Katherine Mansfield had beauty, talent and courage, but was deeply disappointed by family and friends who left her bitter, frightened and alone. Her wealthy father would not pay for her expensive treatments for tuberculosis; her self-absorbed sisters were indifferent to her suffering; her cousin Elizabeth, Countess Russell, patronised and wounded her; her weak and selfish husband, John Middleton Murry, had betrayed her with her close friend Dorothy Brett and refused to help when she was dying; her unavoidable nursemaid, Ida Baker, was irritating and inept.
In her last year, while taking an ineffectual and dangerous "cure", Mansfield was forced to observe life through a hotel window. Yet, like her invalid friend D. H. Lawrence, she kept searching for a new place that would restore her health. She wrote stories to keep herself alive and to allay her fears that she would not be alive much longer. She forced herself to believe she would recover, but realised: "The miracle never came near happening. It couldn't." As she said of a dying friend, there was a "brave, noble little soul shining behind those dark lighted eyes! She has wanted so much, she has had so little!"
These letters describe the heartbreaking story of Mansfield's slow, agonising death. "The lung becomes full of blood," she wrote, "& that means the heart beats too fast & that means one has fever and pain." She quoted a phrase from Shakespeare, "rots itself with motion", and observed, "I understand that better than I care to. I mean - alas! - I have proof of it in my own being." The painful irradiation of her spleen made her horribly ill and weakened her heart: "After five doses of X-rays one is hotted up inside like a furnace and one's very bones seem to be melting." She became, in the end, "a living, walking or lying-down cough". She desperately awaited the blossoming of flowers, a sign of rebirth, but finally concluded: "There is something tragic in spring." Flowers then gave way to morbid imagery: black plumes on horses, "a trail of coffin sawdust", "a grim journey where I certainly wouldn't wish to be followed".
Wyndham Lewis tried to warn her about "the grip of the Levantine shark", the self-styled mystic George Gurdjieff. But, still hoping for a miracle, she surrendered herself to the fraudulent mystic and entered his institute outside Paris. (He surely took her in not, as the editor states, as "an act of kindness", but to exploit her fame.) Under Gurdjieff's megalomaniacal dictatorship, the dying Mansfield - instead of writing stories - lived in a damp, spartan room, washed in ice water, peeled mountains of carrots and onions, and spent days and nights in a stable. The "mystical pigs and cosmic rabbits" somehow failed to extinguish her tubercular bacilli and, in less than three months, she had a fatal haemorrhage.
Sadly, the atrocious editing of this volume (the fifth and final in a series whose earlier volumes have recently been reissued) is unworthy of its subject. There are typographical errors; no accents on French words; no translations from Latin and French; no annotations of many quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare, Bunyan and Bishop Heber. Palm Beach is in Florida (not California); the flamboyant bohemian Iris Tree is not properly identified. Wyndham Lewis was born in 1882 (not 1884); Lawrence died in 1930 (not 1929). A dozen names are misspelt. "Puma" ("unidentified") is Minnie Lucy Channing, a Soho artist's model who married the composer Philip Heseltine and was portrayed as Minette in chapter six of Lawrence's novel Women in Love. Worst of all, a whole passage is missing from page 165.
Mansfield played Marlowe to Virginia Woolf's Shakespeare. After a more promising start, she raged against the dying of the light, perished at the age of 34 and was overtaken by the rival who lived for another 18 years.
The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Volume 5, 1922
Edited by Vincent O'Sullivan and Margaret Scott. Oxford University Press, 376pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780198183990. Published 5 June 2008