I am making slow, steady progress through Volume 5 of Katherine Mansfield's letters and when I've finished I will start again where I should have done, with Volume 1. I now have a complete set and they have captured my imagination wholesale but I just can't desert Katherine in Volume 5 now.
It is 1922, the final year of Katherine's life, she has left Montana in Switzerland for Paris where she is in the midst of some very whacky (what NHS Blog Doctor would call Wibble) treatment under the auspices of Ivan Manoukhin. By all accounts something of a charlatan with a pretty poor bedside manner as he administers what turn out to be useless daily doses of X rays to Katherine's spleen in an effort to halt the progress of her pulmonary tuberculosis. The sessions are called seances which perhaps adds a further element of wibble, and they are cripplingly expensive, which doubtless confirms that it probably is wibble. Double confirmation comes in the words of Manoukhin himself
'I can promise to cure you, to make you as though you have never had this disease.'
But with our PhDs in Hindsight we know this is 1922 and as Dorothy Crawford explained so cogently, Mycobacterium tuberculosis amongst the most ancient of human pathogens, thought to have jumped from cattle to humans some 15,000 - 20,000 years ago, and it would be another thirty years before successful drug treatments emerged. Katherine clings desperately onto even the faintest promise of good health yet day by day feels worse and worse, though living in constant expectation that she will turn a corner at any moment,
' Manoukhin says in three weeks I shall have a real reaction & then be able to do even less than that for the next three weeks. Its rather like waiting to have an infant - newborn health.'
'Ten minutes after a seance I am so dead tired I feel as if I had swum across Wellington harbour.'
'This man squeezes three hundred francs a time out me...if it is all my eye at the end I shall look awfully silly and dear knows what will happen.'
John Middleton Murry has joined her in Paris and apart from daily sorties to the clinic for treatment Katherine, increasingly weakened and debilitated, spends much of her day in bed. Despite being in desperate need of money she has little energy or inspiration for writing stories, yet whilst that muse seems to evade her Katherine still needs to write something somehow to survive, and so letters to friends become her daily oxygen and a prolific correspondence emerges.
Each letter reflects moments of joy and hope as she continues to pin her chances on this treatment and they make terribly poignant reading, but Katherine also has a brusqueness about her, and her tolerance for long-suffering friend Ida Baker, currently keeping Chalet des Sapins afloat on a shoestring budget back in Switzerland, is stretched to the limit and diminishing daily. Yet Ida is essential to Katherine, if only to mind the flea-ridden cat Wingley, she can't afford to fall out with her and so a letter of repentance often follows hot on the heels of a stinker.
But then would tolerance be even a remotely possible virtue when the effects of the wibble treatment mean that,
'After 5 doses of X rays one is hotted up inside like a furnace and one's very bones seem to be melting.'
' One burns with heat in one's hands & feet and bones, then suddenly you are racked with neuritis, but such neuritis that you cant lift your arm. Then ones head begins to pound. It's the moment when if I were a proper martyr I should begin to have that awful smile that martyrs in the flames put on when they begin to sizzle.'
It's all so involving. Reading letters again proving the most fascinating way to explore a life, not quite so 'served on a plate' as a biography and always interesting to apply your own interpretations and arrive at your own conclusions. Katherine Mansfield's short story The Prelude I discover was the third book produced by the Woolf's Hogarth Press, 300 copies at 3/6d each, but you don't even have to pay that much.
A copy of the Oxford World's Classics edition of Selected Stories (including The Prelude) to three lucky winners.
Names in comments as long as, to give me hope, you tell me you haven't written your Christmas cards yet either (fib if necessary).