Illustration by Triunfo Arciniegas
by Katherine Mansfield
found in a Chicago library
‘I couldn’t believe my eyes’ says Mansfield scholar as she uncovers a cache of ‘literary gold’
Thursday 11 June 2015 10.00 BST
Nearly 30 unknown poems by Katherine Mansfield have been discovered in a US library, giving fresh insight into the writer’s most painful and difficult period, the evidence for which she had later destroyed.
Gerri Kimber, senior lecturer in English at the University of Northampton and chair of the Katherine Mansfield Society, made the discovery at Chicago’s Newberry Library in May this year. The collection’s significance had remained undetected until now because it was marked with a name similar to the New Zealand-born writer’s previously published poems.
“I had already looked at the Newberry’s Mansfield collection, and the folder said, ‘The Earth Child and other poems’. The poem ‘The Earth-Child in the Grass’ (its full title) had been published already,” said Kimber, who was attending a conference about Mansfield. “I had three days to spare so I wanted to go through every single thing the Newberry has pertaining to Mansfield. I thought, ‘I don’t recognise this one. Or this one. Or this one …’ I couldn’t believe my eyes!”
Kimber, series editor of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, soon realised the folder in fact contained 26 unpublished poems (alongside a further nine that had been published already), two handwritten letters from Mansfield to a publisher, Mansfield’s calling card, and an auction dealer’s sale entry for the entire collection.
“Between 1909 to 1911 she destroyed as much personal material as she could find, I think because she was embarrassed and possibly ashamed of much of her conduct,” said Kimber. “We know she once smoked hashish with Aleister Crowley, had one – possibly two – abortions, as well as a traumatic stillbirth alone in Bavaria in June 1909, and an intense affair with a Polish émigré Floryan Sobieniowski, and then another affair when back in England in 1910, with young schoolmaster William Orton. This was a really difficult time for her. She was addicted to Veronal [barbiturates], and experimenting with life, her sexuality, all sorts. You could call this period hedonistic. As a result, uncovering any material from this period is literary gold for Mansfield scholars.”
In 1909, Mansfield was sent to Bavaria by her mother who believed a bizarre water treatment would turn her daughter away from lesbianism, explained Kimber. “I think her mother didn’t know that Katherine was pregnant and, while she was in Bavaria, she gave birth to a stillborn child.”
Mansfield stayed in Bavaria for another six months and Kimber says elements of the writer’s love affair with Sobieniowski are chronicled in this unpublished poetry. “Some of these poems are directly written for or about him,” said Kimber. “For example, number XXII begins, ‘In the swiftly moving sleigh / We sat curled up under the bear skin rugs / And talked of the dangers of life’, it is almost certain that this sleigh ride depicts Mansfield and Floryan. I do think these remarkable poems are going to offer new biographical detail.”
The business card in the folder also notes the writer’s name as “Katharina Mansfield”, a Slavic-influenced version that Kimber said Mansfield had signed on documents discovered previously, but no such calling card was known to exist.
The newly discovered poems represent a lost collection by Mansfield. The folder’s two letters, dated 8 November 1910 and 15 January 1911, chronicle her failed efforts to persuade publisher Elkin Mathews to print the poems. The second letter is written in a tongue-in-cheek style, pleading with the publisher to put her out of her misery on whether her material will be accepted or not. But the manuscript was never published and, if Mansfield did receive a note of rejection, it has not survived.
|Katherine Mansfield’s follow-up letter to Elkin Mathews |
Photograph: Courtesy the Newberry Library, Chicago
Handwritten by Mansfield to Elkin Mathews, the second letter reads:
Dear Mr. Mathews
May I hear from you soon the fate of my poor ‘Earth Child’ Poems – I really am worrying about her immediate future – yea or nay.
Love her or hate her, Mr. Mathews, but do not leave her to languish!
“It’s an amusing letter,” said Kimber. “She’s saying, ‘Look, I’ve sent you my manuscript. Are you going to do something with it or are you not? Let me know’, he may have sent her a rejection slip. Authors tend to bin them because they’re too painful to hang on to. She probably binned that, but he held on to the manuscript with these poems.”
The material was later put up for auction and subsequently bequeathed them to the Newberry library in 1999.
Although further research will be carried out, Kimber and the Newberry Library have no doubts the material is authentic. “It took a researcher [Kimber] with considerable knowledge of Mansfield’s published poems,” said Martha Briggs, the Newberry’s Lloyd Lewis curator of modern manuscripts, “and the patience to look carefully at what most people assumed was a manuscript copy”
“Although they’ve been catalogued,” said Kimber, “I don’t think any experienced Mansfield scholar has gone through them and realised what they had in their hands.”
The UK-based scholar thinks that these unpublished poems would have possibly earned Mansfield early recognition as a poetry writer.
Kimber said: “These poems show her early maturity as a poet. They could have been a lovely little book that could have enhanced her reputation and set her off on the road to being a poet, not just a short-story writer. But Elkin Mathews clearly didn’t like them, so they didn’t get published. As well as Mansfield being one of the most famous modernist short-story writers, I believe there is a case to be made for reassessing her as a poet.”
Despite her “hedonistic” behaviour of that period, kimber said “there are some really lovely poems, full of metaphors about children and love”.
“There’s a very touching poem about her beloved grandmother. I would say they are as good as any other poems she would go on to write,” she said.
In 1911, Mansfield went on to loosely fictionalise her adventures in Bavaria with her first published collection of short stories, In a German Pension.
Children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson, most famous for her Tracy Beaker series, is patron of the Katherine Mansfield Society and has loved Mansfield since she read The Doll’s House as a child, being engrossed by the “truth and sharpness” of the story.
“I admire Gerri’s diligent and patient scholarship, and it’s wonderful that she’s discovered a thick folder of Katherine’s unpublished poems. I can’t wait to read them all,” said the former children’s laureate. “The one extract I’ve seen looks fascinating.”
The poems will be available to the public in the Newberry Library and made available online. Next year, the final volume of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield – The Diaries and Miscellany – will publish the new poetry collection in full for the first time.
Mansfield died in 1923 aged 34 following a haemorrhage, in Fontainebleau, France, where she was also buried. Mansfield’s second husband, John Middleton Murry, went on to publish much of her work following her death.