Colette and Katherine Mansfield on Love and Independence
This paper examines the influence of French novelist, journalist and critic, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, upon the writings of Katherine Mansfield. Both women began publishing their work just after the turn of the Twentieth Century: Colette in 1900 and Mansfield in 1911. Each writer straddled the transition from the Belle Époque or Edwardian eras into the early twentieth-century world of modernist experiment and subjective uncertainty. Mansfield was reading Colette’s novels La Vagabonde and L’Entrave in 1910 and 1913 – novels dealing with conflict for women between love and independence, also strong themes in Mansfield’s life and works. Despite their different backgrounds, there are a number of parallels in the lives of these two women. Both Colette and Mansfield grew up in small downs which they left at a young age for a larger cultural capital, and both had chosen a life of independence or ‘vagabondage’ over stability. Both women had husbands who were accomplished literary editors, and each were connected with Noumean-born French author, Francis Carco. John Middleton Murry very quickly saw the connections between the two women, calling Mansfield ‘the eternal woman … the wonderful type… Colette Vagabond and you Katherine above all Moderns.’
Mansfield had long been interested in and influenced by the French tradition. As a child she read the books of Balzac, Merimée and Flaubert which she borrowed from Parliament House Library in Wellington. Her contiguity with the French Symbolist and Decadent movements has been well documented, and so too, the influences of the short story tradition in France, in particular, the works of Maupassant. Colette, however, with her impressionistic depictions of travelling heroines who renounce love and security and reclaim their suffering and solitude, offered Mansfield a particular model for writing about and for women. Like Colette, Mansfield was interested in conveying a new mode of expression, one which could accommodate complex characters, shifting points of view, symbols and lyricism – in a sense, a modern female subjectivity. Both writers addressed the darker aspects of married life. For Colette, the ultimate emancipation for women was not through heterosexual marriage, but through the pursuit of creativity, solitude, bliss or, as she wrote in Le Pur et L’Impur, a certain ‘mental hermaphroditism.’ The ultimate love, for Colette becomes, not love towards an object or man, but an objectless love – a certain kind of bliss – which one gives to the world. Simone de Beauvoir refers to these moments as revelations in which women discover their accord with a self-sufficient reality: a nouvelle instant, a moment of perception and illumination. So too, for Katherine Mansfield, the short story is an ideal form to explore such epiphanies.
Pike, D. (2010). Colette and Katherine Mansfield on Love and Independence. Paper presented at the Katherine Mansfield, the ‘Underworld’ and the ‘Blooms Berries’ Conference, RMIT, Melbourne, 4-5 June, 2010.