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Katherine Mansfield and Her Contemporaries

Image from the Katherine Mansfield and Her Contemporaries event

About a kilometre north of Brasenose College—where John Middleton Murry studied—stands a tall palladian building behind a grassy forecourt that once served as Oxford’s first hospital. Quite recently refurbished, the Radcliffe Humanities Building is home to TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, our generous hosts for this year’s Katherine Mansfield Society’s postgraduate conference. Characteristically infused with a touch of Bloomsbury and New Zealand, the event brought together early career researchers, from master’s students to recently submitted doctoral students, with established scholars for a supportive and engaging day.

Elleke Boehmer, director of TORCH and Professor of World Literatures in English at Oxford University, introduced our discussions with some prefatory remarks on the recent appeal to exhume Mansfield’s remains from Avon in France to her birthplace in Wellington. Boehmer, perhaps spiritedly, invited the delegates to reflect on the orientation of the critical responses, such as the Katherine Mansfield Society committee’s unanimous disapproval of the plan. Introducing her new interest in ‘Southness’—a collective experience of the global south—Boehmer suggested that such positions may be looking at the idea from a northern-hemisphere perspective. Quoting provocatively from Mansfield’s poetry, J. M. Coetzee, and the final lines of Gerri Kimber’s new biography of Mansfield’s early years, Boehmer reaffirmed Mansfield’s home in the South as the spectre that continued to haunt and inspire Mansfield’s life until the end. These thoughts continued to reverberate throughout the day.

Our first panel saw Sanna Melin Schyllert argue that in the work of Elizabeth von Arnim, whose cousin was Mansfield, heroines usurp the conventions of classic romances through their sacrifice. Helen Saunders demonstrated Mansfield’s shifting appreciation of James Joyce and pondered the reciprocity of such admiration, examining Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Mansfield’s ‘The Stranger’ in dialogue with one another. Moira Mitchell offered a new and exciting psychoanalytic reading of ‘The Garden Party’ to complement and reorient a myriad of existing readings.

In our second panel, Valeria Taddei argued for the unfixed nature of Mansfield’s epiphanies, exploring Mansfield’s life-writing in connection to her creative practice. Karli Wessale’s talk followed neatly on, offering a reading of epiphany in ‘The Little Governess’ that forces the heroine to accept her gloomy reality. Louise Edensor then explained how Mansfield’s writing developed during the period in which she wrote for the New Age, and considered the affinity between Mansfield, A. R. Orage and Beatrice Hastings.
Lastly, Christina Dodson Castillón powered through every technical difficulty we managed to throw at her and delivered a new reading of madness in Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’, contextualising them in a socio-historical environment. My own paper argued for seeing the revision of Mansfield’s The Aloe to ‘Prelude’ as an attempt to remove the colonial dimension of New Zealand life. And finally, Lotta Schneidemesser took us back to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012, and examined how Mansfield can be emblematic of New Zealand literature when she is taken from her context.

Our keynote was splendidly delivered by Gerri Kimber, Chair of the Katherine Mansfield Society and Visiting Professor at the University of Northampton. Kimber’s talk envisioned five of Mansfield’s New Zealand stories as comprising their own cycle, sharing thematic links in the harsh reality of colonial life. This reading challenges received understandings of Mansfield’s brother’s death turning Mansfield’s attention squarely to New Zealand, suggesting a sustained and coherent interest in writing New Zealand life from the moment she arrived back in London. Kimber’s talk was punctuated with beautiful photographs of Mansfield’s early life and depictions of the original editions of these 1912-1913 stories. A lively discussion soon followed, with Kimber’s talk bringing together the threads of discussion and responding to some of the thoughts offered by Boehmer at the beginning of the day.

Alice Kelly chaired our roundtable, which included Janet Wilson and Delia da Sousa Correa as well as Boehmer and Kimber, with each scholar offering insightful summary thoughts. After inviting questions from the floor, those who were able to come trekked across Oxford to Jamie’s Italian restaurant, where no one was as excited as Louise Edensor, who admitted she had half come to the UK from Dubai to experience a Jamie Oliver restaurant. It was a wonderful day full of modernism, postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, and women’s writing, and I am sure all involved—now members of the Katherine Mansfield Society—await next year’s conference with great anticipation.