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'Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield'

December 23, 1990|JOHN ESPEY

Born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield, as she chose to call herself as a writer, became one of the shapers of the modern short story.

This collection of 15 unabridged titles has been skillfully chosen to show her development from her first experiments to her final triumphs. They are read perceptively in a sensitive variety of voices by Rosemary Harris, who won an Emmy for the role of George Sand in Masterpiece Theatre's "Notorious Woman" and a Tony for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in "A Lion in Winter."

Mansfield's work is so closely linked to her own life that at times it is impossible to separate them. Sent in 1903 to Queen's College, London, by her upper-middle-class parents--her father was a successful banker--she learned something of the larger world during the next three years and returned reluctantly to her home only on the insistence of her family. She already had begun to publish brief sketches and finally persuaded her father to give her a small allowance that let her return in 1908 to London and the free-spirited life that she was determined to experience.

Married on March 2, 1909, to George Bowden, 11 years her senior, she left him on the following day. By May, she was pregnant by another man, a Polish musician, and retreated to Bavaria, where she first read a selection of Chekov's stories, in German translation. They led her to the discovery of her true bent, giving her a form and a technique to handle the sudden flashes of perception that characterized her earliest work. Following a miscarriage, she returned to London and began publishing seriously in the New Age, a socialist journal.

After living briefly with her husband, she left him again, had an abortion in the spring of 1911 after another affair, and published her first collection, "In a German Pension," most of its harsh, satiric material based on her Bavarian stay. In the following year she met and began living with John Middleton Murry, an eccentric critic and editor, whom she was to marry in 1918 after her divorce from Bowden. She and Murry spent the winter of 1913-14 in Paris, where she wrote her first long story, "Something Childish but Very Natural," a delicate, dreamlike treatment of an adolescent love affair, tenderly read here by Rosemary Harris. Another turning point in Mansfield's life came with World War I, when her younger brother Leslie arrived in London during February of 1915 to join his regiment. The brother brought back to his sister both happy and not so happy memories of their childhood. On Oct. 7, Leslie was killed in action, and Katherine deliberately turned to writing about their early family life in New Zealand, ultimately producing three of her greatest stories: "Prelude," "At the Bay" and "The Garden Party," all included in this collection.

Never entirely comfortable in the established literary circles of London, Mansfield was both attracted to their members and at the same time felt socially insecure among them as well as critical of their work. A friendship with Virginia Woolf started out promisingly only to end in mutually wary dislike. Mansfield confided to Murry that she felt Woolf's "Night and Day" "a lie in the soul," and Woolf said of "Bliss," one of Mansfield's treatments of the intelligentsia, that "the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision . . . of an interesting mind." After listening to Harris' sympathetic reading here, you are free to make your own judgment, and perhaps suspect that something as uncool as jealousy, from the point of view of the Bloomsbury Group, might be involved. Whatever your decision, the stories of the two show striking similarities at times, with the New Zealand upstart frequently the leader in experiment.

Her health always precarious, Mansfield spent most of her winters on the Continent, leading to frequent separations from Murry. In "The Man Without a Temperament," she creates a reunion in which the husband, outwardly attentive to the needs of his wife's illness, lives inwardly altogether in their past. In actual life, however, their marriage endured through all the difficulties they had to face, even after Mansfield clearly was in the advanced stages of tuberculosis.

In her exploration of the human condition, Mansfield is most effective in her treatment of the sudden revelations of everyday life, frequently those experienced by women and children. Though dealing in both the imagined and given worlds of isolated and lonely figures, she never would have risked on paper a climax as dramatic as her own.

Losing faith in the radium treatments prescribed by her doctor, she eventually entered the Gurdjieff Institute at Fontainebleau, believing she could cure herself under the Russian mystic's care. Here she experienced what is called in Medical Latin spes phthisica , "consumptive hope," a false belief in complete recovery, leading to radiant optimism about the future.

Murry was able to visit her on Jan. 9, 1923, and they spent a happy afternoon and evening together. Then, as she started upstairs to her room, a massive hemorrhage felled her and she died in a matter of minutes.

WHERE TO ORDER TAPES: Produced by Listening Library, Inc., distributed by G. K. Hall & C0., 70 Lincoln St . , Boston, MA 02111. Six cassettes.

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