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  • Modernism and the Medicalization of Sunlight: D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, and the Sun Cure

In a journal entry of 1914, Katherine Mansfield described what it’s like to watch the sun set:

The heavens opened for the sunset tonight. When I had thought the day folded and sealed came a hint of heavenly bright petals. I sat behind the window pricked with rain, and looked until that hard thing in my breast melted and broke into the smallest fountain murmuring as aforetime, and I drank the sky and the whisper. Now who is to decide between let it be or force it.1

The sunset seems to arrive from nowhere, “a hint of heavenly bright petals.” Mansfield’s description suggests an echoic opening and closing between the sunset and Mansfield’s own body’s response to it. The day opens for the sunset, unfolding: “I had thought the day folded and sealed,” and there’s a sudden softening in Mansfield’s own emotions: “that hard thing in my breast melted and broke.” The description blurs the boundaries between Mansfield and the sunset, as if she is imbibing it (“I drank the sky”). When Mansfield mentions the “whisper” it’s not clear what it is that is whispering, though it seems to pick up on the soundscape of Mansfield’s own thoughts: “that hard thing in my breast . . . broke into the smallest fountain murmuring.” There’s a sense of disorientation, too, as Mansfield grasps for what is happening to her with a shape-changing metaphor, moving from the vague reference to “that hard thing in my breast,” which breaks into “the smallest fountain.” All of this disorientation and sense of infiltration by the sunlight and vague ungraspable transformation prompts, finally, a reflection on force and submission. [End Page 423]

This sense of being taken over by the sight of the setting sun is not new in the early twentieth century. Mansfield’s response to nature more broadly has been traced to Wordsworth, and in The Prelude, he too thought about how watching a sunset might seem to dissolve and re-shape one’s sense of self:

Daily the common range of visible things Grew dear to me: already I began To love the sun; a boy I loved the sun Not as I since have loved him, as a pledge And surety of our earthly life, a light Which we behold and feel we are alive; Nor for his bounty to so many worlds— But for this cause, that I had seen him lay His beauty on the morning hills, had seen The western mountains touch his setting orb, In many a thoughtless hour, when, from excess Of happiness, my blood appeared to flow For its own pleasure, and I breathed with joy.2

There’s an irresistibility to how Wordsworth describes his childhood feelings for the sun here—he loves the sun not for any rational reason, but just “that I had seen him.” The lines suggest a softening of the sense of the self similar to that described by Mansfield—Wordsworth’s speaker’s body seems to take on a new sense of its own autonomy: “my blood appeared to flow / For its own pleasure,” and his emotion becomes exactly aligned with the workings of his breath: “I breathed with joy.”

Mansfield’s discussion of the sensation of seeing the sun set was something she repeatedly recorded—stating in one letter that “I believe it is perfectly necessary to one’s spiritual balance to be somewhere where you can see the sun both rise & set”—and she does frequently suggest Wordsworth’s sense of one’s emotions being almost overtaken by the setting sun.3 But there’s also an added nuance to her sense of the effect of the sun on her body and her emotions, because sunlight, for Mansfield, has medical significance: a program of sun-baths was prescribed to her as a treatment for tuberculosis. In this way, Mansfield’s sense of the significance of sunlight is part of a wider narrative: in the early twentieth century sunlight came to be seen as a possible cure for tuberculosis but also for a...

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