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Music & Mansfield

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Ground-breaking writer Katherine Mansfield is at the heart of musical Two Tigers which English Cabaret are producing later in the year. Whilst re-imagining her show, writer Sue Casson has been exploring new facts about her life that have emerged 'a lifetime on' in a series of Mansfield Musings, which we are re-publishing from the beginning.

Katherine Mansfield has a natural affinity with music that spills into her writing. In this third

blog, Casson explains why this makes her a perfect subject for musical dramatisation.

Katherine Mansfield’s writing is a sensory feast. Her story settings are sharply observed – there is visual detail in how a landscape or room appears, but also the smell of the air, the physical feel of fabrics or surfaces, the sounds that can be heard outside, which invite the reader to step into the story with her to observe the unfolding drama.

Nowhere is her observation acuter than when she is describing music.

‘Let me remember when I write about that fiddle how it runs up lightly and swings down sorrowful; how it searches.’

This phrase, jotted down in a notebook shows an instinctive understanding of the complexity of sound and the effect it creates, in this case how the skill of the musician enables the notes he makes to play on the emotions.

I don't know what Mansfield would make of a story of her life set to music - but I like to think she would understand perfectly the effects it could create, the way it could be used to enhance a story, and extend the canvas by the emotions melody can disturb and arouse. When she writes in her journal shortly after she settles in England:

‘the voice of London ‘thundered out some stupendous, colossal, overwhelming fugue to the whole world.’

Mansfield highlights not only to its’ local bustle and noise, but its’ sense of its’ importance – to itself, as the centre of an empire – and more personally to her, who fought so hard to be at what she believed was the heart of civilization. One phrase - and in describing the sound in this way it is shorthand for a much broader thought. This is one of the things she understands the ability of music to do.

She instinctively knows how just expressive music can be. In Je ne parle pas Francais, when Dick Harmon sings a song ‘very low about a man who walks up and down trying to find a place where he can get some dinner’ to Raoul Duquette,

‘It seemed to hold in its’ gravity and muffled measure all those tall grey buildings, those fogs, endless streets, those sharp shadows of policeman that mean England.’

The sound and the visual, loaded with emotional weight meld in one sentence. KM sees how music enhances a mood.

At the dinner party in Bliss, which some say was inspired by similar evenings with the Bloomsbury set, no wonder Bertha turns to music to try to extend the evening, and her feeling of elation.

She jumped up from her chair and ran over to the piano. “What a pity someone does not play!” she cried.’

In a different way Mansfield used music not just to enhance a mood, but play against it, setting up a tension between the external noise and the unfolding internal dilemma. This phrase is from a draft of a story in one of Mansfield’s notebooks:

And the music went on, gay, soothing, reassuring. All will be well, said the music. Life is so easy… so easy… why suffer.’

She is always aware of the power of music, and how jarring it can be. For her it is never ‘background noise’ in the sense of having no meaning. Whether welcome or not it always has a part to play in a scene. In The Garden Party, Laura exclaims:

‘…just think what the band would sound like to that poor woman’

She is horrified at how the merriment up at the big house carrying down the lane would sound on the ears of a poor wife who has just lost her young husband, giving an insight into Laura’s sensitivity and embarrassment as much as the pain of the bereft woman she is about to visit.

It is perhaps not surprising then that over half of the short stories KM wrote, feature music – often a piano. This sensitivity to sound – whether musical or background noise – and what it brings to a scene, is a distinctive feature of her writing. Wind ‘roaring in the trees’, cries from the street below or ‘a little steamer’ hooting on the river; these observations punctuate a narrative whilst adding to its’ pace, atmosphere and mood. They are an intrinsic part of ‘the great chorale of life’ she wishes to bring alive on the page.

Music is such a central part of Mansfield’s vision as a writer, she often introduces musical terms when describing something quite else. In An Indiscreet Journey:

‘I ran down the echoing stairs – strange they sounded, like a piano flicked by a sleepy housemaid.’

Or this example from her notebooks – her most personal writing.

the sky is filled with the sun, and the sun is like music – the sky is full of music. Music comes streaming down these great beams.’

In Mansfield's world music is all around if you can only hear it. Even when it makes no noise.

This blog was first published in a series of Mansfield Musings on

With LCB Photography Casson has gathered together some of her favourite Katherine Mansfield musical quotes to share as a Twitter series. See the collection here.

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