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  • The Cosmopolitan Coin:What Modernists Make of Money
  • Nicky Marsh (bio)

"Ive just got your note about Je ne parle pas. No, I certainly won't agree to those excisions if there were 500000000 copies in existence. They can keep their old £40 and be hanged to them. Shall I pick the eyes out of a story for £40. I'm furious with Sadler. No, Ill never agree."

—Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry, April 6, 19201

"I feel I was too undisciplined about my story & Constable. I leave it to you. Youre my Cricket. If you agree to what they say—why then, alls well (and I DO want the money). Je t'aime."

—Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry, April 7, 19202

This exchange of letters between Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry hints at a story familiar to both writers and lovers: to negotiations over independence, to a desperate weighing of what is free against what must be paid for, to a pattern of rebukes followed by carefully calculated gifts. The letters are typical of the lovers' correspondence, which details a series of increasingly complex transactions between them regarding both how to get money (through allowances, loans, publications, work as a reviewer, an actress, a manicurist, even, very briefly, a kitchen help in a bombarded underground Paris kitchen) and how to spend money (on temporary homes, journeys, printing presses, dubious medicines, and the ever-ubiquitous flowers).

The complexities of Mansfield's relationship to money were evident in the different meanings and names she gave to it. The money she gave to Murry was an "egg in the nest," a down payment on a fertile future that she knew that they were unlikely to share, whilst she imagined that Murry kept his own money in a "wild thyme bank," making her the Titania to his Oberon and the future a passionate but disturbed dream.3 Her recurring fears about Murry's fidelity were reported as a nightmare in which he gives away the money he earns from writing, a nightmare from which she awakes "terrified lest this might happen. Never let it" because this money is his "blood. Never give it away."4 The money given to her by the ever-loyal Ida Baker, however, is merely "T" (tea) because it is "such a comfort."5

The meanings given to these different types of money indicate, of course, very different rates of exchange, rates that are affected as much by the psychodynamics of sexual desire as by the political and cultural dynamics of class, race, and gender. Murry's "blood" money is defined by restriction—it can only be exchanged for its full value with Mansfield—whereas the "tea" that flows between her and Baker is framed through a casual sociality that explicitly resists such exclusivities. Mansfield (living on a New Zealand-denominated allowance from her father and moving between Bavaria, England, France, and Italy in the 1910s and 1920s) also had a literal experience of such differential rates of exchange. Yet the accounts that her letters provide of these exchanges often suggest a surprisingly similar set of investments in them. Sometimes, for example, Baker would be sent to several different banks to accomplish a single transaction at maximum financial advantage whereas, at other times, Mansfield would lose money on the exchanges because Kay (the manager of the New Zealand Bank in London and a substitute for her own banking father for much of her adult life) "had taken such pains to arrange the matter and as he said 'tickle them up,'" a "[s]entimentality" which cost her "22 lire. It won't do. I always feel people's feelings are being hurt. I suppose they are not really & Im very silly."6

Yet scholarship has had surprisingly little to say regarding both how modernists assigned symbolic meaning to money or what these symbolic meanings suggest about the larger issue of how the discipline itself understands money. Although the social and political relations of markets, publics, and institutions have been central to the past two decades of modernist studies, as figures such as Lawrence Rainey, Rachel Bowlby, and Joyce Piell Wexler have captured the complex ambivalence...


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