The curious case of a long-lost short story “by” Katherine Mansfield
Authors, scholars, and experts have expressed doubt and downright dismissal in response to the claims of a researcher who believes he has discovered a long-lost short story by Katherine Mansfield. Dr Martin Griffiths of Hamilton was recently the subject of a half-page feature in the Weekend Herald, sharing his exciting discovery of a story written in 1909 by New Zealand’s greatest writer. The story “by” Katherine Mansfield has been published in the University of Edinburgh’s Katherine Mansfield Society journal – but even the society’s honorary patron thinks it’s a fake.
Griffiths found the story, “The Chorus Girl and the Tariff”, in an obscure American journal, published in 1909. Mansfield was 21 that year and wrote prolifically, composing poems, diary entries, profound and/or dumb epigrams (“If you wish to live, you must first attend your own funeral”), and sketches; only two years later, she published her first book of short stories, In a German Pension. Griffiths thinks that the “Chorus” story belongs to this early period of her writing. “I’m convinced. It’s so unlikely it could be anyone else.”
But the common view is that it’s so unlikely it could be her.
“I have to say,” said Mansfield society patron and award-winning novelist Kirsty Gunn, “it doesn’t read like a Katherine Mansfield story to me.”
Vincent O’Sullivan’s long work on Mansfield includes co-editing five volumes of The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. His first response: “No, I don’t believe it for a second.” He even made a wager: “If I’m wrong I’ll shout you a bottle of Cloudy Bay.”
Wellington author Linda Burgess has read and loved Mansfield’s fiction for all of her writing life. Upon reading “The Chorus Girl and the Tariff”, her immediate assessment was to declare, “Oh for God’s sake. That’s not the slightest bit KM. It’s some second rater from Minnesota.”
Griffiths points to fascinating but really quite thin strands of circumstantial evidence to support his case. Possibly the best and certainly the only unequivocal fact in his favour is the writer’s byline. “The Chorus Girl and the Tariff”, as it appeared in the 1909 edition of Buffalo, New York journal National Monthly, is definitely bylined Katherine Mansfield. But is it the Katherine Mansfield who immortalised Days Bay in “At the Bay”, pieced together the devastating portrait of haves and have nothings (“I seen the little lamp”) in “A Doll’s House”, and turned the tragic death of her brother Leslie in the trenches of World War I into the terrifying psychological study “The Fly”, or is it some other, very untalented Katherine Mansfield, writing idiocies at her desk in Minnesota?
The existence of a new, previously unknown story by Katherine Mansfield is a literary event. It adds to our understanding of a great artist. No one wrote like Katherine Mansfield – including, perhaps, the Katherine Mansfield who wrote “The Chorus Girl and the Tariff” in 1909. It’s a poor story. It doesn’t tell a story. Nothing happens, there is no narrative, or layers, or poetic language, or different points of view, or any other of the author’s subtle arts; it’s the monologue of an American stage performer, talking in slang and exclamations about her chorus troupe, with references to sandwiches, stars of the day (Anna Held of the Ziegfeld Follies), lingerie, lobsters, Central Park, Coney Island…
Sample: “Yes, we have our troubles – us chorus girls. We have troubles enough without having a bunch of doughheads that call themselves our Great Fathers sitting up nights in Washington thinking of things on which to revise the tariff upwards in order to make it harder for the poor chorus girl. Oh! wait until women can vote! There’ll be some doings. Ham sandwiches and mutton broth will be in the free column then – they’ll be given away at every corner and every hotel will contain seventeen free rooms for chorus girls out of jobs. There’ll be no tariff on chewing gum and lobsters will be on the free list. You know the kind of lobsters that I mean; the kind that turn red when you boil ’em – not the sort that turn yellow when you roast ’em….”
Very poor. And yet, and yet; it could be the Katherine Mansfield, our Katherine Mansfield, that talented mimic, trying on a voice, trying on a character for size. After shooting down any possibility it was KM, Vincent O’Sullivan emailed: “UNLESS – for some one in a million chance she was deliberately parodying some particular writer. She was brilliant at that, in a jokey way… I have to say, reluctantly, it’s not impossible – especially if one takes the parodic line – which would be the only explanation, copying a style to get a publication. Could be.”
He climbed down far enough to revise his earlier wager: “I’m wondering if they have half bottles of Cloudy Bay.”
There was some support for Griffiths’ find from two Mansfield scholars, albeit with caveats, reservations, and equivocations. Professor Jane Stafford at Victoria University said, “This is certainly unusual in terms of KM’s writing, but…Writing in other people’s voices, even slangy or uneducated voices, was something she did…So a definite maybe.”
Dr Gerri Kimber, the author and editor of more than 30 books on Katherine Mansfield, published the “Chorus” story in the Katherine Mansfield Society journal, alongside an essay by Griffiths. She said, “Martin makes a good case in his essay, but to be honest, without proof either way, no one can say for certain whether it is by KM or someone else with a similar name….We may possibly never know.”
One author, though, was prepared to wholly and completely back Griffiths. Redmer Yska is the author of the superb 2017 book A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington. He knows the thrill of finding a lost story: during his research into her childhood, he unearthed her first published work, a story titled “His Little Friend” written when she was 11. It wasn’t very good.
He said of the Griffiths find, “I’ll take it. KM was the uber stylist, queen of the mockers. In 1909, she was 21, sick, poor and adrift in London. She had time to sit in a library and get all that crazy Yankee slang right (including using the word ‘punk’! )There’s a line towards the end of ‘The Chorus Girl and the Tariff’: ‘My, but that girl does hustle’. That was her.”
CK Stead has written critical essays on KM, and is the author of Mansfield (2004), his novel based on three years of her life during World War I. Like O’Sullivan and Yska, he conceded that she might be the author of “Chorus” as an exercise in parody. “It may well be Mansfield – she was always experimenting,” he said. “But the fact that it’s so American in its idiom would be a puzzle.”
The greater puzzle, though, is the story’s artlessness. Sarah Laing is the author of the brilliant graphic memoir Mansfield & Me (2017), aligning her life with Mansfield’s life. She read “Chorus”, and said, “In my opinion it reads nothing like a Mansfield story – it has none of the specificity of a particular moment, nor does it have the lush sensory details. It’s very much a description of the life of a chorus girl…It hardly seems like a story at all – more like a reportage.”
One of Mansfield’s gifts was satire. There was a cruelty to her observations. The downfall of her title character in “The Little Governess”, who is fooled, betrayed, and likely raped by an old man (“at least ninety”, thinks the naïve governess), is told with a shocking pitilessness. There may be something cruel, too, and satirical and hapless, about a Hamilton man who puts in excellent and dogged detective work to track down a buried short story which he thinks is by a famous genius but may in fact be written by a Minnesotan clod.
I called Griffiths at his Hamilton home last week. It was an enjoyable but slightly crazy conversation, the two of us wandering in an Alice in Wonderland world of not entirely impossible things but only and ever possible things, of wild imaginings, of strange and fleeting presences, of molehills, molehills, molehills conspiring to appear as mountains. It was a world where things could have happened, and might have happened. Could, might – all of it directed towards his conviction that Katherine Mansfield born Kathleen Beauchamp in Wellington was the author of a 2,679-word short story published in 1909.
At one point we talked about the Titanic. Griffiths mooted it was possible that copies of Mansfield’s first book, In a German Pension, went down with the ship. Her UK publisher, he said, had gone “suddenly and inexplicably” bankrupt; Griffiths surmised it was because the publisher had invested his money in sending books for sale in the US, and his precious cargo was onboard the Titanic, sailing for New York until its appointment with ice. “It does seem plausible,” he said.
I said, “It does?”
He said, “It’s not proven.”
In any case, the wider point he was wanting to make, the connection between two points that he was desperately and ingeniously trying to establish, was that Mansfield yearned to be published in the US. “All the way through she wanted to be read in America…. She was aware of the market. She seemed very clued up really about the commercial side of being a writer. The Garden Party [her third collection of stories, 1922] was published in America and reprinted seven times over there and in that time it was reprinted only once in England. So there was a massive market for what she was doing, and she knew that.”
It was a long bow from there to Buffalo. Griffiths gave it another tug, to explain how “Chorus” arrived in the US. Mansfield had made friends with American musicians in London in 1909. “There’s at least one notebook [by Mansfield] where she mentions a Venezuelan-American pianist called Teresa Carreno.” His searches reveal that Carreno performed in Buffalo just weeks after the story appeared in the Buffalo journal. “I think she could have taken the story to America with her.”
Could, might…”I think that really does make it seem more likely than not for me.” He talked about another American musician who knew Mansfield at that time, and wonders if she might have been the short story’s envoy. “So she’s another candidate that could have taken it back there.” Might, could…
As well, either of the two musicians, he said, could and might explain the story’s American idiom, which CK Stead found “puzzling”. Griffiths: “I imagine they would have looked at the story and said, ‘Oh yeah but no one’s going to understand that’, and they possibly worked together to Americanise the language somewhat. That’s just guesswork. I don’t know.”
“Possibly”, “guesswork”, “I don’t know.” He was like a man bumping into things in a dimly lit room. But Sarah Laing, too, wondered much the same connection as Griffiths. She said the American terms were mystifying, such as a reference in the story to a kimmelwecks, a sandwich served with a slice of beef, particular to Buffalo and nearby Rochester. Laing emailed, “Would Mansfield have come across that kind of thing? There was the mention of a flat, rather than an apartment, which suggested that the writer was not an American. All I could think was that some chorus girl over from New York chewed her ear off in a London tea shop, and, with Katherine’s excellent memory and mimicry ability, she went home and transcribed it.”
Laing is a novelist and short story writer. Her imagining of Mansfield sitting down for tea and gleefully committing a monologist’s yap to memory may be 100 per cent accurate.
To accept that Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is the author of “The Chorus Girl and the Tariff” story is to picture her writing it during one of the strangest and most dramatic years of her strange, short life. “1909!”, as Vincent O’Sullivan exclaimed. “Almost the messiest time of KM’s life, just back in London, emotional shambles.”
She got married to someone she barely knew and left him the morning after their wedding. She was pregnant to another man, the violin-playing twin brother of a cellist who she had been in love but he didn’t love her. She had a miscarriage. She travelled to Bavaria, first to a convent chosen by her mother, then to Wörishofen, a spa town on the edge of a pine forest…As Jane Stafford put it, “She led a rather rackety existence that year.”
Mansfield desperately wanted to experience any kind of upper-case Life when she was stuck seething and bored to sobs in Wellington (“the hours full of clothes discussions – the waste of Life”) for 18 months between 1907-1908. Her parents had sent her to London in 1903 to finish her education. Returning home in December 1906 was to live in Hell with nice views. The family home in Thorndon had large bay windows and a croquet lawn. “When she went downstairs, the family suffered,” writes Anthony Alpers in his 1980 biography. “She made outrageous scenes.” They shipped her back to London in July 1908. Papers Past documents a farewell party held on her behalf: “A gay party of girls assembled…A lady with a teacup told fortunes, a fine gramophone sang with the voices of Melba and Tetrazzini, and in the drawing room, under the direction of an artistic lady, the guests, blind-folded, drew autograph pictures of pigs in an album which Miss Beauchamp is to bear with her afar.”
History does not record what she did with the album of pigs when she arrived at her hostel in Paddington. She shared the house with 20-30 girls, mostly students at the Royal Academy of Music. Alpers writes of her arrival in London, “Katherine embarked in a dangerous experiment in personality.” It doesn’t sound very dangerous, at least in 1908: the biography records her staying up late drinking cocoa with the other students. “On these occasions Katherine curled up like a cat before the fire and made herself mysterious, and her friends became convinced that ‘she must have some Maori blood.’”
But 1909 was “rackety”, “the messiest time of her life”. There is only one reference to Mansfield in Papers Past that hectic year, in the April 10 edition of the Wairarapa Age: “News has been received by cable of the marriage between Miss Kathleen M. Beauchamp to Mr George C. Bowden, B.A., of King’s College, Cambridge.” The wedding was on March 2. By the time the cable arrived in New Zealand, the marriage was over. As Alpers writes of Bowden, “He saw her no more in this year.” The bride left London for Liverpool, where she joined a travelling light-opera company. “She used to tell of cooking kippers over a fish-tail flame in her bedroom,” her second husband John Middleton Murray later wrote, “and she sometimes sang, with all the absurd gestures required of an opera chorus, snatches of her former parts.”
Here, then, is another piece of circumstantial evidence supporting her authorship of “Chorus”: in the same year it was published, she was actually performing in a chorus. Here, too, was opportunity for her to listen to stage show stories (as Laing imagined, “some chorus girl over from New York [who] chewed her ear off”) and then sit down to write a kind of imitation. She knew the subject. She lived the life, performing in provincial theatres, cooking poignant kippers.
Little else is known of her movements and whereabouts in 1909. Griffiths calls it a “lost year”. She had her letters and diaries burned. “There’s a lot of stuff missing, and there really is very little knowledge of what she was doing. There’s six months where we don’t even know where she was. Or at least four or five months. She would have been writing and documenting all this stuff, but got rid of it.”
Dr Gerri Kimber was once asked in a Mansfield forum, “If you could ask Mansfield one direct question, what would it be?” She replied, “What really happened in Bavaria in 1909?” I mentioned this to Griffiths (who knows Kimber), and he said, “Yeah. There’s a postcard that she [KM] sent to her mother, but apart from that we have no clue what she was doing. Gerri thinks she went to Poland. For a while I started thinking, ‘Maybe she went to New York in 1909?’ But no one can prove anything. We really don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
I said, “Why were you thinking she went to New York?”
“Well, the story,” he said, meaning “Chorus” with its American idiom and its delicious New York sandwiches. “But I really have no other reason to think that.”
There was something immensely appealing about Griffiths as a Mansfield sleuth. His pursuit was entirely amateur, driven entirely by enthusiasm and curiosity; he was no tenured academic given time and a salary to squint at old newsprint, and neither was he an author with some kind of literary ambition that relied on Mansfield studies. There was no profit, no personal gain. He plays the cello. He teaches music in schools. His interest in Mansfield only began when he wrote his PhD on the music of Arnold Trowell, the cellist who she was in love with in Wellington (before she fell in love with his twin brother, Garnet.) “That’s what piqued my interest in her.”
He later joined the Katherine Mansfield Society, and became editor of its newsletter. He attended a Mansfield conference, where he played the cello (Mansfield learned the instrument in Wellington, and shipped it with her to London). “I just got more and more interested.” He also realised he had a special talent: literary detection. The 1909 “Chorus” story is just one of his discoveries. He has been that way before, once again sharing an exciting discovery with the Herald, in 2019, of another long-lost short story by Mansfield, in an Australian newspaper, from 1910. And last year he found a poem she published in a UK magazine in 1909, and a letter published in a London music journal in 1906. Jane Stafford is certain the poem is by Mansfield, and Vincent O’Sullivan is similarly convinced the letter is authentic. He said, “Griffiths must be a kind of rabid bloodhound, I’ll give him that.”
A bloodhound, a detective, a sleuth – it’s an exciting line of work, with tangible results. This poem, that letter, those two short stories. When he was interviewed in the Herald in 2019, Griffiths didn’t hold back his excitement at discovering the 1910 short story: “It was a mind-blowing moment really. I was stunned. I kind of didn’t believe it at first. I just sort of looked at it and thought that can’t be right, I must be imagining this…. I desperately wanted to tell people.”
But he sounded a very different tone when we spoke. Somewhat unexpectedly, he now has doubts whether that the 1910 story, “The Thawing of Anthony Wynscombe”, bylined Katherine R. Mansfield, is by Katherine Mansfield, buried in Fontainebleau, France. He talked about musical concerts he has staged this year, in Hamilton and Wellington, where he played the cello, and Libbie Gillard, arts co-ordinator at Hillcrest High School, recited “The Chorus Girl and The Tariff”, and said, “Libbie’s a great mimic. She read the story with a very convincing New York accent. It takes about 10 minutes to read and in some ways dare I say it, it gets a little boring. A bit repetitive. It goes on a bit. But overall it’s really successful and by the time we performed it in Wellington, we were getting laughs. It’s a good, funny story, a satirical piece.
“But the other story I found – the problem with that story is that it’s totally unfunny,” he said, meaning the short story he discovered in a 1910 edition of an Australian newspaper. “There’s no satire, there’s no cruelty, there’s no sense of a slice of life. The plot covers 50 years. And it’s so confusing! It’s exhausting trying to work who is who. For me, this story [‘Chorus’] is so much more in keeping with her style. Despite the fact that I argue it [the Australian story] is by her, I’m much less confident of that story than this one….”
He was like a man moving things around in a dimly lit room. It was a room full of whispers, phantoms, clues, and crowded with exhibits that may or may not have been touched by Mansfield during her life. Those stories, that friendship with a Venezuelan-American, these kippers and this kimmelweck…It was a search for authenticity, but also a search for genius, and the things it left behind.
We talked for a little while about Mansfield’s character. He said, “So complex. Incredibly courageous. But by all accounts she was a snob and quite rude and wouldn’t have suffered fools.”
I said, “Do you think you would you have liked her or found her unbearable?”
“Oh,” he said, “she wouldn’t have had time for the likes of me.”
The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Penguin, $34), available in bookstores nationwide, is the most recent collection of fiction definitely written by New Zealand’s greatest writer. Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: Rijula Das reviews a new classic of Indian cooking.