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Alpers (Queens Univ., Ontario) wrote a Mansfield biography in 1953, and it has served fairly well as the standard reference; this, however, is ""a distinct and different"" book which draws on new sources (like the biased memoirs of longtime companion Ida Baker) and which is liberated by the deaths of John Middleton Murry and others. The result is a richer but rather less focused study, full of jaunty speculations and literary digressions that don't always help to illuminate the problematic central figure. She was born Kathleen M. Beauchamp, an un-favorite daughter in a stifling New Zealand household--whence came, says Alpers a bit too glibly, the ""two destructive conflicts"" in her life: ""the love-hate feeling for her father, and the love-hate feeling for her country."" To escape both, she made a beeline for Edwardian London, where she indulged her unlovely taste for role-playing: passionate ""best friend"" to various women, affairs, absurd first marriage, pregnancies false and real, odd ties to the editors who took her first stories. But darker times soon turned K.M. more seriously inward: her brother's death in World War I; her moody affair/marriage with Murry; the couple's love-hate feuds with their toxic country neighbors, the D. H. Lawrences; and, above all, the onset of K.M.'s tuberculosis. A stormy scenario--and Alpers recounts the comic/awful goings-on with literate brio. But amid the social/literary minutiae (""And now the question was, who should be invited to Garsington for Christmas?""), amid Alpers' arch locutions and cute allusions, the psychological portrait of K.M. remains disjointed, superficial; even the built-in drama of her dying days (seeking family-like comfort at guru Gurdjieff's French commune) is somehow unmoving. And though Alpers' close looks at K.M.'s innovative fiction are balanced and vigorous, his most eager critical points seem overstated: a dismissal of the debt to Chekhov (he points rather to the influence of Theocritus' mimes); and an insistence on K.M.'s influence on V. Woolf, along with a misguided attempt to upgrade K.M. (vs. V.W.) via line-by-line comparisons. So: a useful, lively, thorough life-and-work that nevertheless misses real distinction through excess flutter and insufficient illumination.

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 1979
Publisher: Viking