Fiction Responding to Fiction: Katherine Mansfield and Ali Smith

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Painting of three women resting in a meadow.

The Fiction Responding to Fiction series considers the influence that a short story has on another writer; previous entries can be found here

Could there be a better way to pay homage to an author than to include the writer as a character in the fiction? In Ali Smith’s story “The Ex-Wife,” included in her collection Public Library and Other Stories, the writer Katherine Mansfield is the other woman. The narrator’s partner is a reader and a writer, researching the life and work of Mansfield, and the narrator feels excluded from this part of her partner’s life. As the relationship sours, the persona of Mansfield appears to the narrator and, through their conversations and her own research, the narrator learns quite a bit about Mansfield, becoming, perhaps, even more of an expert than her partner. By having the narrator learn about Mansfield alongside the reader, Smith pays homage to both the writer and the woman.

Mansfield, who was one of the preeminent modernist short story writers in the early twentieth century, may be best known for her on-again-off-again friendship with Virginia Woolf and for dying early: she died at age thirty-four from complications due to tuberculosis. (A terrific guide to Mansfield’s life and work can be found here.) Although Woolf’s Hogarth Press published Mansfield’s story “Prelude” as their second publication, the two writers were both wary of each other’s talents. Woolf famously wrote, after Mansfield’s death, “I was jealous of her writing—the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”

And jealousy is at the heart of Smith’s story. The story is written in first person, with a direct address to the partner, so the partner is always the focus, right from the very beginning: “At first I thought it was just that you really liked books, just that you were someone who really loved your work.” Because the narrator’s partner is also a woman, the use of the direct address and pronouns further intertwine the three characters: “At first I was quite charmed by it. It was charming. She was charming.” Does the narrator mean her partner? Does she mean Mansfield? It’s not clear, and Smith plays with this duality throughout.

After the narrator meets Mansfield in the park for the first time, for example, the narrator says, “I don’t know who you are but I know who you are. The way it was impossible haunted me. That night I sat down in front of my computer and wrote you an email.” We assume that the first two sentences are referring to Mansfield but, after reading the third sentence, we’re unsure. She very well could be referring to her partner or, perhaps, to both her partner and to Mansfield. It is as if they have become one.

This also comes into play with the use of the term “ex-wife” from the title. We first hear it as follows: “This was the day I first called her your ex-wife. I said, it’s like living with an extra person in our relationship.” Later, the narrator continues to call Mansfield the ex-wife when she writes of her to her former partner. But at this point, the couple has broken up so, in essence, each of the three has become an ex-wife.

When the narrator and Mansfield meet in the park, most, if not all, of the dialogue attributed to Mansfield appears to come from her journals and correspondence. It’s a delightful way to introduce us to her beliefs about fiction and about life; we get a sense of the person behind the words. It also works well to use dialogue in this way as there’s always a bit of disconnect between Mansfield’s dialogue and the response from the narrator:

This is the moment which, after all, we live for, she said, the moment of direct feeling when we are most ourselves and least personal.
You’ve no idea, I said. I mean, one night it was even the genealogy of your cats, for God sake.
She flung her arms into the air and shouted at the sky.
Robert Louis Stevenson is a literary vagrant! she shouted.
Then she burst out laughing. I joined in. Whatever it was she was laughing about, it was contagious.
Fiction, she said when she’d stopped laughing, is impossible but enables us to reach what is relatively truth.

There’s great humor to be found here as well, in the lining up of Mansfield’s dialogue with that of the narrator. At the start, because the narrator is not familiar with Mansfield or her work, she misses some of the references that Mansfield is making; the two are also speaking with a century between them, and Smith has fun with this as well.

As the narrator learns more about Mansfield, she becomes attached to the woman and saddened as she watches the writer become ill. She appreciates the beauty of her words. After Mansfield has left her, she reads her work “from the one at the start of the book where the girl is in the emptied house and the little birds flick from branch to branch, to the one at the end of her life about the poor bird in a cage, and that one about the fly that gets all inked.” She even does research and finds out interesting facts about Mansfield’s life, which she considers sending to her former partner but then decides not to because “I realized I really didn’t want to know more about what you knew about than you.”

At the end, the narrator learns how to move on by heeding advice from Mansfield: “Everything in life that we really accept undergoes a change. So suffering must become love. That is the mystery.” Although not quoted in the story, the journal entry from which these lines were taken goes on to say: “This is what I must do. I must pass from personal love which has failed me to greater love.” The story ends: “And then I went and gone on with it, the rest of my life.”