Scoop Review of Books

Katherine Mansfield, Capitalist Icon?

By Scott Hamiltonkatherine_mansfield07

As a Kiwi writer and musician who spends half of every year in France, Bill Direen has a sense of comradeship with Katherine Mansfield, the great New Zealand-born short story writer who expatriated herself to Europe and spent some of her most productive years in the French town of Menton.

Bill was recently delighted to present a paper to a conference held in Menton to celebrate the life and work of Mansfield. He is less happy, though, at the plans of a large and very wealthy company to ‘celebrate’ Mansfield’s life by naming a trans-Tasman airliner after the writer. Bill has forwarded me a press release from Qantas which explains that, along with aviator Jean Batten and the engineer William Hudson, who are also be having planes named after them, Mansfield was responsible for ‘exporting New Zealand skills and culture on a global scale’.

The literary critics at Qantas describe Mansfield as ‘New Zealand’s most accomplished writer’, and claim that she ‘helped cement strong links between Australia and New Zealand’. The first proposition is left unsupported by argument, and the second is justified with reference to a story which the nineteenth year-old Mansfield published in the Australian journal The Native Companion in 1907, the year before she left New Zealand for Europe and began her career as a serious writer.

Art is not sport, and it seems pointless to try to rank writers in the way that golfers or tennis players are ranked. Whether Mansfield’s delicate, deceptively casual short stories are really more ‘accomplished’ than the stories of Frank Sargeson, the novels of Janet Frame, or the poems of Allen Curnow, Kendrick Smithyman and Hone Tuwhare is a question which only the hacks in Qantas’ communications office would be crass enough to answer.

It is more interesting to ask whether Mansfield can really be described as a New Zealand writer in any straightforward sense. She was born into a wealthy Wellington family and grew up here, but almost her entire adult life was spent overseas. Although she set many of her stories in New Zealand, it was her residence in Europe which acquainted her with modernist art and writing, and allowed her to develop away from the sentimental realism which characterise her early, New Zealand work.

Rather than ‘exporting New Zealand skills and culture’ to the world, Mansfield went abroad to find a way of writing about New Zealand. Like Frances Hodgkins and Len Lye, other Kiwi modernist pioneers who spent most of their lives abroad, Mansfield was a refugee from the philistinism of Pakeha culture in the early twentieth century. Modernism would not begin to appear on the Kiwi art and literary scenes until the thirties, and by then Mansfield was dead.

It is also worth asking whether Mansfield would have liked becoming a mascot for a multinational company which has been persistently criticised for its treatment of its customers and its employees. Near the end of her short life, Mansfield became a follower of the mystic Georges Gurdjieff, and went to live at the commune which he had given the rather cumbersome name the Insitute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

An opponent of industrial capitalism, Gurdjieff urged his disciples to live simple, hardworking lives in the countryside. Mansfield, who had long considered herself an overly intellectual and insufficiently ’rounded’ person, seems to have responded to the practical approach to life at Gurdjieff’s Institute. It is hard to reconcile the ideology which Mansfield embraced with the ruthless capitalism of Qantas.

Perhaps, given all this, the suits at Qantas should rethink their marketing strategy, and leave the celebration of literature to writers and readers.