Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s scathing first impression of Katherine Mansfield as ‘a civet cat that had taken to street-walking’ had always led us to put them down as enemies, but when our novelist friend Jill Dawson suggested them for our Times article on female writing friendships we began to question this preconception.

It turned out that Mansfield and Woolf considered themselves dear friends: they sought each other’s opinions on the books they traded; they exchanged gifts of Belgian cigarettes, loaves of bread, coffee beans, and columbine plants; they sent each other umpteen letters; and discussed their work over tea.

The two women were unlikely pals: Mansfield hailed from the far-flung colonies, whereas Woolf’s family was firmly entrenched in the English intelligentsia; Mansfield embraced her youthful desires with bohemian exuberance, whereas Woolf approached intimacy with timidity.

Both women experienced chronic illness, had complex relationships with editor husbands, and felt ambivalent about their childlessness. But it was really their shared literary endeavours that fired their friendship. Indeed, after spending a weekend with Woolf, Mansfield remarked that it was ‘very curious & thrilling that we should both, quite apart from each other, be after so very nearly the same thing’.

Although their friendship was relatively brief – from 1917 until Mansfield’s death in 1923 – its effect on their work was profound. During this time, Mansfield produced most of her celebrated stories (one of which Woolf published), and Woolf forged her trademark style. Although we more readily associate Woolf with the stream of consciousness technique, it was actually Mansfield who tried it out first.

In fact, Woolf seems to have been the more dependent of the pair: she was hurt (but likely also stimulated) by Mansfield’s damning review of her second novel; she worried when her letters failed to elicit a swift response; and references to Mansfield haunt her journal, showing her friend’s continued influence from beyond the grave.

Both friends recognised each other’s literary prowess: Woolf claimed that Mansfield’s was the only prose to have made her jealous, and Mansfield said that reading Woolf made her proud.

We too feel proud of our literary ancestresses – these women whose relationship could accommodate support and rivalry, criticism and praise; who were open to each other’s influence; and whose important friendship we’d been all too ready to write off.

Activity

Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf enjoyed corresponding with each other. In this letter, Woolf describes jotting in her diary ideas she wanted to share with Mansfield. This way, she wouldn’t forget to mention them the next time she wrote to her friend.

This month, we will follow their example. Like Woolf, we will use our notebooks to keep track of the things we’d like to discuss. Then we will write about these ideas in letters that we will post to each other.

We’d appreciate any suggestions of other friendships between famous female writers (living or dead) that you’d like us to feature in future posts.

66 thoughts on “Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf

  1. great idea, Emma. Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood? Hope your writing is going well and good luck with the site. Happy New Year!

    you might be interested in my frontline blog on the collapse of libraries and managerial imbecility.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion – it’s a good one. I remember seeing a great picture of them celebrating Munro’s Nobel win. And don’t they go way back?

      Just about to take a look at your site – glad to hear you are writing about this.

  2. Lovely idea for the New Year. I miss proper post, all that pleasure for the price of a stamp; the indulgence and intimacy of writing something for one sole person’s consumption.. it is fast becoming a lost delight. You have inspired me to get out my ink pen!

    1. So glad that this idea has resonated with you. I also long for real post. I was recently sorting through boxes in the loft, and came across piles of letters. It surprised me to remember that I had regularly received lovely handwritten letters from friends even as recently as ten years ago.

  3. enjoyed this, nice idea! i read recently (with some envy) about the friendship between donna tartt and ann patchett – good pair to feature?

  4. Anne Sexton & Maxine Kumin used to have marathon, day-long phone calls and read evolving drafts to each other. I wonder how different their work might have been without that, although I can’t imagine it myself. You could have a lot of fun with Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens as well. This is a great idea, well done. I used to be in a group of women writers – I’ll forward the info to them. A group dynamic is a different thing, but interesting too, don’t you think?

    1. I wonder if either Anne Sexton or Maxine Kumin ever commented on the effect of these conversations on their work. I once read an interesting interview of them by Elaine Showalter, which I must re-read. I’m glad to hear that Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens were friends. I met Bernice Rubens once. She told me that I didn’t fit in at my university and, that in years to come, I would feel proud of this! Maybe we should do one post on a group of friends. You are right that it must affect the dynamics.

  5. I remember reading somewhere that Jessica Mitford and Maya Angelou were great friends. I would love to know how that came about and how this influenced their work?

  6. Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby would be a great pair to feature – Brittain’s ‘Testament of Friendship’ is an inspiring and generous record of their friendship, too.

  7. Might you want to incude women who wrote together, like Somerville & Ross, or ‘Michael Field’? Great idea re the letters, I tried to set up a ‘society for real letters’ a couple of years ago, with a group of writing friends, writing as ficticious characters. it floundered rather quickly, but was fun while it lasted.

  8. Looking for more poets, how about Adrienne Rich and Michelle Cliff? Though the fact that they were lovers and most likely spent much of their time living together – might mean they didn’t often send each other letters. Though you never know.

    I was lamenting recently with my friend Susan, that letter writing was a thing of the past. We used to correspond when we first met in the 1980’s at a poetry workshop. Alot of poems were mailed from Dublin to Fair Street. Two or three times a week.

    1. We’re trying to stick to platonic friendships because we think they’ve been most overlooked, but I’ll look into Adrienne Rich’s other female writer friends.

      How lovely to have such a frequent poetic correspondence. Maybe this could be the month that you and Susan resume your letter writing?

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