All Sorts of Lives

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) would be New Zealand’s best known writer of the short story. Thousands of students would have studied her in university; others would have read her just because she writes so well. I belong to both those camps. Katherine was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp into a prosperous family, who lived in Tinakori Road, Wellington. She was bright, gifted in music and writing from an early age. But she felt a misfit in her family, thought her home ‘dull and claustrophobic’, and once she’d visited London as a teenager, yearned to live a liberated, and bohemian life, preferably abroad. She left for London on her own aged nineteen, became the writer she dreamed of being and never returned home. It is testament to her skill as a writer that we are still reading about her a hundred years after her death, and it is the book written to mark this centenary I especially wish to write about.

Mansfield’s stories have such energy, pace, inner reflection, and attention to detail, which draw the reader in. She manages to have the reader feel they are perhaps a guest at this party, or the maid, observing all. We become nobility, or the serving class. She has the eye of an artist and ear of a musician; who lived an extremely vivid, controversial and often difficult life in the thirty-four short years she was with us.

All Sorts of Lives by Claire Harman is so very different, and I believe more interesting than the books I have previously read on Katherine Mansfield – and there have been many written over the years. The reason is that Harman is herself a terrific writer, who has presented Katherine’s writing to readers in a very different and intriguing way. She has selected ten of Mansfield’s stories: How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped; The Tiredness of Rosabel; The Child-Who-Was-Tired; The Daughters of the Late Colonel; An Indiscreet Journey; Bliss; Je ne parle pas français; Prelude; The Garden Party and The Fly, and taken the reader on an exploration of the writing itself. There are excerpts shown, to convey the how and why Mansfield used a particular voice, style, point of view, characterisation, setting, etc., but Harman focusses more on the various ways of writing that Katherine Mansfield felt compelled to use for each.

And the fact that Claire Harman has been able to present this information in a beautifully written and engaging way is fantastic. I feel that anyone with a love of short story will enjoy this book. I can honestly say that All Sorts of Lives is a page-turner, and a reader always wishes for that!

All Sorts of Lives by Claire Harman, published by Chatto & Windus in 2023

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