Mansfield's Notebooks

October 14: Katherine Mansfield was born on this day in 1888. Like those of Keats and Chekhov, who also died young of tuberculosis, Mansfield's notebooks, journals, and letters are prized almost as highly as her other writing—this is especially true since the 2002 publication of the unexpurgated Katherine Mansfield Notebooks. The journal excerpt below is from an August, 1922 entry, just as Mansfield, desperately ill, is contemplating entering the "Institute for Harmonious Development" run by the mystic, Gurdjieff. Some of Mansfield's friends told her that the Institute was a scam; she told them that she had always refused what most people accepted, including "the idea that Life must be a lesser thing than we were capable of imagining it to be":

…I had the feeling that the same thing happened to nearly everybody whom I knew and whom I did not know. No sooner was their youth, with the little force and impetus characteristic of youth, done, than they stopped growing. At the very moment that one felt that now was the time to gather oneself together, to use one's whole strength, to take control, to be an adult, in fact, they seemed content to swap the darling wish of their hearts for innumerable little wishes…. They deceived themselves, of course. 

A similar spirit runs throughout the last entries in Mansfield's journal—the very last one made on this day in 1922, her thirty-fourth birthday and the evening before she entered the Institute, where she died three months later:

Now, Katherine, what do you mean by health?  And what do you want it for?

Answer: By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love—the earth and the wonders thereof—the sea—the sun…. Then I want to work. At what? I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this. …[W]arm, eager, living life—to be rooted in life—to learn, to desire to know, to feel, to think, to act. That is what I want. And nothing less. That is what I must try for….

How can you hesitate? Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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