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Authors: Katherine Mansfield

The Aloe

BOOK: The Aloe


Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was born in Wellington, New Zealand, but moved to Europe in 1903. In London she befriended avant garde writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and the critic John Middleton Murry. Her own work, influenced by Anton Chekhov, made her name as a master of stories and short fiction.

New Zealand-born
Kirsty Gunn
is the author of five novels,
The Boy and the Sea, Featherstone, Rain, The Keepsake
This Place You Return To Is Home
, and a collection of her own writings and poems,
44 Things
. She lives with her family in London and Dundee, where she directs the writing programme for the University.

The Aloe

The Aloe

Katherine Mansfield


Original text edited by Vincent O’Sullivan



The Aloe

First published by Capuchin Classics in 2010

© Capuchin Classics 2010

Transcription copyright Vincent O’Sullivan 1982, 1985

2 4 6 8 0 9 7 5 3 1

Capuchin Classics

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Châtelaine of Capuchin Classics
: Emma Howard

ISBN: 978-1-9074290-8-8
eISBN: 978-1-9074296-1-3

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner

Vincent O’Sullivan’s transcription of the text of
The Aloe
has been edited to omit those lines and words deleted by Katherine Mansfield in her original manuscript.


“. . . and the top of the cream jar flew through the air and rolled like a penny in a round on the linoleum and did not break. But for Kezia it had broken the moment it flew through the air and she picked it up, hot all over, put it on the dressing table and walked away,
too quickly – and airily.”

So ends
The Aloe
, New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield’s brightly finished picture of domestic life at the turn of the last century as seen through the clarifying lens of memory… And something has been broken. Just as for Kezia the lid of the jar has come apart “the moment it flew through the air”, so what is caught here, in words, is a thing of fragments, held together as though by chance but never really whole. For the past from which this story is made, Katherine Mansfield’s past, her New Zealand past, her Wellington past, has been broken with long ago. They are the shattered pieces of it you are now holding in your hand.

Of course, for Mansfield, the great practitioner of the sliver, the “slice of life”, the European short story, the idea of pieces comes as no surprise. Her narratives were always made as parts and scenes and tiny, cleanly cut-out unremarkable dramas. But nowhere else in her work is the sense of fracture more apparent than in
The Aloe
, nowhere else does she so accommodate such broken-up content. Here is a kind of fiction that, more than the other stories, celebrates, delights in and puts forward for our notice, a different way of reading – a way of seeing, actually – that means one can only regard the piece in separate incidents in order to have it at all. The vivid, disparate scenes seem to be set down randomly, just as they occur to the author, like life happening on the page, with memory and sudden thought converging and no sense of dramatic intent or overbearing structure to hold any of it artificially in place. The reader simply looks on, as witness and participant, as the story moves us in and out of rooms and conversations, stopping here for a cup of tea, there to look at a flower. We come up too close, sometimes, to recollection, moments of family history, and we meet new characters only to leave them again and return to what is familiar, going back out into the garden with the little sisters and cousins to get some fresh air...

“What form is it? you ask...” Katherine Mansfield wrote in letters referring to her new literary project. “As far as I know it’s more or less my own invention.”

It is easy to see how that “invention” caught Virginia Woolf’s eye, reflecting as it does in bright fragments her own “moments of being” and resulting in the publication by Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1917 of the edited and cut-back
, the story that we know today as
Both versions are profound, highly wrought examples of a still emerging Modernist English tradition that placed aesthetics and the arrangement of images and ideas over traditional narrative methods, and
, Mansfield’s shorter and more precise version of the original, is without doubt the greater artistic achievement.

But in
The Aloe
we see more intensely than in that second more polished work the very processes of an artist discovering her aesthetic through necessity; by making good something that is no longer whole, no longer available to her, that she may have it back, somehow, all the scattered bits returned in one piece. “Oh, I want for one moment to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World,” she wrote in her journal, while getting the beginnings of her new story down. “It must be mysterious, as though floating. It must take the breath… But all must be told with a sense of mystery…”
And, she wrote later, “in a special kind of prose”.

It is what I might call “psychic imperative”, this need to find a new method, a new literary style that can cope with the sheer complexities of a work’s emotional and psychological content – and we see it present in all examples of great literature, from
To the Lighthouse
War and Peace
, like a deeply humming engine sitting within the brand new design that has been created to fit perfectly around it. So Mansfield wrote this book far, far away from the house and garden in which it is set, on the other side of the world, with the recent death of her beloved brother Leslie, who’d been killed in the War, fresh in her mind – another break there, another fracture – but all the memories of the time they’d had together when they were children “at home” come back to her to energise and breathe life into her project. And far from it being an incomplete version, a mere first draft,
The Aloe
fully defines how Mansfield finds in the fragment not something broken off, deranged and unfinished, but the very beginning of the story, the start of everything she needs.

Her own life, ever since leaving New Zealand for the first time, as a schoolgirl, was a restless, interrupted affair – going from place to place, back to New Zealand, then to London again, from London to Germany to France to Italy and back to France… She was never settled. She lived in hotel rooms and short-rent apartments, shuttling between cities and the country, staying with friends, and finally, her body spent and wrecked by tuberculosis, finishing up in a quasi-religious institute that was only half-built and where, even then, in the last weeks of her life, she was moved from one room to another as though to be in one place ever for any length of time was to be denied her.

The Aloe
gives us a very different kind of story. It is assured, comfortable, and deeply comforting – as though the author has never left home, as though her brother and sisters are with her, as though she is safe. And we as readers are plunged into the family life of the Fairfields as though we too have always belonged there. So we move with them from town to the country – and though there may be some uncertainties about the new life they have chosen, with the mother Linda’s dreamy melancholy unable to find expression in the sunlit garden and rooms full of the sounds of people calling, and though Linda’s younger sister Beryl confides to a friend in a letter that she think she may “rot” there away from society and its diversions, still there is nothing uncertain about the solidity of the home, of its seductions and claustrophobia, its horrors and longueurs.

In Kezia, the young girl who appears throughout Mansfield’s work, whose character seems to guide us through the story, there is nothing fractured either. Only the deliciousness instead of waking with her in the morning to hear the birds singing and to see the light creeping across the wall… Of going into the kitchen after hanging paintings on new walls to have a cup of tea and a slice of gingerbread with the Grandmother who has laid it all out there nicely on a linen cloth…

This is Katherine Mansfield making a “home for herself in words”, to paraphrase a line taken from the cultural and literary critic Edward Said when he’s describing what it is to be a writer.
She is bringing together her broken life that is spread in bits about the world, the memories of her dead brother and her estranged family, all gathered into one house, one place, one time. It’s as though the pieces of her past are allowed to make a pattern then, one vivid part laid next to another, background and foreground in one. Here at one corner is the bright garden, at another the mysterious horse-and-cart ride through the streets at night as the little girls leave their city home for the house in the hills. Here is Pat the handyman coming along with his axe to take the head off a white duck, here is the Grandmother sleeping softly next to her favourite grandchild. One scene after another falling into place as the writer takes each moment and sets it next to another, creating in that “special prose” a story of fragments and scenes – one would not even call them “chapters” – as a sort of mosaic, or better, re-conjoined in much the same way as a cleanly fractured ceramic may have all its shards fitted together and presented again as a whole. So we are meant to see the cracks, I think, and to find them just as lovely.

For those who admire Mansfield’s work, the avid reader or student of writing, this Capuchin volume, taken from Vincent O’Sullivan’s edition of the comparative texts of the two stories first published in 1982 and then singly as
The Aloe
in 1985,
allows us full access to Mansfield’s creative mind. For one can compare this earlier version with the later, shorter
and get a real sense of how she went to work on her story, of those scenes that were first scribbled down in bits in a child’s exercise book in London and in France. To see that writing, the pen moving so fast one can barely make out the letters of the words, is to see how the structure came together quite clearly for this writer as something made in fragments, how the fragments bore her away... One might barely conceive at times that they would ever become any kind of joined together book or novella. A vision of that way of making a story, a kind of piece-work, remains in the published form of
The Aloe
, with all the words in it given over to considering the life that Katherine Mansfield had once known so well, those detailed scenes crammed with remembered New Zealand details, its bush and plants and native birds… And how rich and rewarding it is to read the two stories side by side, to see what was taken and what was left, to regard first hand the burgeoning writing imagination before the editing mind comes in to prune and clear and cut away.

There is an “abandonment to the leisurely rhythm of her own imagination” wrote Rebecca West of Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, of which
The Aloe
is the most concentrated as well as the most extensive example. It’s as though the ideas have lived so long in her mind that she can “ransack them for the difficult, rare, essential points”.
And indeed in the scenes that remain here, that are gone from
, it is as though Mansfield, in her writing, has built her house of words with as many rooms as she can to move around in, so she can discover later where best to stand to hold the light, the shadow… Only then will she find out that she doesn’t need to use all of her initial construction – but somehow it must be there at her back for now, as she starts out in her enterprise, to give ballast, the balance and sense of reality upon which to base her art.

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