All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything by Claire Harman - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

Vita Brevis

All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything


Chatto & Windus 296pp £18.99

Katherine Mansfield’s exquisite short stories stretched the possibilities of the form into wondrous new shapes; they are fragments that are nonetheless satisfyingly whole. She sought, as she put it, to ‘intensify the so-called small things, so that truly everything is significant’. In a Mansfield story, the materiality of life – things and smells and physical details – takes on a pulsing, almost hallucinatory quality, what she called ‘the life of life’.

Claire Harman has taken this idea of an undercurrent below the surface of the visible as the basis of her new book about Mansfield. She examines ten of the stories and discusses what they reveal about their author and her life, into which, like her work, a lot was packed. Mansfield, who died in 1923 at the age of only thirty-four, instructed her second husband, John Middleton Murry, to destroy all her unpublished notebooks, diaries and letters. Fortunately, he disobeyed her and thanks to the early editors who deciphered her almost unreadable handwriting, a compelling, questing voice survives. This is a mixed blessing for a biographer. Mansfield’s words are so irresistible, her enthusiasms and whimsies so odd and infectious, that explanatory text might seem superfluous or cumbersome. But Harman loves the stories and for the most part her perceptive enthusiasm carries the reader with her.

Mansfield seems to have lived in fragments too, the one constant being her dedication to writing. She was abandoned and controlled, secretive, evasive, somewhat ruthless in her relationships, a hater and a lover. She inspired both ardent devotion and suspicion (Virginia Woolf reluctantly acknowledged her talent but was

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