January has been an important month for anniversaries. On 9 January it was Cassandra Austen’s 250th birthday. She was Jane Austen’s only sister and the two women were very close. It was Cassandra who first heard the novels being read aloud, who discussed the characters and their fates with Jane, who knew the secret of her sister’s authorship (the novels were published anonymously). Most of Jane Austen’s surviving letters were written to Cassandra, although sadly none of Cassandra’s replies have survived. I thought of this woman who was so important to my favourite novelist on the day of her birthday. Did you?
That same day, 9th January saw another important literary anniversary – 100 years since the death of New Zealand’s greatest writer, Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield is one of the finest short story writers of all time. Her home in New Zealand held events to mark the occasion, new books are being published this year, including one by Claire Harman, an excellent biographer, which I have just ordered and look forward to reading soon.
There have been lots of articles in the media, including this excellent one by Claire Harman, Where to start with: Katherine Mansfield. Redmer Yska, who wrote the excellent A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington is bringing out a new book on Mansfield’s travels in Europe. I recently met with him in Wellington and know his new book will be full of fascinating detail and revelations. You can order my CD about her life and with dramatic readings from her works, Finding Katherine Mansfield here.
Every New Zealand child gets a Mansfield short story to study at school. However, when I came to Australia I was shocked to find that most people had never heard of her. She is adored in France, where a recent conference about her was held, and which is where she died, she is hugely admired in Britain (though there is a slight tendency to claim her as British, rather than as a Kiwi), but she should be better known in Australia. Try reading the almost unbearably moving Miss Brill, a study of loneliness, or The Doll’s House, set in the Wellington suburb of Karori and with a last line of unmatched power, or The Daughters of the Late Colonel about two middle-aged women whose domineering father has just died. Her writing is truly brilliant and I hope that this year’s events and tributes will bring her the prominence she deserves.