Katherine Mansfield: A Colonial Impressionist
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis considers Katherine Mansfield’s development as a writer in relation to late nineteenth and early twentieth century developments and trends in the visual arts in New Zealand, England and France. Mansfield’s notebooks, letters and stories evidence a definite response to developments in modern art and reveal that she aligned herself more closely with painters than with her literary colleagues; something Francis Carco hints at in his fictional account of her in Les Innocents (1916): he describes Mansfield as a predatory and exploitative woman with a detached manner, who “used him just the way a painter uses a model, studying character and movements” (cited in Mortelier 150). There exists in Mansfield’s stories evidence of the influence of the Impressionist and, to a lesser degree, the Post-Impressionist painters. While this influence has been noted by a selection of critics or rather her work has been described as impressionistic, it has been neither explored nor substantiated from an art historical perspective. My methodology has entailed identifying the defining characteristics of Mansfield’s stories that are also found in Impressionism, in as much as two different aesthetic forms can be compared. I then trace the exhibition history and contemporaneous criticism of modern French art in London and Paris alongside Mansfield’s trajectory in adulthood to ascertain the degree of exposure she had to Impressionism. In addition to that which she encountered in Europe, much consideration has been given to the artistic milieu of New Zealand prior to and following her schooling in London. I have sought to identify which of the modern artists and styles Mansfield most closely identified with, and to determine how precisely and extensively she applied the Impressionists’ painterly techniques and stylistic effects to her own prose. Broadly speaking, Mansfield’s preferred subjects may be grouped under three titles: Domestic Interiors, Urban Landscapes and Rural Landscapes – these were also the Impressionists’ favoured subjects. These categories, then, form the basis of my investigations.1 This thesis also explores the degree to which Mansfield’s colonial upbringing influenced, inspired and determined the themes and issues she chose to address, from the various forms of expression that were available to her to inherit and modify. My research reveals how both the cultural climate and the unique light and landscape of her own country made her susceptible to the ideas of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, even before she reached the more art-oriented cities of London and Paris. Mansfield’s status as a foreigner in Europe allowed her greater freedom to experiment and greater licence to borrow from other cultural forms and traditions. Though strains of Realism, Naturalism, Symbolism and 1 The consequence of choosing to structure my material around Mansfield’s three dominant subjects has resulted in some degree of repetition within this manuscript. This also means, however, that the individual chapters are strong enough to stand alone and thus this doctoral thesis should prove a valuable reservoir for future research. 6 Expressionism are all evident in Mansfield’s modernist fiction, it is the impressionistic quality of her work – evident in the fleeting and evocative sketches of the everyday – that is the overriding feature. Her colonial heritage was not only a significant factor in this development, but to a degree, the enabling condition – allowing her to reconcile the lessons of Europe within a New Zealand literary context resulting in a unique brand of Colonial Impressionism. NOTE ON THE TEXT Mansfield’s inconsistent and idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation have been retained within quotes in this thesis. In her letters she often dispensed with apostrophes and rarely used commas, instead preferring the dash. When citing, I have chosen not to follow these particular oddities with [sic] as these would be too numerous and would disrupt the flow of the text. I have instead followed the conventions of Mansfield’s editors.