bold and gradually gets smaller and smaller until it's only decipherable with a magnifying glass. Some trauma seemed to have occurred to halt 'Not-Mary's' emotional growth and it's there in the diaries, recorded without comment or reflection.  At 13 she fell in love with her piano teacher, the exacting, unsparingly cruel, 'E'.

Katherine Mansfield also fell in love as a teenager, with an older woman, but artist and mentor Edie Bendall was kinder and more understanding towards her protege.  Katherine quickly outgrew her. Not so 'Not-Mary'.  For two decades she desperately tried to please the unidentified 'E', believing, as she was told, that she was useless, ineffectual, that she would never achieve anything.  All the bitterness of 'E's' own wasted talent, sabotaged by WWII, was vented on a young, impressionable girl who was prepared to lay her life down like a mat to be trodden on.  The damage takes your breath away.  Not-Mary develops an eating disorder, agoraphobia, depression.  Her family don't seem to notice her distress.

It is always assumed that the author of the journals is dead - after all, isn't that when their effects get dumped in a skip?  Biographers spend a lot of time reading the diaries of dead people.  We are the 'unintended reader', who - according to Virginia Woolf - is always at the back of a writer's mind as they scribble down their inmost thoughts for posterity.  That may have been true for Katherine Mansfield, but it wasn't for the 'Not-Mary' of these notebooks, who admits:

'I just enjoy writing.  I enjoy the sound of the words . . . I just like the feeling of the pen on the page'.

The attraction for Alexander Masters was in not knowing who that person was and so unable to determine the truth or otherwise of the story that the journals unfolded. Because, normally, for the biographer, what matters is their reliability, how much can be verified.  But this is wrong, because it is the journal's own truth - the author's truth - that matters, written in that moment, in that situation, in that frame of mind.  The entries' contextual truths, in the light of current events, the point of view of other people in the life of the author, or the illuminations of hind-sight, are immaterial.  These exterior 'truths' are irrelevant to the emotional and personal reality of that momentary revelation.

It is the triumph of the character/subject, who constantly eludes the biographer.  Something in their refusal to be pinned down guarantees their immortality.  They remain themselves, enigmatic, unexplained.  The ultimate unreliable narrator and yet the author of the absolute truth about themselves.  Which is just as it should be.

Alexander Masters' book is deeply reflective and set me thinking about the very nature of journals, particularly those of ordinary people, who, not being famous, are never likely to believe they are going to be published at some point in the future.  Does this make them more confessional?

Katherine Mansfield at her desk.
The Katherine Mansfield journals, which contain some of her most startling writing, have been deciphered and annotated, first by Margaret Scott, scholar, librarian and Katherine Mansfield addict, and then re-edited by Mansfield scholar Gerri Kimber.   But still, Mansfield eludes us.  I read the originals in New Zealand, alongside Margaret Scott's (not published at the time) transcription because Mansfield's handwriting was so terrible. It was both a jigsaw puzzle (writers don't always use notebooks consecutively) and a detective game.  But it was always a moving and engrossing occupation.

Katherine also made little drawings to illustrate her diaries and letters.

As Alexander Masters found, the character of the writer is in the very notebooks they choose, the way they handle them, the character of the script and the doodles, the little reminders, the shopping lists, marmalade thumb prints and coffee rings, that hold the story of a life, not a literary myth.  This, you can tell yourself, holding the book as the author may have held it, is the very page they also held open and pressed between their fingers.  A hair, a flake of skin even, may still be trapped in the binding. You are touching their life.

When Masters had finished his book and drawn his conclusions, he went in search of the author's identity in order to get the permission of her estate to use quotes from the diaries. And that was where the revelations began, though I'm not going to spoil the plot by telling you what they were!  You'll just have to read it for yourself.

Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller,  by Kathleen Jones

Katherine Mansfield: The Early Years, by Gerri Kimber

The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, transcribed by Margaret Scott 

Katherine Mansfield: The Diaries, edited by Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison


Popular Posts