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The New Zealand Herald
October 28, 2001
Mansfield's Russian revolution
Biographer Joanna Woods tells MARGIE THOMSON how Katherine Mansfield was transformed from a mad, bad girl into a great writer.

Katherine Mansfield's most recent biographer, Joanna Woods, stumbled on to her subject in the most unlikely of places. Not in Wellington, where she lives, next door to Mansfield's former home on Tinakori Rd, but in snowy Moscow where, at the deserted university, destiny waited for her in the form of a light under a door in a corridor.

It was 1993 [DJ: A typo.] and Woods had come to Russia with her diplomat husband and two almost-adult sons, the latest stop in a life that had seen them posted to countries such as France, Greece, Italy and Iran.

With her interests in literature and language, Woods always actively pursued the local culture, and the sojourn to Russia was no exception. She had studied Russian at Victoria University (from where she had an English literature degree and a diploma in teaching English) and, with her great sociability, was well equipped to meet the citizens of her new home.

On that fateful day she set off to the university to inquire about tutoring work in the English department, something she had often done in her temporary homes. But it was holiday time and no one was around.

"I went off creeping around this enormous building ... it was getting a bit spooky because it gets dark around 3 o'clock. I suddenly saw this light coming from under a door and thought, 'There's life here.' I thought, 'Courage!' I crept down the passage and opened the door and there was this very large lady sitting behind a huge pile of papers."

The large lady was Professor Svetlana Ter Minasova, dean of the faculty of foreign languages, and the two became friends. Minasova invited the Irish-born Woods to work on a doctoral thesis.

Woods wrestled with the idea for a few weeks, wanting to write about cultural links between Russia and New Zealand. One day, in Moscow's Library of Foreign Literature, she came across a whole shelf of books on Katherine Mansfield.

"Fancy them having all that here," she thought, taking some off the shelves. As she opened them, to her amazement the Russian names came tumbling out: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Manoukhin, Ouspensky ... and she straight away knew: this is my subject.

Of all the many biographies of Mansfield, none had focused on the profound influence in her life of Russian culture and, in particular, literature.

Chekhov was the major influence, with her admiration for him being evident (all too evident, some critics have said) in her writing philosophy and style, and in her attitude to living.

So strongly did she relate to the Russian temperament (she famously dressed in Russian clothes, smoked Russian cigarettes and called herself by Russian variations of her own name, such as Katya, Kissienka, and the Katerina of Woods' title) that she chose to end her life living in the Russian Bohemian commune at Fontainebleau, which no other biographer had been able to make sense of.

"Those last months outside Paris, with her decision to give up on conventional medicine and put her hopes in a life prescribed by a guru who was quite as often thought of as a fraud, have troubled even her best biographers," writes Vincent O'Sullivan of Victoria University, who has contributed a foreword to Woods' book.

He writes that Woods "draws together Mansfield's temperamental swings, the tides of her taste, the vagaries of travel and health, and what the Russians finally could offer her. We see that all these stories, as it were, become the one story, and it is told engagingly and with compelling focus."

Mansfield's relationship with Russia was two-way. While she never visited the land of her dreams, her writing made the journey and was read and loved when most other Western writers were banned. Her reputation ebbed and flowed according to the political climate, but her perceived social realism and interest in the underdog (and, later, her emphasis on inner consciousness) kept her largely within the fold of official approval.

Collections of stories were published and widely read. Stories, articles and reviews were printed in influential journals. And the two best-known English-language textbooks in 1960s Russia included abridged versions of A Cup of Tea (in which a wealthy woman invites a poor girl home for tea, and which could be seen as embodying the evils of the class system) as grammatical exercises.

Mansfield was not a likable young woman, and that's partly what makes her such an enduringly interesting one. She was terrifically stylish, intelligent and intellectual. But she told lies, was volatile and sharp, and had the selfishness and single-mindedness of overwhelming ambition.

What continues to endear her to us is the way she wrestled with herself and - particularly in her last few years as she succumbed to the "great black bird" that was her tuberculosis - tried to become a better person. And for that, as Woods shows, we can largely thank Anton Chekhov. "There is a turning point in her life around 1919-1920 when I believe she was hugely influenced by Chekhov's letters."

At that time, Mansfield and her great Russian friend Samuel Koteliansky were working together on a translation of Chekhov's letters. Struck by his warmth, humour, honesty and sincerity, she wrote: "Oh, how pure artists are, how clean and faithful. Think of Chekhov."

Says Woods: "When she read the letters she realised how much she fell short of him as a human being. And she got this belief that if you're going to be a great artist you also have to be a great human being.

"So she started working on herself, and I really think she did have a great turnabout as a human being. If you look at her letters you see that she suddenly started making her peace with people, apologising for having been so flaky.

"And the marvellous thing is that if you look at her stories there's really a big change. The stories she wrote in the latter part of her life after this turnaround have got this immortal quality to them - The Daughters of the Late Colonel and At the Bay - whereas a lot of the earlier ones, like Bliss, are really quite spiteful, nasty stories.

"I don't want to make too much of it, but it's like a prodigal son scenario: she started off as a mad, bad girl, then illness and suffering and insight and Russians turned her around and into a great writer."

Mansfield died young at 33, in January 1923, but she is recognised as a great innovator of short-story-writing technique.

Woods, on the other hand, is at 54 just hitting her stride. Katerina is her second biography, with her first, The Commissioner's Daughter: The Story of Elizabeth Proby & Admiral Chichagov, published in England last year.

Her bubbling personal charm ripples through her written work. Little gems such as alarm bells being drowned by "the rustling of shopping bags" typify her accessible style, and it's hard to give credence to the lack of confidence that she insists prevented her from gaining an earlier start.

After defending her doctoral thesis to a terrifying gathering of 27 Russian professors, and passing, Woods knew she wanted to go further than the strictly literary parameters laid down by the university: she wanted to tell the "whole story" of how Mansfield was influenced in the most personal way by her Russian obsession, and why it was that at the very end of her life, surrounded by Russian friends, she said: "I have found my people at last."

* Katerina: The Russian World of Katherine Mansfield by Joanna Woods (Penguin, $39.95)

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