All Sorts of Lives

All Sorts of Lives:

Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything

I first read and fell in love with Katherine Mansfield’s stories when I was a teenager, but was puzzled that she didn’t feature on any teaching syllabuses and wasn’t treated as a serious literary figure, unlike her famous contemporaries Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence. Was this because she wrote only short stories? Or because she died so young, aged just thirty four, before Modernism was really recognised? She seemed doomed to be treated, in death as she had been in life, as an outsider.

Much has changed in the past forty years, and with an ever-increasing amount of scholarship devoted to Mansfield’s fiction, journals, letters, translations and critical writings, her seriousness and influence have become much clearer. Perhaps the only person to recognise Mansfield properly in her lifetime was Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her diary that Katherine’s was, ‘the only writing I have ever been jealous of’, and actually admitted to feeling ‘a shock of relief’ when the younger woman died, in January 1923.

The centenary of her death seems an excellent time to celebrate both the woman and her art together, and in All Sorts of Lives I look at ten of Mansfield’s stories (some very famous, some barely known) in the context of her extraordinary, short, tragic, triumphant life. I hope the book conveys some of my own deep love of her work and also introduces readers to her ardent, vital, restless personality. Mansfield is full of surprises because she never stopped asking questions, and never lost her capacity for joy. Reading her now, I can’t get over how wise and truthful she was, and how vividly she leaps from the page:

‘As I write the willows fly streaming in the sun – & someone is playing the piano – oh! so wonderfully – seeking out, gently, tenderly, with light, whimsical fingers something. Wonderful – wonderful life – I wish one could be certain of living to 100. Isn’t it awful to feel full of life and love and work and joy & to think one will have to turn up one’s toes & be still one day.’

Published 5 January 2023 by Chatto & Windus; paperback 11 January 2024, Vintage.

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From the Reviews:

‘What a gift to the biographer, this life of adventure and sickness and sex and celebrity – and that’s before you start on Mansfield as a leading modernist . . . It’s hard to imagine a more compelling advocate for Mansfield’s fiction, or a better introduction to it . . . brilliant‘ — Claire Lowdon ― Sunday Times

A wonderful book to mark the centenary of Mansfield’s death . . .[her] clever insistence on placing the life and work side by side allows her to give brief but powerful accounts of Mansfield’s relations with other writers’ — Ruth Scurr ― Spectator

‘A kind of masterclass on the short story, taking the ideal practitioner as its focus . . . a valuable reminder of why – a hundred years after her death – we should still be reading and marvelling at Katherine Mansfield’s stories’ — Sarah Watling ― Daily Telegraph

A worthy addition to the corpus of Mansfield interpretation . . . Like all the best writer biographies, All Sorts of Lives makes you reach again for the works’ — Catherine Taylor ― Financial Times

‘Step aside, Virginia Woolf – it was Katherine Mansfield who ushered in the modern age’ — Frances Wilson ― Daily Telegraph

‘An excellent, sensitively written introduction’ — Miranda Seymour ― The Times

‘What a searching, incisive and compulsive book. A lesson in how to read and connect and understand, it achieves a beautiful synthesis between Mansfield’s stories, her life and our apprehension of both these things’ ― SUNJEEV SAHOTA

Harman’s book does that thing that all good literary biographies do. It sends us straight back into the delicate, exhilarating, risking world of Mansfield’s fiction’ — Kirsty Gunn ― The Times Literary Supplement

In the Media:

8 January 2023: Claire in conversation with Chris Power, Lucy Caldwell and Chris Mourant on Radio 4’s Open Book. click to go to Iplayer.

3 January 2023: Claire with Kirsty Gunn, Laurence Scott and Shahidha Bari discussing Mansfield on Radio 3’s Free Thinking. click to go to Iplayer.

Companion Volume – WILD PLACES: Selected Stories of Katherine Mansfield

I’m delighted to have been able to make this selection of thirty three stories, including all the ones I write about in All Sorts of Lives. It has an introduction by me and a foreword by one of our best short story writers, Helen Simpson. Click to buy on