One of my concerns about biography is my failure to yet read a biography I found entirely satisfactory. Veteran literary biographer Claire Tomalin’s portrait of Thomas Hardy came close, and I hoped her biography of Katherine Mansfield (1987) would get even closer. I’ve just finished it, and it was very good, but it still left me with the dry feeling in my mouth of a failure to solve some of the tedium of biography.

I know nothing of Mansfield beyond what I’ve read in this biography, so I cannot judge what must be a somewhat controversial depiction of her. As a biography, it works best when Tomalin dares to make judgements and observe patterns across Mansfield’s life. It works least well for me when it is caught in the tedium of Mansfield’s to-ing and fro-ing with her husband Murry, as they endlessly try to find the perfect place to live and work and resolve their unusual relationship. Yet this is what life is like; it has none of the neatness of a novel – so how to convey it in a biography? Would it be acceptable to summarise slabs of time, and not relate each trip to the Continent? Probably, depending how it was done.

I was interested by the parallels with Katharine Susannah Prichard – beyond their first names being within a letter of each other, they were both born in the 1880s to Australian parents, Mansfield in New Zealand; Prichard in Fiji. Both sought fame and fortune in pre-war London and were there during the war itself. Both wrote across many genres, although Mansfield never finished a novel, KSP’s main genre. They had associates in common; I do not yet know if they ever met. Their writing was very different – Mansfield a modernist aesthete driven by art as an end in itself, and (from the biography) a desire for transgression and attention; KSP both a social realist and a romantic, and driven by her political concerns. It’s ironic that general readers are often confusing the two.

Tomalin writes in the foreword that she began researching the book in the mid-1970s, laying it aside partially because two other biographies of Mansfield appeared soon after this. Yet she decided her take on Mansfield was different to both of these and worth adding; the biography finally appeared in 1987. The extra sources she has to draw on are the recently published (as of 1987) letters of Mansfield and also of D.H. Lawrence, to whom Tomalin shows Mansfield had a more significant relationship than is usually credited. It surprised me to see many chapters with quotes only from published sources like this, rather than archival materials; perhaps there were access restrictions, or just nothing to be found in the archives. The original sources Tomalin uses are largely interviews conducted by her or on her behalf with people who knew Mansfield as a child. It’s amazing so many of them were alive, even in the 1970s; longevity seems to have been on the biographer’s side, with one woman who knew her intensely as a young woman living on to over one hundred. Why, though, weren’t there more comparable interviews with people who knew her in her twenties and thirties? One reason may simply be that most of them are dead, but I feel sure there could have been some more material gathered here.

Unlike many biographies, this one is a pleasure to read, written with a keen sense of both narrative structure and detail, putting us into the company of an interesting and difficult woman.