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The second of the five projected volumes of the letters of Katherine Mansfield, edited with introduction and excellent explanatory notes, covers the months from January 1918 to September 1919. The period includes the end of the war and, for Mansfield, the publication of Prelude by the Hogarth Press and of "Bliss" by the English Review, the first of her stories, the editor points out, to be accepted by a reputable literary journal. In this period also, in February 1918, she records the first, ominous hemorrhage of the lung. For much of this time she was in France. Later she writes from Cornwall, London, or Hampstead. The correspondents are few: some letters go to Ida Baker, whom she admired and despised in turn; some to Dorothy Brett and Virginia Woolf; and there are a substantial number to Ottoline Morrell, for whom, again, her feelings fluctuate. But the great majority are to John Middleton Murry, her husband, to whom, when separated from him, she wrote daily. Pathos gathers round the bright chatter of these letters as she entertains plans for an Arcadian life together after the war—plans that appear now, with hindsight, and were probably known even then, to be empty dreams. There is also a good deal of naked terror in the letters from France: Mansfield was three weeks in Paris while it was being shelled, and she presents vivid details of her experiences. But the worst she endures is in her nightmares and in the horrors of her waking imagination: "My night terrors are rather complicated," she writes in strange syntax, "by packs and packs of growling, roaring, ravening, prowl and prowl around dogs." Everything is poisoned by the war: it is like her disease, "here in me the whole time, eating me away. . . ." Her defense, she says, is reading Dickens and working. We read repeatedly that she is working, that she is worrying about Murry, and that she is saving her money. She presents tiny vignettes of the life around her; she rolls her cigarettes and hates the French. The gamin Mansfield is presented along with the rest: the French are "interesting monkeys"; a poem by T. W. Earp is a "dead earwig"; she dislikes the Woolfs—"They are smelly."
This familiar cheeky quality makes its appearance also in selections in The Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield, which are taken from her reviews, her journal, and comments in her letters. The overall impression of the book, however, is of the shrewdness in her criticism and her seriousness. Seriousness is a key principle invoked in one of the two manifestoes, each signed by both Murry and Mansfield, that appeared in the journal Rhythm when they edited it. It is the "profound enthusiasm of the artist for his art," a "conviction of values," and the "very rock on which the supreme creations of art are builded." Mansfield later charges herself with a failure in seriousness: a great part of Bliss and Other Stories (1920), she says, is trivial: "You see it's too late to beat about the bush any [End Page 323] longer. They are cutting down the cherry trees; the orchard is sold. . . ." Opposed to serious art is pastime art, as represented by novels of Hugh Walpole, E. F. Benson, and Rider Haggard, all of which Mansfield reviewed for the Athenaeum. The bulk of this book is given to a selection of the reviews she wrote for this journal each week between April 1919 and December 1920 while Murry was its editor, including a review of The Cherry Orchard not previously collected. Along with her reviews are passages containing critical comments from her journal and letters.
Among the more specific features that appear in her criticism is the distress with which Mansfield responded to literature that did not recognize that World War One had changed everything. Her brother had been killed in an accident with a hand grenade...