Katherine Mansfield’s writing is a pearl that wriggles, twitches and uncurls into a maggot. Exquisite, feminine dream-worlds are again and again spun out of pink sugar; to devour them is to experience the nausea that must follow the sweetness, the dark truths that lurk beneath aesthetic delight.
In the latter half of 1921, Mansfield’s own life mirrored this duality more than ever before. Cloistered in a picturesque chalet in Switzerland, Mansfield and her husband enjoyed a sky so blue and vistas so beautiful, it seemed to her that she was tucked close to heaven. Long languorous mornings spent smoking and reading aloud melted into gentle afternoon walks among the pine trees and wildflowers. She wrote in her room overlooking the valley, accompanied by her beloved cat, Wingley, with baskets of flowers and apricots, sent by her Countess cousin, close at hand.
However, this vision of bourgeois contentment, if not a façade, was certainly not the entire picture. She wrote, not out of love, but to afford her medical bills, as tuberculosis wracked her body. Dissatisfied with her work, she struggled with creative angst whilst acutely aware that every story would take days to recover from, and, by pushing herself in this way whilst her body deteriorated, she might be chipping away at her time left in the world. It is fitting, therefore, that the resulting stories blend beauty and pain, creating a luxurious silken cocoon only to unravel it, suddenly, in their abrupt and often chilling endings.
The apotheosis often occurs when brute masculinity ruptures the sparkling female universe. The aesthetic of feminine desirability meets the reality of male desire, and, thus, the rose-tinted glasses are smashed and ground into the dirt. A summer garden in twilight becomes the site of sexual assault, teenage girls at their first ball have a lecherous older man in their midst, a young woman recoils when her idle flirtation is ruined by inappropriate lust—her heroines struggle with how the patriarchy places them on a pedestal, infantilised and quasi-pure, yet the men they encounter continue to be grunting and carnal.
Time after time, Mansfield’s female characters are thwarted in their desire to live a life of dainty naiveté, as men map out this role for them only to selfishly reject it. This is a message that continues to be relevant today, as simpering Victoria’s Secret Models, piggy-tailed porn-stars and paternalistic boyfriends everywhere continue to encourage a cutesy feminine aesthetic. As long as femininity caters to masculine desire, women will continue to struggle in the same way as Mansfield’s heroines.
In ‘Carnation’, the appropriately-named Eve takes a flower and pulls it to pieces, “eating it, petal by petal”. With every swoosh of glossy hair, chink of the floral tea-set and flutter of a lace fan, Mansfield does the same to femininity: she deconstructs and subverts, “petal by petal”, what it means to be a woman.