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Literary Frenemies

The friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

‘Keep your friends close,’ counselled the ancient sage, ‘and your enemies closer.’ Yet what’s the advice when friend and enemy are one and the same; when kindred feeling and professional rivalry fuse to make ‘frenemies’?

In twenty-first-century parlance, it’s complicated.

A writerly case in point begins here: in 1916, debut novelist Virginia Woolf is pleased to learn that an interesting writer, one not known to her personally, is a keen admirer. ‘Katherine Mansfield has dogged my steps for three years — I’m always on the point of meeting her, or of reading her stories’. A New Zealander in London, Mansfield has attracted the friendship of figures such as D. H. Lawrence and Ottoline Morrell — in spite of the gossip that follows her. ‘Miss Mansfield’, the ‘companion’ of editor John Middleton Murry, fled a disastrous marriage and is, in fact, still married. Woolf, by contrast, is respected, well-connected and respectably married.

Mansfield’s introduction to Woolf by Lytton Strachey that year is a failure. It’s unclear why. Mansfield is six years Woolf’s junior and a rising star, even as an outsider in literary London. A largely sneering account of Mansfield by Strachey to Woolf may be to blame. Also, does Woolf’s choice of words – ‘Mansfield has dogged my steps for three years’ – reveal that she already views the talented Mansfield as a worrisome rival? Whatever the case, Woolf declares her a ‘forcible and utterly unscrupulous character’.

The timing, however, is fortuitous. In 1917, Virginia and Leonard Woolf acquire a printing press. Money is tight, and they need to find short, quality work quickly. ‘I am going to see Katherine Mansfield, to get a story from her, perhaps’. Woolf sounds uninspired. Mansfield is hopeful: ‘Virginia came to tea this afternoon […] If only something wonderful would happen’.

It does. They agree a story – ‘Prelude’ – will be published by the Hogarth Press the following year. Mansfield writes to Leonard, humble and excited: ‘I am exceedingly obliged to you for your kind letter. To think that you and Virginia like my story is most uncommon jolly — I still can hardly believe it’.

Woolf promptly downgrades her contempt to mere ambivalence: ‘She seems to have gone every sort of hog since she was 17, which is interesting; I also think she has a much better idea of writing than most. She’s an odd character…’.

Mansfield, by contrast, is ‘ardent’: ‘Ever since I read your letter I have been writing to you and am a bit ‘haunted’ by you […] pray consider how rare to find some one with the same passion for writing that you have’.

The Bloomsbury set swap gossip about Mansfield’s marital ambiguities — evidence, ostensibly, of her ‘lies & poses’. Mansfield also commits the sin of cosmopolitanism, wearing make-up, fashion and Parisian scent. To Bloomsbury eyes (and noses), it’s all rather vulgar. Wounded, Mansfield declares, ‘To Hell with the Blooms Berries.’ She feels an outcast: ‘I am the little colonial walking in the London garden patch — allowed to look, perhaps, but not to linger’.

Aware of her role in ‘the Mansfield intrigue’, Woolf is strategic: ‘all I’ll say is that I deny entirely that I said what I’m reported to have said’. She invites Mansfield to dinner in Sussex, where she smooths her author’s hackles. Privately, following the dinner, she and Leonard ‘wish that ones* first impression of K.M. was not that she stinks like a — well civet cat that has taken to street walking’. Yet Woolf cannot deny Mansfield’s gifts: ‘when this [commonness] diminishes, she is so intelligent & inscrutable that she repays friendship…’. Mansfield is charmed but ‘ardent’ no longer. To Murry, she writes: ‘I am sorry you have to go to the Woolves. I don’t like them either. They are smelly’.

Stink and smelliness notwithstanding, trust grows between the two writers. Professionally, however, their relationship is a challenge, especially for Woolf. At her most gracious, she declares: ‘Katherine is the very best of woman writers — always of course passing over one fine but very modest example…’ — i.e. herself. At her worst, she triumphs in what she deems any failure by Mansfield: ‘I threw down Bliss with the exclamation, “She’s done for!” […] I’m afraid, that her mind is a very thin soil’.

Mansfield worries Woolf is still ‘VERY delicate’ following her recent recovery from a nervous breakdown. Mansfield herself is struggling with what is thought to be chronic rheumatism. In fact, it’s undiagnosed gonorrhoea. In late 1917, her outlook worsens. She is diagnosed with the tuberculosis that will kill her in just over five years. ‘I spat – it tasted strange – it was bright red blood […] I am frightened. […] I don’t want to find this is real consumption, perhaps it’s going to gallop – who knows – and I shan’t have my work written’.

Woolf, increasingly, comes to rely on the new friendship: ‘at least she cares about writing, which as I’m coming to think, is about the rarest and most desirable of gifts’. Woolf travels to Hampstead faithfully each week to visit her ‘rheumatic’ friend and rival. ‘Katherine was up, but husky & feeble, crawling about the room like an old woman.’

Mansfield writes to Woolf: ‘I wonder why I feel an intense joy that you are a Writer — that you live for writing. I do. You are immensely important in my world Virginia’. Then, in a reversal of the status quo, Mansfield seems to grow distant, a consequence of her failing health. Woolf feels rejected: ‘It is at this moment extremely doubtful whether I have the right to class her among my friends. Quite possibly I shall never see her again’.

Woolf’s jealousy of Mansfield intensifies. As she sees it, Mansfield stands ‘firmly on her rights as an artist; as people do who must insist on being one’. Her judgments of Mansfield will grow ever more acidic, even as her own success soars. Touchingly, she admits, ‘It’s awful to be afflicted with jealousy. I think the only thing is to confess it’.

Mansfield seems to detect the hostility and begins to criticise Woolf’s work, albeit cautiously. In 1919, she reviews Woolf’s new novel, characterising it as old-fashioned: ‘here is Night and Day, […] a novel in the tradition of the old English novel. In the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill: we had never thought to look upon its like again’. Woolf feels the barb. She believes the review is motivated by ‘spite’. Arguably, Woolf’s next book, Jacob’s Room – her first decisive break with the conventions of the English novel – is the legacy of that review.

From 1920 to 1921, Mansfield travels to the continent for ‘fresh air treatment’. She writes when her health allows. ‘I know exactly where I fail.’ And yet ‘[…t]here is no feeling to be compared with the joy of having written and finished a story’. She is, however, intensely lonely. To Woolf she writes: ‘I wonder if you know what your visits were to me — or how much I miss them. You are the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another’.

In October 1922, with one functioning lung, Mansfield moves to the Gurdjieff Institute, outside Paris, in search of courage and calm. In January 1923, she allows the recently unfaithful Jack Murry to visit, but it’s too late: ‘As she slowly climbed the big staircase to the first floor where her room was, she suddenly forgot herself and tried to run up […] Suddenly a great gush of blood poured from her mouth. It seemed to be suffocating her. She gasped out ‘I believe…I’m going to die’.

She was thirty-four.

Woolf understands only belatedly how ill Mansfield was. ‘It hurt me that she never answered, and then […] those gossips assured me that this was her game, and so on, and so on; until though I wanted to write, I felt that I no longer knew where we stood together.’ She confesses, ‘I was jealous of her writing — the only writing I have ever been jealous of. This made it harder to write to her’.

She struggles to process her emotions: ‘one feels — what? A shock of relief? — a rival the less? Then the confusion at feeling so little — then gradually, blankness & disappointment; then a depression which I could not rouse myself from all day. When I began to write, it seemed to me there was no point in writing. Katherine wont read it. Katherine’s my rival no longer’.

Even after Mansfield’s death, Woolf will disparage her work. Yet truth will out: ‘K. & I had our relationship; & never again shall I have one like it’. Woolf, by nature astonishingly fluent, gropes for the words… They come at last: ‘K.M. always said affectionate things to me, poor woman, whom in my own way I suppose I loved’.

The experience of ‘frenmity’ is often a profound one, especially at a certain stage of life. It offers abundant joys – shared laughter, validation, solidarity, inspiration, intimacy – as well as the sharp spurs of rivalry in our tender, most human parts. Without the remarkably free and modern example of Katherine’s prose, would Virginia have driven herself to cast off convention (as beautifully executed as it was in her hands) to become the extraordinary Modernist writer we celebrate today? Without Virginia’s canny eye for talent and the Woolfs’ efforts at the Hogarth Press, would the ‘outsider’ Katherine have found the calibre of recognition she needed for her work to thrive and survive? I suspect not. Like their work, their relationship was all shifting shadows and oblongs of light. Yet what remains of it is light: life, the thing itself, flickering and flashing between their lines.

*Note: punctuation errors and anomalies from the original sources have been retained.

Alison MacLeod is the author of two short-story collections and four novels, including the 2013 Booker-nominated Unexploded, and, most recently, Tenderness, a New York Times Best Book of 2021 and a Sunday Times Best Paperback of 2022. She is a senior academic in modern and contemporary fiction.

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