Monthly Archives: April 2014

Claire Tomalin’s Biography of Katherine Mansfield

One of my concerns about biography is my failure to yet read a biography I found entirely satisfactory. Veteran literary biographer Claire Tomalin’s portrait of Thomas Hardy came close, and I hoped her biography of Katherine Mansfield (1987) would get even closer. I’ve just finished it, and it was very good, but it still left me with the dry feeling in my mouth of a failure to solve some of the tedium of biography.

I know nothing of Mansfield beyond what I’ve read in this biography, so I cannot judge what must be a somewhat controversial depiction of her. As a biography, it works best when Tomalin dares to make judgements and observe patterns across Mansfield’s life. It works least well for me when it is caught in the tedium of Mansfield’s to-ing and fro-ing with her husband Murry, as they endlessly try to find the perfect place to live and work and resolve their unusual relationship. Yet this is what life is like; it has none of the neatness of a novel – so how to convey it in a biography? Would it be acceptable to summarise slabs of time, and not relate each trip to the Continent? Probably, depending how it was done.

I was interested by the parallels with Katharine Susannah Prichard – beyond their first names being within a letter of each other, they were both born in the 1880s to Australian parents, Mansfield in New Zealand; Prichard in Fiji. Both sought fame and fortune in pre-war London and were there during the war itself. Both wrote across many genres, although Mansfield never finished a novel, KSP’s main genre. They had associates in common; I do not yet know if they ever met. Their writing was very different – Mansfield a modernist aesthete driven by art as an end in itself, and (from the biography) a desire for transgression and attention; KSP both a social realist and a romantic, and driven by her political concerns. It’s ironic that general readers are often confusing the two.

Tomalin writes in the foreword that she began researching the book in the mid-1970s, laying it aside partially because two other biographies of Mansfield appeared soon after this. Yet she decided her take on Mansfield was different to both of these and worth adding; the biography finally appeared in 1987. The extra sources she has to draw on are the recently published (as of 1987) letters of Mansfield and also of D.H. Lawrence, to whom Tomalin shows Mansfield had a more significant relationship than is usually credited. It surprised me to see many chapters with quotes only from published sources like this, rather than archival materials; perhaps there were access restrictions, or just nothing to be found in the archives. The original sources Tomalin uses are largely interviews conducted by her or on her behalf with people who knew Mansfield as a child. It’s amazing so many of them were alive, even in the 1970s; longevity seems to have been on the biographer’s side, with one woman who knew her intensely as a young woman living on to over one hundred. Why, though, weren’t there more comparable interviews with people who knew her in her twenties and thirties? One reason may simply be that most of them are dead, but I feel sure there could have been some more material gathered here.

Unlike many biographies, this one is a pleasure to read, written with a keen sense of both narrative structure and detail, putting us into the company of an interesting and difficult woman.


If biography is ‘a definite region: bounded on the north by history, on the south by fiction, on the east by obituary, and on the west by tedium, according to one English historian, then literary biography is particularly constrained by the need to balance the life and the oeuvre.
– Louis Adler, review of Roth Unbound, The Age, 19 April 2014.

KSP’s autobiography, Child of the Hurricane: a polite rebel in dinner party mode

Katharine Susannah Prichard takes the name of her autobiography from the circumstances of her birth, born in the fury of a hurricane in Fiji in 1883. The epithet echoes through this account of her early life to a moderate extent, as an image of her rejection of the ‘normal’ way to live, disavowing religion at a young age, marrying late, and finally embracing communism. Yet KSP comes across in this book not as a furious rebel, but an intelligent, singular woman, determined to rather politely live life her own way. It was published in 1964, but only traces her life until 1932.

Her childhood took her from Fiji to Tasmania to Melbourne, following the unstable fortunes of her father, Thomas Henry Prichard, a journalist. She becomes a journalist herself, determined to be married to her career, and sets off for London in 1907 and then again during the war. Along the way, her political and artistic development is lightly suggested.

The book offers moments of insight into her life, but she shows us what she wants us to know and no more.  It is not confessional nor particularly emotional. Instead, chapters are commonly structured around an encounter with a particular interesting person. Even in this period of her life, she is acquainted with many people of note, including Aleister Crowley, Alfred Deakin, and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Sometimes it reads a little too much like a structured sequence of dinner party anecdotes, but anecdotes from the most interesting of dinner party guests.

For me, one of the most interesting sections of the book is the description of a family reunion in 1902 of many of the eighty-five descendants of Grandfather and Grandmother Prichard on the fiftieth anniversary of their landing in Australia. All the original Prichard brothers and sisters were still alive at this point. It is an elegaic picture of what is already a distant memory for her, describing it in the 1960s.  She reflects that it’s now hundred years after their landing, and the descendants are too numerous to count. She writes:

I seem to be the only rebel among them. What would he say to me, I wonder, that grandfather whose name will live on the books I have written, and who made his bold venture into the unknown? Would he understand that  I am seeking to find as he did, a new and good life, though not only for the members of my own family, but for the families of mankind?

Curiously, Child of the Hurricane gives little insight into Katharine’s writing. She doesn’t write much about her motivations for writing, nor the process. She does describe, briefly, locking herself in her room for months to write her first novel, The Pioneers, and later gives some detail of a research trip for her novel Black Opal. (This research trip is given the quality of anecdote by its structure – she reports how the dray driver wouldn’t talk to her as he drove her out to the remote town; it’s only at the end of the story that she discovers he assumed she was a ‘city who’er’ and was trying to retain his respectability.) I wonder whether my expectations of her writing about writing reflect more recent expectations of writers’ autobiographies; perhaps we are more curious about the occupation of writing these days.

She writes briefly but compellingly of her great attraction for ‘Jim’, the war hero Hugo Throssell who was to become her husband. Yet their marriage and the whole years of her life 1918 to 1932 are given just one short chapter of eight pages, and much of this is taken up with stories about the horses they owned. We know from her son’s biography how hard it was to even write that Jim took his own life, and no doubt she could not bear to reveal any more than she did.  The book’s real focus is her early life, from 1883 to 1918 with the chapter on her marriage more a postscript.

Suicide haunted Katharine’s life; she herself seems a resilient and mentally healthy person, but even in the course of the book, she must narrate the suicide of her father and her husband. There are also deaths by suicide of two of her acquaintances. She admired Rachel, Countess of Dudley greatly, interviewing her as a young journalist; perhaps she knows more than the standard accounts of Rachel’s accidental death by drowning, because she wonders what ‘crisis in her own life caused her to walk out into the lake’ (137). Katharine also writes approvingly of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s decision to end her life when faced with incurable cancer (191); a case of euthanasia.

I’m grateful that we have this account of her life from Katharine. It doesn’t live up to her own literary potential, but it is an important record of her fascinating life and times, albeit a partial one.

The biographer as professional burglar: Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman

In her landmark book in the field of biography, The Silent Woman (1993), Janet Malcolm investigates the biographers of Sylvia Plath. It is the reaction to a particular account of Plath’s life, Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, that sparks her quest. Stevenson was pilloried in reviews for being too close to Ted Hughes, Plath’s estranged husband, or at least his ‘camp’.

Malcolm starts out with fighting words about biography:

The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor. He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail. The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. (Kindle loc. 145-152)

Yet despite this polemic opening, Malcolm shows considerable empathy for all sides – including the biographers – in the ongoing dispute over Plath’s death and life. Her claims about biography are shown to be true in the case of some of Plath’s biographers, yet clearly not in others. What’s more, the case of Sylvia Plath would seem to me to be such an extreme test case in the ethics of biography that it shouldn’t be used to generalise about the whole. As much as the attentions of a biographer are a mixed blessing, most writers (in the case of literary biography) have sought public recognition for their writings, and for many this is partly a case of wanting readers to understand them, or at least some part of them. Whatever its crimes, biography also brings recognition to forgotten writers. When they are not writing about a sensational figure like Plath, they are often benefactors; I think of John Burbidge working for years on the life story of Gerald Glaskin, a Perth writer whose novels have been largely forgotten (Dare Me! 2014). He did it because he was interested in the man, and thought him worth remembering.

In Malcolm’s eyes, Stevenson’s “crime” was to ‘hesitate before the keyhole’ – to dare to question the entire biographical enterprise, by writing in her (Stevenson’s) preface of the need to be sensitive to Plath’s family. In the course of the narrative, Malcolm goes on to elucidate the terrible, suffocating effect Ted’s sister, Olwyn Hughes, had on Stevenson’s book. (While being, in theory, on the Hughes’s ‘side’.) This emerges as the true reason for the problems with Stevenson’s book; in the meantime, it seems Malcolm is not quite aware enough of the irony of her own judgements and depictions of various living people.

This all said, I think this is a superb book that deserves its status as a landmark in the history of biography. Even when Malcolm generalises and exaggerates, she does so in such a beautiful and provokingly important way. The ambiguities and questions she leaves us with are the treasures. I would hope the effect of the book is not to make writers shy away from the prospect of becoming biographers, but of doing so with a renewed appreciation of their responsibilities.