Worlds and Words in Music: The Apprenticeship of Katherine Mansfield

Guest Blog: Claire Davison
Women Writers Course, July 2018

Claire Davison gave a fascinating lecture on Katherine Mansfield's interest in music. Here she explains the main ideas of the lecture, which was accompanied by cellist Joseph Spooner.


It is no exaggeration to claim that music accompanied Mansfield throughout her life. One of her earliest love letters tells how her ‘inner life pulsates with sunshine – and Music & Happiness’ (11 August 1907); a month later, in a letter to her cello teacher, she evokes music both literally and as a metaphor to the path of life: ‘I think of that little Canon of Cherubini’s as a gate – opened with so much difficulty & and leading to so wide a road’ (undated, September 1907). This passionate love for music far outlasted actually playing an instrument; it extends right to the final day of her life. Some of her last recorded words show her impatiently waiting for the dances performed by fellow residents at the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau near Paris. ‘I want music’, she said. ‘Why don’t they begin?’

Mansfield book cover.jpg

Our musical lecture explored these intricate interrelations between Mansfield’s passionate musical sensibility, which involved going back to her early training as a cellist, and out into the wide repertoire of music (popular songs, operatic arias, music-hall dance tunes, Ballets Russes rhythms …) that filled her formative years. We wanted to outline the fascinating ways that these fed into her apprenticeship as a writer, and then resonated on, throughout her writing career. The interlinks proved rich and varied indeed, taking us from musically inspired stories, lyrically expressed poetry and a keen sense of background and music and soundscape in all her written work, through to musicians and musical plots, musical forms adopted in her short-story technique, and musical analogies to define her poetics and craftsmanship.

Our first musical interlude conjured up the sort of ‘soundscape’ surrounding the imaginative young writer-to-be as she grew up in Wellington. It even enabled us to hear music Mansfield and her sister had composed! This sort of quick overview of what the world then might have sounded like, in the era just before broadcasting and recording technology gave us a sense of her musical and literary imagination. The last decades of the nineteenth century after all were something of a heyday for amateur music-making in Britain and the more well-off colonies such as New Zealand where Mansfield was born. Educational reform, social aspirations and economic change (a substantial drop in prices in the cost of instruments for example) had brought about a massive increase in the number of pianos in private homes and pubs, where families and friends would gather for a sing-song. In the days when a musical education was a necessary prerequisite for any socially aspiring family, musical literacy, curiosity and experience were widespread. Meanwhile outside, barrel organs and street musicians, hawkers and tradesmen, carol singers and mourners, all interwove music into the fabric of everyday life.

Mansfield’s family home in the suburbs of Wellington was no exception. The theme of music as a respectable passport or gateway to a suitable marriage is something of a leitmotif in much women’s writing from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out  (1915), and it was reflected the middle-class ethos of the times. The very conventionality of this richly musical world was to shape the writer Mansfield became. Music could encapsulate the bourgeois mediocrity of colonial life, and the stultifying niceties expected of genteel girls, which she loathed, but it also provided imaginative freedom and the perfect escape strategy. Both sides of the coin – the constraints of music, inspiring her biting satire, and the visionary escapism of musical expressivity, inspiring bold formal experimentation – had a lifelong impact on her creative imagination and literary poetics.

One of the finest examples were to be found in the poems she wrote in 1907-8, dedicated to her lover, Garnet Trowell, and to be set to music by Arnold Trowell, his brother. Arnold was in fact one of her earlier short-lived heart-throbs, the son of her cello teacher Thomas Trowell, and also one of Wellington’s most promising cellists and composers who went on to enjoy a highly successful career of his own. She noted which musical sounds she heard in her mind as the ideal accompaniment (‘almost recitative at the beginning with a strange organ-like passage’), or which composers’ styles she emulated (‘strange Macdowell, Debussy chords’). She also insists on how poetry should be performed, using the voice itself, and even the entire body, as the finest musical instrument, to revive, so she explains, the art of elocution:

A darkened stage – a great – high backed oak chair – flowers – shaded lights – a low table filled with curious books  – and to wear a simple, beautifully coloured dress – You see what I mean. Then to study tone effects in the voice – never rely on gesture – though gesture is another art and should be linked irrevocably with it – and express in the voice and face and atmosphere all that you say. TONE should be my secret – each word a variety of tone ––– (2 November 1908)

We explored how creative ambitions of this sort were to be found in the musical subtext of a 1909 story, ‘The Modern Soul’ – which proved quite a treasure-trove of German musical expressivity and theatrical, vocal effects.

The second key story we discussed was ‘The Garden Party’ (1921) , which tells of a family’s preparations for a garden party, during which they learn that one of the local cottagers has been killed in an accident. The party itself is not narrated, but the reader follows the various ways in which the family adapts to the news so as not to spoil their own entertainments. The whole story is constructed around musical events and their social and emotional resonance within a small community. One only needs think of the protagonist Laura’s concerns throughout the day: her worries about finding the ideal setting in the garden to place the band; planning the best way to approach the workers who come to install the marquee where the band will play; the social insinuations of her interactions with the workmen – how to perform her role and place her voice; their cheerfulness industriousness as ‘someone whistled, someone sang out’; then, once the drama is announced, Laura’s dismay at the inappropriateness of party music echoing in the background while a family mourns:

'And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman … The band and everybody arriving. They’d hear us, Mother; they’re nearly neighbours!'

We then looked at (and listened to) the music Laura performs on the piano, to see how it is used both as a source of satire, and as a leading, very ominous leitmotif with powerful tragic overtones. And these in turn linked up to another popular song in Mansfield’s youth – Rimbaud’s ‘Le Dormeur du val’, the veiled brutality of which would have been particularly obvious to those reading or listening to her story in the context of the years immediately after the First World War.

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The musical world of Katherine Mansfield proved inspiring indeed, especially when exquisitely brought to life by Joseph’s performances on the cello and the piano. There was far too much to say in a single lecture, but hopefully everyone found something to muse over – rather like Mansfield herself, back in her school days, imagining how her cello might sound, or the sorts of stories the cello might tell:

And that is my ’cello, my all in all
Ah, my beloved, quiet you stand
––– If I let the bow ever so softly fall,
––– The magic lies under my hand
(‘This is my world’, 1903)

A train whistle sounds, a tram passes at the end of the street, the maids are putting away crockery. Downstairs in the Music Room the ’cello is dreaming. (KM, Diary entry, 1907)



Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922; Penguin, 2008)

Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Modern Soul’. KM Society website:

Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Margaret Scott and Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford University Press, 1984–88)

Katherine Mansfield, The Diaries of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison (Edinburgh University Press, 2015)

Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Poems of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

Olgivanna (Mrs Frank Lloyd Wright), ‘The Last Days of Katherine Mansfield,’ The Bookman, March 1931, p. 6

Katherine Mansfield Society, Timeline of KM’s life:

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