Imola Nagy-Seres is a Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Humboldt University of Berlin, where she is working on a project on childhood and education in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British literature. Her work has been published in the Elizabeth Bowen Review, Journal of Modern Literature, Modern Language Review, Katherine Mansfield Studies, and Modernist Cultures. Her essay, ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Poetics of Breathing’ won the British Association for Modernist Studies Essay Prize in 2021.
Marine Modernism: Katherine Mansfield, Children, and Sea Creatures
Katherine Mansfield’s fiction and personal writings abound in marine life forms: ‘decorative starfish’, ‘velvet sea anemones’, ‘pink tinted sea shells’ – these are just a few of the animals that inhabit her fictional waters. After a visit at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco in 1920, Mansfield recorded in her correspondence how her encounter with ‘sleeping tortoises’, fish, and marine worms in the museum made her lean over a tank and cry bitterly like a forlorn child. A year later, she described ‘At the Bay’, the story on which she was working at the time, as a kind of literary rock pool, ‘full of sand and seaweed, […] and the tide coming in’ – images based on her own childhood memories. In Mansfield’s oeuvre, the coastal pool becomes a space charged with aesthetic and affective energies, which allows her child characters to reimagine and redraw scientific, social, physical, and emotional boundaries between humans and their environment. Through her depiction of children’s engagement with rock pool animals in ‘At the Bay’, Mansfield questions late nineteenth-century biological and psychological theories, which drew a parallel between marine invertebrates’ and children’s mental development, arguing that both groups possess a rudimentary form of the adult human mind, which allows them to know and interact with their surroundings in a simplistic and immature way. In contrast with scientific ideas of progressive development, in Mansfield’s modernist writing, images of marine animals resurface in relation with her thinking about alternative, non-linear ways of understanding the world and forging intimate bonds with both human and non-human others. Through her engagement with aquatic life forms, Mansfield embraces a childlike, non-rational, and non-teleological mode of creating aesthetic and affective connections.