I’ve been reading Kathleen Jones’ biography of Katherine Mansfield. Ploughing through, I was going to write, but that seemed to insult what is a very readable book. It’s the life – lives in truth – inside, not the writing, that sticks like a heavy clay.
I’ve read more about Mansfield than I have writings by her. This is a bit of a theme with me, I’ve come to realise. I began reading Pritchett because I saw so many references to him, and so few writings by him. Coppard arrived the same way. Mansfield turned up, as a comparison to Coppard in both H.E.Bates’ and Frank O’Connor’s studies of the short story form. In fact, at present, I read more about short stories than I read short stories, and write more about writing them, and reading them, than I do of either!
Reading about Mansfield, as with the others, got me reading work by her. Someone lent me a copy of Bliss and Other stories, a 1920 collection – just predating Coppard’s first.. The differences, it seemed to me, between her and Coppard, were more obvious than the similarities. The first three stories in Bliss are all of middle class households, and told from a perspective of narcissistic self-indulgence. Compared to Coppard’s poor and venerable men, and haggling higglers, these people have nothing to worry about. Of course, that’s a glancing view. The heroine in the title story learns that the woman she dotes on is having an affair with her husband, which is a grim discovery however rich you are.
Jones’ biography is heavy on Katherine’s own narcissism and self-indulgence, and as I worked my way into Bliss I couldn’t help but see the same issues being written about as Jones’ was describing.
Knowing the biography does not necessarily help with reading the stories however, though it may undoubtedly cast light upon the sources of them. An example, straight from Jones’ book, concerns a D.H.Lawrence story, which I shan’t name for you. In writing this, Jones tells us, Lawrence was borrowing from the life of his friend, and Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry. The story cited was one I had read and enjoyed. It has a deliciously insinuated sexuality that sticks in my memory, On turning to the shelves and lifting down the ‘Collected Tales’ I found that it was one of those stories I had marked up in pencil, trying to discover just how that quality had been achieved. It was a story that I could enjoy for itself without the knowledge that it carried echoes of two, or more, real lives, indeed such knowledge might well have distracted me from the experience of reading the story, towards searching for clues to the source of inspiration. Stories aren’t important, and enjoyable, surely, because of where they come from, but because of where they take us?
Where else, though, are stories going to come from, but our own lives, and our interpretations of those we see around us? If I seem sniffy about K.M.’s life, don’t worry: the more I disliked her, the more incidents of my own past kept on popping into my head! In a race, I reckon she and I would be neck and neck at the, and here I searched carefully for an adjective, self-obsessed tape!
The poverty into which she plunged though was not like that of Coppard. It was a poverty viewed against a background of great wealth and material comfort. It was a purely financial poverty in a world full of intellectual riches. She was rebelling against a solid upper middle class family. Coppard was was struggling against almost the exact opposite. When O’Connor accuses Coppard of having ‘an unearned income complex’ he may be on the mark, but Dickens too, if Peter Ackroyd has the measure of him, was also driven by a lifelong obsession with making money.
O’Connor made another remark about Coppard, and about D.H.Lawrence too, with whom he paired him as ‘great English storytellers’. This was that they shared the common class trait of ‘resenting’ their having been born into the English working class. Mansfield’s poverty may have led her, in the years before the First World War, to try to make breakfast last all day, but it was a hotel breakfast. Coppard’s eponymous presser was somewhat harder pressed I think.
As far as the comparison goes I’m still on the edge of the field, for though I’ve read, so far as I know, every tale that Coppard wrote, I’ve still only read a handful of K.M.’s stories… and of course, there’s the matter of it not being the amount you’ve read, but the depth of your experience of it, to take into account.