Katherine Mansfield’s Animal Aesthetics

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Author: Derek Ryan
Editor: Rebecca Parks
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 320)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,028 words

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[(essay date 2018) In the following essay, Ryan examines “Mansfield’s interest in the way that literary texts explore interspecies relations and the boundaries between humanity and animality” in “order to articulate a theory of aesthetics that exceeds mere representation” and focuses on “becoming” the animal in the story. ]

In a letter to John Middleton Murry, sent on 25 November 1919 from Ospedaletti, Katherine Mansfield responds critically to Sydney Waterlow’s lead article in that week’s Athenaeum, which marked the centenary of George Eliot’s birth:

I dont [sic] think S. W. [Sydney Waterlow] brought it off with George Eliot. He never gets under way. The cartwheels want oiling. I think, too, he is ungenerous. She was a deal more than that. Her English, warm, ruddy quality is hardly mentioned. … But think of some of her pictures of country life—the breadth—the sense of sun lying on long barns—great warm kitchens at twilight when the men came home from the fields—the feeling of beasts horses and cows—the peculiar passion she has for horses (when Maggie Tullivers [sic] lover walks with her up & down the lane & asks her to marry, he leads his great red horse and the beast is foaming—it has been hard ridden and there are dark streaks of sweat on its flanks—the beast is the man one feels SHE feels in some queer inarticulate way)—Oh, I think he ought really to have been more generous.

(118) In his piece, Waterlow doesn’t ignore Eliot’s “pictures of country life” entirely. But where he sees Eliot as an “admirable pastoral writer” in whose books “the hierarchy of beast and labourer, farmer, parson and squire in their setting of quietly undulating elm-bordered field” are “preserved … motionless in a kind of golden haze” (1217), Mansfield’s retort suggests a livelier reading of Eliot’s human and nonhuman figures as unsettling such hierarchies. Her phrase “the beast is the man one feels SHE feels” expresses a double movement whereby human and nonhuman figures have some sort of affinity with each other just as the reader is invited into the writer’s animal affections. Given that Waterlow reverts to essentialist language to point out Eliot’s inability to make a success of her “natural bent” of the “exquisite feminine vein” “towards reproduction rather than towards inventive creation” (1218)—she makes the mistake, we are told, of exploring “the world of intellectual abstractions which is properly preserved for males”—it is unsurprising that in rebuking him Mansfield feels that “I must stand up for my SEX” (“To J. M. Murry,” 25 Nov. 1919, 118). There is more than a hint that this comment is also directed at Murry, who was then editor of the Athenaeum, for not choosing her to write the article on Eliot despite the fact Mansfield had told him she would “love to do something” (“To J. M. Murry,” 23 Oct. 1919, 46).

The passage Mansfield refers to in her letter to Murry occurs toward the end of Eliot’s 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss. When Stephen Guest, arriving...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|QMMKJJ937251196