Eating and Reading with Katherine Mansfield
Like fast food and snacks, the short story has been derided as minor cuisine, ephemeral and insubstantial, light fare compared to the novel’s sustenance. For Katherine Mansfield, a great master of the form, eating offered a model for the sensuous consumption of her fiction — stories, in turn, that are filled with scenes of alimentary pleasure. On the centenary of the New Zealand writer’s death, Aimée Gasston samples her appetites.
January 9, 2023
When in 1920 Katherine Mansfield quoted Coleridge in her notebook — “I, for one, do not call the sod under my feet my country. But language, religion, laws, government, blood — identity in these makes men of one country”— she replied beneath resolutely with the words: “The sod under my feet makes mine”.1 For Mansfield, the messy materiality of the external world was more keenly significant than any secondary intellectual ordering of it, as the redolent sensuousness of her prose still attests. Reviewing the version of Mansfield's journal published by her lover/husband John Middleton Murry in 1927, Virginia Woolf concluded: “She is a writer, a born writer. Everything she feels and hears and sees is not fragmentary and separate; it belongs together as writing”.2 Writing for Mansfield was a holistic expression of every one of her heightened senses. But Woolf omitted one faculty that was crucial to Mansfield — taste.
Mansfield wrote poems about food in her notebooks, as well as recipes and grocery lists, and would interrupt her prose with famished declarations such as: “Im so hungry, simply empty, and seeing in my minds eye just now a surloin of beef, well browned and with plenty of gravy and horseradish sauce and baked potatoes I nearly sobbed”.3 More recent additions to New Zealand’s Alexander Turnbull Library's manuscripts collection add to its store of food-related Mansfieldian matter, comprising shopping lists, receipts, and recipes for orange soufflé and cold-water scones. This expanding wealth of material, both fictional and biographical, is not circumstantial evidence of everyday life and art intermingling — it is far more often proof that, to Mansfield, the two could never be separated.
Young Kathleen Beauchamp was a chubby cuckoo of a child who at the age of ten would be greeted sourly by her mother on the Wellington quay with the words “Well, Kathleen... I see you are as fat as ever”.4 But as an adult she metamorphosed to become lean and wiry, her appearance likely assisting Woolf’s assessment of her as “of the cat kind”.5 The First World War erupted when Mansfield was living in London at the age of twenty-five, and induced an acute scarcity of food as well as a meticulous rationing of what remained — a bureaucratisation of consumption sent up by Mansfield in the satirical “Egg cards at Munich”.6 She would comment to Murry in a letter of February 6, 1918: “Have you got your meat card? Of course, I think the meat cards will stop the war. Nothing will be done but spot-counting, and people will go mad and butchers . . . will walk around with bones in their hair, distracted”.7 Accordingly, at this time, a pervasive focus on food began to build, its absence making it the stuff of persistent desire and, appropriately enough, fiction.
For Mansfield, the war brought a catalogue of personal tragedies. In addition to the death of her younger brother Leslie Beauchamp in 1915, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis a year before its end, in 1917. Mansfield's illness would change her relationship with food dramatically; as Patricia Moran notes, “her emaciation required an obsessive attention to diet”.8 These contexts trace a complex and mutable relationship with food that resonates through Mansfield's stories. Food was a comforting, plentiful, and desirable luxury during her affluent upbringing, yet one which had the propensity to make the overindulgent undesirable. During wartime, food became a sparse commodity, reduced to its use value while provoking a richly imaginative fantasy life. To the consumptive patient, however, its importance was even more acute.
Mansfield's weight loss provoked Sisyphean attempts to take in ever-increasing volumes of nutrition, in effort to prevent the disease enacting its sobriquet and devouring her entirely. Shortly after her diagnosis, in December 1917, she wrote to Murry: “Although I am still snapping up fishes like a sea-lion, milk like a snake (or is that only a ‘tale’?) and eggs, honey, cream, butter and nourishing trimmings galore, they all seem to go to a sort of Dead Letter Office”.9 Here, Mansfield introduces a model of consumption without satisfaction that is tied directly to writing by mention of the dead letter office, where undelivered mail is processed, either returned to the sender or destroyed. Messages are issued but not read by their intended recipient, drawing on one of Mansfield's favourite themes — failed communication. It also picks up a wider theme of unfulfilled hunger which is intrinsic to the short story form (itself associated with orality as a descendent of spoken literature), where we are always presented with less than the “whole” story.10 As Mansfield would record in her diary:
The truth is one can only get so much into a story; there is always a sacrifice. One has to leave out what one knows & longs to use. Why? I haven't any idea but there it is. It's always a kind of race, to get in as much as one can before it disappears.11
There is a sense here that, like food, the stuff of fiction is subject to decay. It is something which the writer must bottle and preserve expediently to allow readerly ingestion or combustion, before its succulent contents are sent to the Dead Letter Office.
Reading for Eating
The word “read” has etymological links with both the gustatory and the visceral — one of its oldest senses being a noun meaning the stomach of an animal.12 Throughout her letters and diaries, Mansfield analogises the act of reading with that of eating, particularly at her most frank, when writing “to” herself in her journal, or to Murry. One extract from her correspondence with him reads: “Dearest darling. Two letters came—Saturday & Sunday heavenly ones full of rashers of bacon & fried eggs & casseroles. Oh I love what you write to me”.13 Another reads: “A Horn of Plenty! Your Sunday letter & postcard and your Monday letter. Oh, how I have devoured them”.14 Mansfield is, as Roland Barthes would describe Brillat-Savarin, “linked to language—as to food—by an amorous relation”; she “desires words, in their very materiality”.15 Mansfield's persistently alimentary mode of thought is also evidenced in a letter of October 4, 1920 to Murry, where the writer places herself in the role of consumer and apologises: “I feel this letter is cold and poor; the fruit is not good to eat”.16 In the same letter, she describes an unspecified paper she has read (likely Murry's writing) appreciatively as “full of meat”.17 In 1921, she writes to her cousin, the novelist Elizabeth von Arnim: “I have turned to Milton all last week. There are times when Milton seems the only food to me”.18 Elsewhere she articulates the “sudden sweet shock” of delight that Henry James gives her.19 In a further letter to Murry, she describes “get[ting] up hungry from the french language [because she has] too great an appetite for the real thing to be put off with pretty little kickshaws”.20
This dissatisfaction, Mansfield's letter concludes, is the result of being spoilt by too much Shakespeare, drawing sharp relief between the “rich” language of English, and the French, which she finds “hard to stomach”.21 The word “kickshaw” itself derives from French (quelque-chose) and is defined as a “fancy but insubstantial cooked dish, especially one of foreign origin”.22 To Mansfield, literature is then a comestible object, but one which should not yield too easily to its consumer.23 It should satiate a voracious appetite with a robust, succulent, and varied heartiness, not offer scanty titbits, attractive to the eye and sliding down easily but ultimately failing to satisfy. The discriminatory attitude towards the diminutive that is discernible here would also carry through to Mansfield's view of the short story genre, with her insecurities strengthened by the weighty authority of the traditional literary canon.
Fast Food and Short Stories
The proliferation of the short story at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century can be related materially to the industrial revolution, with advancements in printing techniques leading to the establishment of a magazine culture that required episodic, consumable fiction appropriately sized to its format.24 The same era also saw the industrial production of fast food and snacks, with chocolate bars, biscuits, and prepackaged fare becoming available for quick, easy, and informal consumption by those on the move or at picnics, with fish and chip stalls also beginning to flourish.25 As Lorna Piatti-Farnell has observed: “Victorian stability and social rigour were replaced by a new wave of social experimentation, and consumption emerged as a key element in the construction of social identities”.26
It is precisely this type of fast food that would have appealed to Mansfield and Murry. Claire Tomalin describes how:
Like children, they lived mostly on the junk food of the day, meat pies and the cheapest possible restaurants; Katherine had no time or wish to cook, even though Murry tried to teach her to make stock out of cheap ham bones, throwing in a few vegetables to make a pot-au-feu.27
If Mansfield refused this culinary (and gender) role, it was chiefly because she was wedded to her own ambition and had stories to simmer, season, and arrange. Like a chef, she would find herself dedicated to an art form regarded as minor by the wider world. This attitude still pervades treatment of the short story, which continues to be widely disregarded by literary histories except when considered as a specialist and marginal concern.
The burgeoning of fast food enabled by industrialisation signalled a freer, more modern mode of consumption. Its availability “increased the opportunities for eating independently and for pleasure, rather than for purposes of social ritual and nurturance”.28 Short fiction provided the reader the same liberty, allowing individuals to graze or snack on literature, without the need for protracted periods of leisure time set aside for it, or the comfortable interior furnishings that were prerequisite to the three-course meal, or triple-decker novel.29 This affinity between the snack and the short story is usefully exemplified by one of Mansfield's most faithful possessions, a fruit knife that she kept with her in a handbag wherever she went. This knife was used for its designated purpose, slicing fruit, yet also for sharpening pencils, particularly when travelling.30 The dual function of this object, which joins the snack with the story while signifying freedom and autonomy, makes a useful frame for considering Mansfield's fiction.
Yet this is likely to be a comparison with which Mansfield would have felt uneasy. As a young adult, she struggled but failed to complete novels entitled Maata and Juliet. The Aloe, which became Prelude and was published in 1918 by the Woolfs' Hogarth Press, was planned as the first chapter of a novel. Although the short story was the vehicle that allowed Mansfield to connect so intimately with New Zealand, Ida Baker recalls the author telling her “that she was determined to write a book, not just short stories, about [her] country”.31 When she first discovered the foreboding signal of blood in her handkerchief, Mansfield recorded in a well-known journal entry of 1917: “perhaps it is going to gallop—who knows—and I shan't have my work written. That's what matters. How unbearable it would be to die, leave ‘scraps’, ‘bits’, nothing real finished”.32 Here, Mansfield's cardinal fear reveals itself; that what she leaves behind might be ephemeral and insubstantial (although her use of quotation marks urges against too narrow a reading of what such “scraps” and “bits” might consist). While Mansfield would be accused of writing chocolate box pieces, denounce others for the same and on darker days suspect it of herself, her living, breathing body of work (fuelled by its own comestible contents) refutes this heartily.
The three short fiction collections published during Mansfield's lifetime show a changing attitude to food which mirrors her developing aesthetic. It has been widely remarked that food permeates Mansfield's first collection, In a German Pension. In “The Modern Soul”, England is described as “merely an island of beef flesh swimming in a warm gulf sea of gravy”, and a stuffed deer's head has a notice tied around it in simulation of a bib, and is wished bon appétit before each meal.33 In “A Swing of the Pendulum”, Viola, lacking a knife, bites her assailant on the hand, while “At Lehmann's” brings us the son of a butcher, “a mean, undersized child very much like one of his father's sausages”, and a pregnant wife who is told to stay away from customers because she looks “unappetizing”.34 We are also told how Sabina finds delight in “cutting up slices of Anna's marvellous chocolate spotted confections, or doing up packets of sugar almonds in pink and blue striped bags”, a pleasure in food undermined by the fact that later Sabina is almost molested by a customer because she does not properly understand the meaning of appetite.35
None of these alimentary examples involve eating: there is no giant to tuck into the metaphorical England; the stuffed deer can never satisfy his good appetite; the child may resemble a sausage but he is so thin he does not appear ever to have eaten one; Sabina's confections will remain imprisoned in their packaging and a glove will prevent Viola from properly relishing the taste of victory. Elsewhere, the spa-goers gorge themselves at regular intervals, but they do so seemingly without gratification, as if food were a prescription for their bodies that did not involve their brains. The detached narrative too is quite removed from the events it describes, with a brittle, sardonic tone — the text can only record from a distance rather than really get embroiled in the alimentary process. We are left by the kitchen window, looking in.
Mansfield came closer to finding an authentic voice in Bliss and Other Stories, but still no one eats and the pieces are tied up in etiquette, often centring around formal teas and dinner parties. In the title story, “Bliss”, food is everywhere, saturating thought and speech, and even evident in self-consciously avant-garde clothing (nut earrings and dresses like banana skins). The bohemians invited to Bertha's dinner party speak of plays entitled Love in False Teeth and Stomach Trouble, a plan for a fried-fish interior design scheme, and a poem called Table d'Hôte, which opens with the line: “Why must it always be tomato soup?”36 But this gustatory discourse is unrelated to passion or animal urges; sliding along the surface of things, it only proves their entanglement with the ephemeral and the inconsequential. Failing utterly to comprehend the force of feeling that informs all meaningful art or to produce a “gut reaction” in relation to it, these dilettante guests are cannibals feasting on each other’s hot air, as light as the soufflé which will be served at the party. The fish will rot, the soup in the poem will go rancid, but there will be another fad to replace it and the guests will have already turned away before they can witness the decay. Bliss and Other Stories most often depicts characters too entrapped by metropolitan intellectualism to know how to use their bodies and therefore eat.
In The Garden Party collection, widely considered to contain some of Mansfield's most accomplished work (with the fiction testifying to her pledge to create a kind of “special prose” which would pay a “sacred debt” to her homeland), there is a marked shift.37 Here, important moments of hope and freedom are enacted through snacking, taking place away from the constriction of the dinner table and the falsity of etiquette or politesse. We have Laura in “The Garden Party” biting at her bread and butter in the open air to show how much she prefers the company of the workmen sent to erect the marquee to that of those she is expected to keep company with. This is an act of rebellion which asserts her own individuality and allows her to imagine transgressing those limits prescribed for her. In “Bank Holiday”, an almost cinematic portrayal of a communal scene, the pleasure is more widespread, with convivial joy conveyed largely through acts of outdoor eating. Ice creams, oranges, and bananas are consumed with glee, with these individually-appreciated acts of consumption building into a carnivalesque mass enjoyment. Eating here is part of the ebb and flow of vibrant, teeming, sensory life.
By using snacks, fast, and pre-prepared food as a vehicle to express these quiet but important moments of change, of liberty and self-expression, Mansfield also revealed a shift in her literary viewpoint. The author’s affiliation with the short story was as complicated as her relationship with food, but by allowing characters to work towards authentic self-expression through snacking, transgressing convention and expectation in favour of autonomous satisfaction, she articulated a vision of a world in which the short story could survive, because its readers would resemble her characters. It was only through admitting her divorce from more traditional literary modes that Mansfield could provide both with the indulgence they craved and deserved.
Mansfield's strongest work enabled not transcendence, but embroilment with the materiality of existence; an anti-aristocratic formulation of modernism where appetite was key. Here, a piquant, shifting, comestible multiplicity of language leaves the reader entirely engaged, unlike Mansfield after reading one of her husband's letters, writing: “It had somehow a flat taste—and I felt rather as tho' I'd read it curiously apart”.38 Roland Barthes described Brillat-Savarin's language as “literally gourmand, greedy for the words it wields and for the dishes to which it refers”.39 Mansfield's texts too are “literally gourmand” — her best stories are delicacies made up of desire, snacks for ineluctably modern appetites. When Mansfield vowed in her notebook, “Yes, I want to write about my own country till I simply exhaust my store”, she could not have known just how much she would give from its depth — piling the shelves of New Zealand's literary larder giddily high and with improbable variety.40
Aimée Gasston is the author of the book Modernist Short Fiction and Things (Palgrave Macmillan 2021). She was winner of the fourth Katherine Mansfield Essay Prize and a Harry Ransom Fellow at the University of Texas, Austin, and now co-edits Katherine Mansfield Studies (Edinburgh University Press) with Gerri Kimber. She works in the field of information law.
Adapted and excerpted from Aimée Gasston, “Consuming Art: Katherine Mansfield’s Literary Snack”, Journal of New Zealand Literature 31, no. 2 (2013): 163–182. © Aimée Gasston