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C. K. Stead. Mansfield.

C.K. Stead. Mansfield. London. Harvill. 2004. 246 pages. 14.99. [euro] ISBN 1-843-43176-9

Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, writing as Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), is New Zealand's most famous writer. Internationally, she occupies an enduring place as one of the innovative pioneers developing Chekhov-style short fiction. Mansfield saw that the element of realism in the short story could not lie in the depiction of things, plot, event, character, and still less in personality, but in the presentation of minds at work: minds that are embodied, both formed by and reacting against their society. She perceived that writers of fiction could claim much greater freedom, leaving a great deal to the reader, and that style should not insert itself between the reader and the mind(s) being presented. Stead's considerable accomplishment in this novel is not only to make a convincing Mansfield mind but to do so in a Mansfieldian fiction that is nevertheless an entirely modern and enjoyable novel.

Stead chooses three years in Mansfield's life (1915-18) that were preparative to her greatest achievements. That they were the worst years of trench warfare--to which she lost her brother and friend Fred Goodyear--provides an ironic background to her search for health and literary dedication in more southerly France. While biographical facts and what was recorded in journals and letters guide the overall shape of the novel, they don't dictate the impact of its forms of realism. Stead selects, moves between present and memory or fantasy, leaves the sense of the chance events, of the interaction of strong characters and of loss, but also of enduring relationships. There is no doubt that the mind we meet in these pages is a creation of the writer and not merely of her journals, nor that it is a soundly judged version.

Mansfield also is, inevitably, in the genre of a gallery of famous figures. We encounter cameo scenes--sometimes with a gently satirical bravura--with D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, and other notables. But all these are kept in their place and none hogs pages for the sake of including a well-known name. The novel is a deftly and unobtrusively crafted work, which leaves a sense of the chancy, confused, and sometimes banal or appalling world from which the mind makes fine art and also an impression of the privileged life of a woman who could, indeed, devote herself to her writing and to being herself. Mansfield sets a real benchmark for future fictions about the author.

Bernard Gadd

Papatoetoe, New Zealand
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Author:Gadd, Bernard
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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