There’s more to 1922 than just Woolf, Joyce, and Eliot

We should pay attention to Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth von Arnim

Artillery Row

“We can’t possibly have a garden party with a man dead just outside the front gate.” This is the sort of exceptional writing you get when you read Katherine Mansfield. It’s from her 1922 short story The Garden Party, a modernist masterpiece. And yet, Mansfield and her story have received very little attention amidst the recent eulogising about 1922 and the Year of Modernism.

A century on, much has been made about 1922 as “a turning point for modern culture”, “literature’s year zero”, the year of the “constellation of genius”, “the year that made modernism”, or “a year of radical experiments”. But, Mansfield is, at best, a marginal figure, often not mentioned at all. She was given some space on a BBC list of overlooked masterpieces: “overlooked” — what a legacy for the woman of whom Virginia Woolf said, “I was jealous of her writing — the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”

Von Arnim looks hauntingly middlebrow to the acolytes of Ulysses

Mansfield was at the forefront of modernism: she wrote plotless stories, streams of consciousness, and narratives that break away without warning. She made intense psychological focus and epiphanies into the centre of her technique. You might think of these as the hallmarks of Virginia Woolf, but that’s because Katherine Mansfield is too often excluded from our discussion of modernism. More than anyone else, Mansfield was writing in engagement with Chekov’s plangent atmospheric writing. But amidst all the recent fandango about Joyce and Eliot, she has been overlooked. 

Certainly, there were many other major works of modernism published in 1922: Ulysses, The Waste Land, Jacob’s Room, Sodome et Gomorrhe II. But that is a selective view. ’22 was also the year that Herman Hesse published Siddhartha and Fitzgerald published The Beautiful and the Damned. And it was a time of popular literature: Reader’s Digest was launched in 1922. 

It also saw Elizabeth von Arnim publish her most popular and enduring novel, The Enchanted April: a wonderful work of realism, full of ferocious humour. The Enchanted April is the sort of novel that the priests of High Modernism tend to accept rather than admire. It looks hauntingly middlebrow to the acolytes of Ulysses

And to be sure, Arnim isn’t a great innovator. But Katherine Mansfield could see Arnim for the talent she was. It was after reading Arnim’s earlier novel Eizabeth and her German Garden that Mansfield decided to become a writer, aged ten. Of The Enchanted April, she said, “the only other person who could have written it is Mozart.” 

Arnim wrote the book while she was living in the Swiss Alps, just up the hill from Katherine Mansfield, who happened to be her second cousin. Much is made of the connections of the  Bloomsbury Group — Woolf and Keynes having tea — or dinners in Paris where the great minds of Modernism barely spoke an interesting word to each other. But out of this summer in Switzerland, Mansfield and Arnim produced two of the knockout books of 1922. They had tea together, discussed their work, and borrowed books. It’s not as dramatic as Proust in Paris or as gossipy as Bloomsbury in Sussex. But it is an excellent example of how writers really influence each other and how great books get written.

They occasionally needled each other into creativity. Arnim called Mansfield’s At the Bay “a pretty little story.” Arnim was probably being polite, but it depressed and irritated Mansifeld. She retaliated by writing A Cup of Tea, a vicious story modelled on Arnim. Perhaps a sense of friendly competition from a writer not quite of their type encouraged them both to produce their best work in the mountains. 

Mansfield’s influence would be felt in Mrs Dalloway

The reason Arnim and Mansifeld are overlooked is that they don’t fit any other literary story. Arnim was from the generation of writing Modernism wanted to leave behind. Mansfield was, by 1922, out of Bloomsbury and living in sanatoriums. She didn’t have much time for the masterpieces of modernism. Eliot’s poetry was “unspeakably dreary.” Joyce “gapes before an immensely great rubbish heap & digs in it for his swollen dogs.” “What nonsense it all is,” she said of D.H. Lawrence’s dreary sexuality, “and he must know it is.” She did admire Lawrence’s passion. But she was generally appalled by “a peculiar male arrogance that revolts me” in Eliot, Pound, and Joyce. Of Eliot she said, “The poems look delightful but I confess I think them unspeakably dreary. How one could write so absolutely without emotion—perhaps that’s an achievement.”

That summer in the alps, with the two women discussing their work and producing their masterpieces, offers an alternative view of 1922. It might seem like an incongruous pairing, but these two writers have plenty in common. Both wrote ironically about class distinctions and about women’s position, socially, economically, and politically.  Both use free indirect discourse and shifting narrative. (Mansfield borrowed copies of Jane Austen from Arnim that summer.) 

It was Mansfield whose influence would be felt in Mrs Dalloway — the flowers, the psychology, the close attention to behaviour, the minimal dialogue. But there are shared techniques with Arnim, and owe something to Austen as well as to Chekov.

It’s amusing to hear that Arnim thought reading Ulysses was like being locked up with a lunatic who was exposing himself, and that she fell asleep while reading it. But 1922 shouldn’t be a story of opposition — of Modernism and not-Modernism. Good canons are catholic. There are many forms of literature from 1922. The distinctions are less than they seem, and once we broaden our reading list we find more masterpieces to enjoy. When considering the literature of a century ago, we should read Katherine Mansfield because she was an exemplary modernist, and her cousin Elizabeth von Arnim because she wasn’t.

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