restricted access Katherine Mansfield and the Fragility of Pākehā Boredom
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Katherine Mansfield and the Fragility of Pākehā Boredom

One of the most celebrated critical markers of the onset of modernism has been Virginia Woolf’s half-jocular comment: “On or about December 1910, human character changed” (421). The issue of this comment’s implication has kept theorists of modernism busy for decades. But irrespective of whether this question is resolved by cultural historians of the Western world, it is clear that, by the early twentieth century, the imperial capitals of Europe had decisively secured their images as the global nerve centers of intellectual, artistic, and social cosmopolitanism, and probably nowhere more definitively than in several of its overseas colonies that had, for the longest time, regarded themselves as situated in the far peripheries of the imperial metropolis. The fact that Woolf’s hyperbolic diagnosis of “human character” was based on a cultural event bound in time and place, the first exhibition of Postimpressionist art in England organized by Roger Fry, gives us a clear idea of the supposed global center of gravity of human achievement, at least in its cultural dimensions. An event marking a change of human character, no less, is understandably possible only in a milieu where the word “human” was seen as having reached its fullest social, economic, and cultural potential. Europe’s imperial domination of vast stretches of the Earth, then at its decadent height, ensured that without any delay, the news of this potential reached its colonies where adoring the imperial metropolis could only be accompanied by the colonies deploring what they perceived to be their own inadequacies. [End Page 119]

Probably the most important modernist writer who migrated to the metropolitan centers of Europe from the distant margins of empire was Katherine Mansfield. And migrate she did, in the fullest sense, to the heart of the metropolis where human character was being “changed” by the intellectual and aesthetic power of the avant-garde. She was to claim and receive a complex membership in the very core of this power, Woolf’s Bloomsbury group. Similar to many other members of the elite Bloomsbury circle, Mansfield was a major influence in shaping the emergent traditions of experimental fiction in the early decades of the twentieth century, if in ways that are less immediately obvious than the impact of the circle’s more central members such as Lawrence, Woolf, or Forster. What is of specific interest to me is the manner in which the colonial condition is instrumental in evoking, in Mansfield’s stories, a stifling sense of a dull, uneventful everyday life as an index of the socio-cultural inadequacy that the colonial periphery comes to identify in itself. The calm texture of quotidian domesticity that makes up a significant part of her fictional world, I suggest, is as connected to the construction of social value in the settler colony as to the radically new worldview of literary modernism that responded to the universal ennui it perceived at the heart of human existence. Specifically, her stories reveal the unique socio-psychological process through which the emotion of boredom, as a response to the perceived banality of private lives, reveals the historical constrictions on the life of the settler colony. As a colonial writer who had so eagerly desired entry into Bloomsbury, and one who was both granted entry and derided for her colonial origins, Mansfield reveals telling stories of futility, restlessness, and emptiness of a world where such desires are teased but never satisfactorily fulfilled.

Much of such desires, and the stories of their frustration, can be traced to Mansfield’s biographical milieu where her aesthetic idiosyncrasy was rooted. If the fervent cultural nationalism of, say, Irish anticolonial struggle led to a troubling of colonial desire in Irish modernist literature, in a colony like New Zealand this desire for the imperial metropole could only intensify, as such a community identified almost completely with the empire to the point it created avowed detachment from any indigenous culture. As such, the life of the settler colonial population, to which Mansfield belonged, was perhaps more directly and radically marked by an irrevocable yearning for the metropolis than nearly any other colonial experience. As Claire Tomalin...