- Illness, Gender & Writing: The Case of Katherine Mansfield
Every critical biography of Katherine Mansfield takes note of her illnesses as a contributing factor to her career, and some deal with the issue of gender in her short stories. Not to do so would be analogous to writing about Proust while ignoring the cork lined room and Albertine. In her subtitle, A Case Study, Mary Burgan promises the reader something more than an analytical or critical approach to Mansfield’s life and art. She herself calls her study a “pathography,” as accurate a description of her method as the reader can expect. In addition, the dust cover defines this multifaceted account as “the first book to look at the continuum of a writer’s life and work in terms of that writer’s illnesses.” That claim is not entirely justified. First, it is hardly the first book to do so. It is one of a continuing line of such studies, beginning with Sylvia Berkman’s biography in 1951 and ending with my own in 1988. The biographers most closely identified with the “pathographical” approach are Claire Tomalin and Jeffrey Meyers, both of whom, along with Antony Alpers, Mansfield’s major biographer, take a serious view of the issues of illness and gender.
What, then, is the particular contribution of this new study? Burgan brings into her analysis the authority of such figures as Susan Sontag (Illness as Metaphor) and feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva to validate the two parts of her thesis as they are presented in the title, but therein lies the dilemma. She does not, except in fragmentary references, utilize Mansfield’s illness as metaphor, as her debt to Sontag would suggest. Unlike Sontag, who uses Dostoyevsky’s Ivan llyich as “a [End Page 192] case history of the links between cancer and character,” Burgan states that after In a German Pension, her journeyman collection of sketches, “disease and prophylaxis played little part in Mansfield’s stories.” Only in a single sketch, “The Flower” (1919), is illness used as a metaphor. After that, the author declares that “women’s illnesses are subsumed under the general conditions of hysteria, pregnancy and abortion.” Even in these guises, however, the author does a good deal of backing and filling while she makes her “case.” Whether in a scrupulous interest in accuracy or an unwillingness to make a positive diagnosis, she makes use throughout the book of a good many verbs of seeming and apparency as well as disclaimers, even when she presents her evidence. For instance, in a single paragraph she declares she is “not fully adopting some recent formulations” and “cannot make a case for [Mansfield’s] writing as inspired dictation taken from the imaginary realm of maternal, pre-Oedipal silence.” In other passages, Burgan has an equally distancing way of declaring her intentions as she states her case, describing herself as arguing, claiming and “making analogies.” A typical waffling representation of self-canceling critical evaluation appears in the Conclusion: “Whether or not there is a ‘genius’ that is peculiar to victims of tuberculosis may remain an unanswerable question, but it seems clear to me that in her representation of the material world as framed by mortality, Mansfield manifested something of spes phthisica, the hectic savoring of ‘beauty that must die’ which marked the romantic Iyricism of tubercular poets such as Keats.”
Other critical judgments are as nullifying as those cited. The “if’s,” “but’s” and “perhaps’s,” along with concluding passages such as reassertions of “running contentions” make a very slippery slope for a reader intent on holding on to a posited theory. Even an analogy drawn between Virginia Woolf and Mansfield, a perfectly plausible thesis, is withdrawn. After asserting that in both cases “creativity was inflected by illness,” Burgan concludes that “despite her own case history, Mansfield rarely wrote her own illness into her fiction.”
In the Introduction the author declares her intentions, among which is her desire “to make some contribution to that growing interchange between medicine and literature which is now designated by such...