Thursday, October 11, 2012

Quote of the Day (Virginia Woolf, on Katherine Mansfield)

“The dinner last night went off; the delicate things were discussed. We both [she and husband Leonard] could wish that ones [sic] first impression of K.M. [Katherine Mansfield, pictured here] was not that she stinks like a ____well civet cat that had taken to street walking. In truth, I’m a little shocked at her commonness at first sight; lines so hard and cheap. However, when this diminishes, she is so intelligent and inscrutable that she repays friendship….We discussed Henry James, and K.M. was illuminating I thought. A munition worker called Leslie Moor came to fetch her—another of those females on the border land of propriety, and naturally inhabiting the underworld—rather vivacious, sallow skinned, without any attachment to one place rather than another.”—Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1, 1915-1919, edited by Anne Olivier Bell (1977)

Her diary entry for this date in 1917 conveys the strengths and limitations of Virginia Woolf as a person—and, not so coincidentally, as a writer. Side by side with the acute details about the two women she observed (the “hard” lines of one, the “sallow” skin of another) is her snobbery—a trait she acknowledged on another occasion. It’s in the word “commonness,” and, even more tellingly, the word “cheap,” all of this about a pair of middle-class women—ironically enough, the same class from which she came, but which, judging by her intense fascination with the ancestral homes of the gentry, she longed to escape.

It’s almost palpable, this sense of disgust with the lower class. “Leslie Moore” (Woolf had dropped the final “e”) was the name taken in school by Katherine Mansfield’s Queens College friend Ida Constance Baker. The product of a middle-class background, Baker/Moore had indeed, as Woolf noted, taken a job as a tool-setter in an airplane factory. Many, then and now, might have perceived that as an effort to aid her country’s effort in WWI,  but Woolf could only regard work—especially this kind—as something beneath one's dignity. "The snobbery of Woolf and her friends now seems not merely laughable, but damaging, a narrowing ignorance," wrote Nobel laureate Doris Lessing in a pungent essay.

This diary entry, intended as a word portrait of Mansfield, instead becomes an unintentional, warts-and-all self-portrait of Woolf. She might have challenged the male hegemony governing the literary world in her well-known essay “A Room of One’s Own,” but she couldn’t conceive of a challenge to the stranglehold that the upper classes held in the early part of the 20th century in Britain. (She even called her infinitely faithful, long-suffering husband “The Jew” in front of guests.)

At one point, Woolf’s disgust with the lower classes becomes almost palpable, when she notes that Mansfield “stinks.” Evidently, it never occurred to her that the odor emanating from her guest resulted not from her background but from the tuberculosis she had contracted earlier in 1917 (many speculate from friend D. H. Lawrence)—the same disease that would kill her six years later.

And yet, we already see the possibility of something different developing here. Woolf didn’t yet sense that, like herself, Mansfield was sexually unconventional, someone who took male and female lovers. No, the eventual closeness between the two comes into being because of their shared bibliomania. Woolf was a prolific and astute book critic, while Mansfield’s deep readings of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Austen nourished her work.

By the time of Mansfield’s death, Woolf had executed a sharp about-face concerning this woman she started out thinking of as “cheap.” She saw in Mansfield, who had completed nearly 90 short stories by the time of her death at age 35, a fellow modernist and a friend. Indeed, she confided to her diary that Mansfield had created “the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”

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