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  • Katherine Mansfield's Animal Aesthetics
  • Derek Ryan (bio)

In a letter to John Middleton Murry, sent on 25 November 1919 from Ospedaletti, Katherine Mansfield responds critically to Sydney Waterlow's lead article in that week's Athenaeum, which marked the centenary of George Eliot's birth:

I dont [sic] think S. W. [Sydney Waterlow] brought it off with George Eliot. He never gets under way. The cartwheels want oiling. I think, too, he is ungenerous. She was a deal more than that. Her English, warm, ruddy quality is hardly mentioned. … But think of some of her pictures of country life—the breadth—the sense of sun lying on long barns—great warm kitchens at twilight when the men came home from the fields—the feeling of beasts horses and cows—the peculiar passion she has for horses (when Maggie Tullivers [sic] lover walks with her up & down the lane & asks her to marry, he leads his great red horse and the beast is foaming—it has been hard ridden and there are dark streaks of sweat on its flanks—the beast is the man one feels SHE feels in some queer inarticulate way)—Oh, I think he ought really to have been more generous.


In his piece, Waterlow doesn't ignore Eliot's "pictures of country life" entirely. But where he sees Eliot as an "admirable pastoral writer" in whose books "the hierarchy of beast and labourer, farmer, parson and squire in their setting of quietly undulating elm-bordered field" are "preserved … motionless in a kind of golden haze" (1217), Mansfield's [End Page 27] retort suggests a livelier reading of Eliot's human and nonhuman figures as unsettling such hierarchies. Her phrase "the beast is the man one feels SHE feels" expresses a double movement whereby human and nonhuman figures have some sort of affinity with each other just as the reader is invited into the writer's animal affections. Given that Waterlow reverts to essentialist language to point out Eliot's inability to make a success of her "natural bent" of the "exquisite feminine vein" "towards reproduction rather than towards inventive creation" (1218)—she makes the mistake, we are told, of exploring "the world of intellectual abstractions which is properly preserved for males"—it is unsurprising that in rebuking him Mansfield feels that "I must stand up for my SEX" ("To J. M. Murry," 25 Nov. 1919, 118). There is more than a hint that this comment is also directed at Murry, who was then editor of the Athenaeum, for not choosing her to write the article on Eliot despite the fact Mansfield had told him she would "love to do something" ("To J. M. Murry," 23 Oct. 1919, 46).

The passage Mansfield refers to in her letter to Murry occurs toward the end of Eliot's 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss. When Stephen Guest, arriving in search of Maggie Tulliver, appears as "a gentleman on a tall bay horse; and the flanks and neck of the horse were streaked black with fast riding" (412), we find man and beast aligned in their sweaty urgency. Feeling "horrible" at the sight of them, Maggie's bodily response nonetheless seems to reverberate directly from the horse: she "felt a beating at head and heart." As she attempts to walk away after rejecting Stephen's marriage proposal, her indecision and frustrated desire appear to be sensed by the horse, which "began to make such spirited remonstrances against this frequent change of direction" (414). She is explicitly compared to an animal, both tame and wild, in a simile a few paragraphs later that encapsulates her emotional tumult: "Her lips and eyelids quivered; she opened her eyes full on his for an instant, like a lovely wild animal timid and struggling under caresses" (415, emphasis added). We cannot know if Mansfield would have expanded on the intersection of gender and animality had she written more on Eliot, but she clearly recognized it as an important feature of The Mill on the Floss. The novel frequently compares its human characters to the domesticated and farmyard animals surrounding them.1 It also shows Maggie's childhood fascination for "countries full of those...


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