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Reviewed by:
Katherine Mansfield. Katherine Mansfield: Selected Letters. Ed. Vincent O'Sullivan. New York: Oxford, 1989. 351 pp. $19.95.

These letters, selected from the five volumes in the process of being published, reflect many sides of their author: her ideas about love, writing, and life; her wit; her childishness; her exuberance; her total and willing enslavement to her love for Murry; and, perhaps above all, her sensibility which repeatedly, at the least stimulus, conveys an atmosphere. [End Page 657]

Her wit, directed conventionally enough at the ways and persons of foreigners, finds that the laxity of French morals can be attributed to the discomfort of their chairs that requires that any converse be conducted in bed. The symbol of Switzerland, she decided, was the large, middle-class female behind: "Everyone has one in this hotel; some of the elderly ladies have two." Her ideas about life are half-articulate and unremarkable, although in the book's short Biographical Register Bertrand Russell refers to her "very good mind." The book contains a chronology that gives brief historical contexts for the letters, enabling the reader to deduce her age and situation.

Her sensibility to detail, manifest throughout the stories, pervades the letters. "I intensify the so-called small things," she writes, "so that truly everything is significant." She is curiously responsive to smells—flowers, of course, but also the smell of wet sand, of upholstered buttons, and other heterogeneous items. The "small things" occur in her letters to Ottoline Morrell, a frequent correspondent, among the saccharine sentiments that Mansfield habitually lavished on her. But Ottoline Morrell, writing to Russell about Prelude, says, "I hate such endless observation of trivialities." This information is provided in one of the many useful notes that, if they had been at the foot of each relevant page instead of at the back of the book, would have been even more useful, and would have facilitated finding things from the index.

Most of the letters are to Murry, and they express over and over again Mansfield's totally committed devotion. She rarely complains about his less than reciprocal affection. The separation, occasioned by her tuberculosis and her need to be in the putatively therapeutic South of France, was anguish to her. She wrote almost daily, sometimes twice in one day; she lay in wait for his letters. Among hers to him is the one quoting D. H. Lawrence's hateful remarks to her, which, when they were included by Harry T. Moore in his edition of Lawrence's letters, brought down on his head the fierce indignation of F. R. Leavis. There are telling details about Lawrence and other writers. Lawrence whipping himself; T. S. Eliot at a dinner growing "paler and paler and more and more silent"; Robert Graves, who "chatted incessantly of what I told my sergeant and what my men said to me"; Aldous Huxley "wavering like a candle."

The letters contain also, of course, interesting details of the life of those times when even penniless authors supported maidservants, when Mansfield could go to the war zone in France to visit a soldier; when during that war a letter from London could arrive in Paris in three days—the old days, before the mailing systems of the world had succumbed to progress. [End Page 658]

Kingsley Weatherhead
University of Oregon


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