Who I talk about when I talk about Mansfield – Rachel J. Fenton

Rachel J. Fenton discusses her short story ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Sheets’ – featured in Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd.

The title of my Story “Katherine Mansfield’s Sheets” makes bold its reference to the most revered of New Zealand’s short story writers. The style, too, though my own, conveys something of Mansfield’s. But it wasn’t until Valerie Sirr, The Lonely Crowd’s guest fiction editor for this issue, mentioned ‘the lonely quality of the narrator’ evoked Mansfield’s ‘A Dill Pickle’ that I became aware of the subconscious intertextuality of the piece.

‘A Dill Pickle’ tells the story of two people who meet up in a café after they are no longer lovers, and ends with one character asking not to be charged for cream that went untouched. Like David Constantine’s ‘Tea at the Midland’, the most significant details of the story are suggested rather than told. But for all it evokes Constantine’s story, it’s that end scene that leaves the strongest impression on me and puts me in mind of Lydia Davis’s ‘Breaking it Down’.

Umberto Eco said all books speak of other books. Happen it’s the same with short stories. But for me the intertextuality of ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Sheets’ goes beyond the genre of either individual short stories or books; it goes through the characters, to place, to real people. When I wrote the story, I was immersed in research for the Creative New Zealand funded biography I am writing about Mary Taylor, the best friend of Charlotte Brontë. Although she is never mentioned by name, she is alluded to in the text.

The narrator of ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Sheets’ tells the reader, ‘Mansfield spent the sum of both hands and another one in NZ, was sexually amorphous, and is widely considered to be NZ’s most famous writer’. Mary Taylor lived in New Zealand as many years as Mansfield, was unmarried, and was a writer. Like Mansfield, her literary friendship (to Virginia Woolf) might have eclipsed her own achievements. But in contrast to Mansfield, Taylor is still little known for her achievements as a writer.

I empathise with both Mansfield’s and Taylor’s positions. As a Yorkshire woman living in Auckland for a decade now, I am still considered an outsider in New Zealand. Yet I am not at home in Yorkshire. Mary described this position of being neither in one place or another as a “state of betweenity”. This description certainly resonated with people when I posted it on Instagram (@redhousemary), as it describes so well the migrant experience.

“[B]etweenity” might also describe the short story form. In alluding to other stories, they are perpetually straddling, writing backwards as well as forwards. But “betweenity” can equally be extrapolated analogous to the human experience itself. Whatever we create is simultaneously an echo of the past and a removal from it, even ourselves. Being human is essentially paradoxical. Writers, like writing, may be. However closely we start, we end up in a place afar. An essentially lonely crowd.

Rachel J. Fenton’s fiction and poetry have appeared in international journals and anthologies, most recently Wales Arts Review and The Rialto. Runner-up in the Ambit Summer Competition 2016, her unpublished novel Some Things the English was runner-up in The Dundee International Book Prize and shortlisted for the 2016 Cinnamon Press Debut Novel Prize. Awarded a Creative New Zealand Arts Grant to research and write a feminist biography, Rachel lives in Auckland.

© Rachel J. Fenton, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.