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  • Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modemist Fiction
  • Mary Burgan
Sydney Janet Kaplan. Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modemist Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991. 233 pp. $29.95 cloth; pb. $12.95.

Katherine Mansfield's stories struck her first readers as "new," but their modernity was never so shocking as the newness in work like Women in Love, The Waste Land, Mrs. Dalloway, or Ulysses : Mansfield's fiction did not require learning a new prose idiom, groping for principles of structural organization, or struggling with thematic obscurity. Placing Mansfield's stories in the light of such aspects of modernism, therefore, Sydney Janet Kaplan's main interest is to look back at her fin de siècle models—Wilde, Pater, and Symonds—and to find them more significant in Mansfield's development than the "high modernists" (whose influence Kaplan also treats in some detail).

The result is a study that thoroughly canvasses Mansfield's adolescent journal entries on Wilde, Pater, and Symonds, tracing the ways in which she experimented with their examples in her own writing, especially her early writing. In the process Kaplan convincingly explores a number of the most important issues in Mansfield's art—the encoding of the erotic in her prose, the fascination with style, the location of feminine experience in the city rather than in nature, the rebellion against the bourgeois family coupled with a nostalgic reverence for the matriarchy of grandmothers, and the emphasis on "the moment" as the center of meaning. [End Page 802]

As this exploration progresses, a governing thesis about the relationship between Mansfield's sexuality and the origins of her fiction in the aesthetic movement begins to emerge: the model of Oscar Wilde is shown opening for her not only a fascination with aestheticism but also an engagement with her lesbianism and thereby with the subversive aspects of her imagination. To be sure, there is another, more traditional side that eventually contends for dominance: "Chekhov is in some ways an escape from Wilde to a more socially acceptable model. His influence is bound up with a drive toward achievement and approval, maturity of vision, and impersonality ." In Kaplan's view, however, the "Wilde side" of Mansfield was the most authentic: "Although Mansfield's role as 'daughter' to Chekhov signals a partial reconciliation with the patriarchy, her absorption in him also contains an element of secrecy and guilt."

If Mansfield's particular "fit' with modernism is the proclaimed issue of Kaplan's study, her "fit" with feminism is its shadow theme. Repeatedly Kaplan refers issues of style, form, and ethical address to the question of how current feminist theory might react to Katherine Mansfield's departure from expected patterns for women writers. Kaplan begins with a salutary refusal to surrender the concept of authorial agency to current notions about social constructions of the self on the grounds that such theoretical moves ultimately silence women writers. But her declaration of independence from narrowing presuppositions is compromised by a progression of anxieties about the ways in which Mansfield's practice eludes some of the proclivities of feminist theory: there is a worry that Mansfield's modelling of her adolescent self on Oscar Wilde placed her in a "masculine identification"; that her ambition to be an artist associated her with the "driving ideology of [her parents'] bourgeois world"; that "her emphasis on 'wholeness,' organic unity, and the like is open to the charge that it is counterfeminist, according to some definitions of feminist aesthetics"; that striving for mastery involved her in "a kind of 'masculinist' behavior, a recapture by the patriarchy, or, in orthodox Freudian terms evidence of penis envy, masculine identification, and so forth."

Such pleading for Mansfield as a feminist requires some argumentative contortions, as, for example, when Kaplan associates Sylvia Berkman's interpretation of the slight culpability of the heroine in "The Little Governess" with "blaming the victim." Or when she assigns a positive feminist strategy to Mansfield's "plagiarism" from Chekhov, declaring it an "attempt to deconstruct a phallocentric myth by retelling it." Such defenses give the impression that women like Woolf and Mansfield could wrest only a small, totally gendered corner of modernism in which to articulate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 802-803
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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