An account of the fifth annual Birthday Lecture of the Katherine Mansfield Society at the Keynes Library, 46 Gordon Square, London.
Overlooking a leafy square in the heart of Bloomsbury in London, the Keynes Library at 46 Gordon Square is brightly lit and bustling on an overcast Sunday afternoon. Around 40 people are gathered to listen to Professor Laura Marcus of Oxford University deliver the fifth annual Katherine Mansfield Society Birthday Lecture. This year, the subject is “Katherine Mansfield’s Afterlives.”
We are here to celebrate the birthday of Katherine Mansfield, innovator of the modern short story, born on October 14, 1888, in Wellington, New Zealand. Mansfield led an extraordinary life, moving semi-permanently to London from New Zealand in her late teens (a move inspired by an earlier boarding school experience as a young teenager at Queen’s College on Harley Street, London) and mixing with some of the most powerful and influential minds of the era, including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, D.H. and Frieda Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and Bertrand Russell. In fact, where we are today, the first floor of 46 Gordon Square, is a famous Bloomsbury residence of Virginia Woolf and her artist sister, Vanessa Bell, and later their friend, the economist, John Maynard Keynes, who took it over.
Although the address now forms part of the School of Arts of Birkbeck University of London, the room remembers its previous tenants well. Three narrow French doors look out over an autumnal central square, floor rugs and large white fireplaces offset the coolness of the blue walls, and huge paintings by Vanessa Bell are suspended like windows into another time. The room is alive in our minds with the memory of the individuals who lived and gathered here, and it feels an incredibly rich setting for the lecture Professor Marcus delivers.
Professor Marcus stands to speak of the many imagined afterlives of Mansfield: of Mansfield’s own philosophies and thoughts on death and afterlife which she recorded in striking prose in her letters and journals; and of the imaginings of those who knew her and lost her to tuberculosis in 1923, including the magnificently creative and strong-minded Virginia Woolf. Professor Marcus discusses Mansfield’s appearances as characters in numerous books and the ways Mansfield has been treated in fiction and biography. After the lecture, the audience continues the discussion about the nature of biography and fiction, some noting their attachment to certain fictionalised accounts of Mansfield (such as Gudrun in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love), and Professor Marcus notes some of Mansfield’s own ideas, including her musing that “to be ‘most ourselves’ is to be ‘least personal’,” and reminding us of a citation from her lecture, where Mansfield discusses her idea of having many selves: “there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor, who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests.”
Despite having lived to only 34, Mansfield’s legacy has continued, and feels to be gathering strength. The atmosphere at this year’s Birthday Lecture has been one of fascination and warm admiration of the writer in the context of dedicated academic work and an active and engaged international Katherine Mansfield Society. This occasion is also one for the launch of a new tome of materials, The Poetry and Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield, edited by Dr Gerri Kimber and Professor Angela Smith.
As the lecture concludes, a bottle of wine is heard to pop at the back of the room, and the audience is invited to toast Mansfield’s 126th birthday, with two towers of cupcakes and glasses of New Zealand sparkling wine.
Dr Gerri Kimber, chair of the Katherine Mansfield Society and Senior Lecturer in English at Northampton University, reliably enthusiastic and welcoming, has chaired the event. You can listen to her discussing the importance of Katherine Mansfield’s writing at the BBC website.
There are many other activities on the horizon in connection with Mansfield. The Katherine Mansfield Society is active, extremely productive, and passionate. Although its activities are often academic, it is not an exclusively academic society, and it welcomes members from outside academia and holds a real variety of events. It has a very wide-based international membership (including members in the UK, Ireland, US, France, Australia, and, of course, New Zealand, among other countries). In May 2015, many will gather in Chicago, Illinois, for the conference “Katherine Mansfield and the ‘Blooms Berries’.” In the meantime, the Katherine Mansfield Society is fresh from its Paris conference in June, held at the University of Paris III: Sorbonne Nouvelle, and is looking ahead to another in November at the University of Limerick, “Katherine Mansfield in the Short Story Tradition.”