From London — a new look at Katherine Mansfield, Literature and Planned Parenthood
July 4, 2011
In a function at the Penthouse of NZ High Commission in London, an expatriate Kiwi academic has provided a new insight into the life of Katherine Mansfield.
Dr Gill Greer, formerly of Victoria University, said that despite her intelligence and social skills, Mansfield was actually adrift in a world controlled by men.
It’s vital insight, given the controversy here over the menstruation/ female ability theory put forward by a prominent male business leader.
Here’s a special report by our correspondent in London….
GRADUATES GATHER FOR MANSFIELD LECTURE
By Tom Aitken
Several times each year members of the New Zealand University Graduates’ Association in or near London gather for supper and New Zealand wines in the Penthouse at New Zealand House.
Despite the erection in millennium year of the London Eye, the Penthouse still has the best views in London. It actually looks down upon the Eye and since, unlike the Eye, it is stationary, you can examine the sights at your leisure. It would be a sad day if the NZUGA and other Kiwi groups were ever unable to meet there.
As well as the food and drink, there is always a speaker, a Kiwi who has made an impression in their field of endeavour.
Depending on the individuals concerned the message may be ‘Haven’t I done well?’ or ‘Why haven’t you done aswell as me?’
Or, as in the case of Dr Gill Greer (left), the speaker on this occasion, ‘Here is a cause I feel passionate about and I want to persuade you to feel likewise.’
Dr Greer, who is approaching retirement, has followed two apparently quite different career paths, but argues there is no disjunction between them.
Both, broadly speaking, have been devoted to giving women knowledge and mental attitudes that will empower them to reach their full potential and take and retain control of their own lives.
After gaining a PhD in women’s literature and teaching it for a time, she moved into women’s studies (and was also for a time assistant vice-chancellor of VUW), then on, via various NGOs in NZ and elsewhere, to become chief executive of the International Planned Parenting Federation, which unites 153 NGOs spread across 170 countries.
Dr Greer united the two her talk, which was entitled ‘How would Katherine Mansfield’s life have been different if the International Planned Parenting Federation had existed?’
One of her quotations from Mansfield, who wrote that she had been born ‘to a reluctant mother in the teeth of a southerly buster’, suggests, perhaps, that she might in that case have had no life at all.
But, given that Mansfield was born, Dr Greer, with a most engagingly delivered account of her chaotic emotional life, showed convincingly that, for all her intelligence and sophistication, the writer was adrift in a world where women knew very little about how they might go about taking control of their physical and emotional lives.
Her presentation was relaxed, even chatty, but very firmly structured, concentrated and to the point.
When she moved from Mansfield’s difficulties to the statistically awesome problems of helping the women of the present day, her talk became, as someone near me said, ‘somewhat evangelical’, albeit briefly so.
Question time revealed a certain gender division in at least some members of the audience.
A man asked, not too seriously, whether the answer to the question in the talk’s title would have to be (given that much art is said to be born of suffering) that we would have been denied the possibility of enjoying Mansfield’s writings.
Dr Greer’s response was that when Katherine was writing her great stories what she saw in her mind’s eye was not the chaos of her life in Europe, but ‘the fields of Karori’.
Another man, perhaps a little provocatively, asked who was really responsible for the situation that needs to be remedied in today’s world. This inspired a spirited proclamation (from a woman in the audience) that the evils of patriarchalism had still to be declared, emphasized and denounced.
No war of the sexes ensued. The evening ended with much bonhomie and a vote of thanks to Karyn Newman, the cheerily indefatigable Hon. Sec. NZUGA, who organises these events.