Katherine Mansfield and food

This post was contributed by Aimee Gasston, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, whose research focuses on modernist short fiction, the everyday and the act of reading.Student Profile: Aimee Gasston

My project looks specifically at Katherine Mansfield and food, Virginia Woolf and furniture and Elizabeth Bowen and clothes, and considers everyday practices in relation to reading. I am interested in the ways that short fiction simultaneously fits around and encompasses everyday life – both its ergonomics and elasticity.

In January 2013, I travelled to Wellington to visit the Alexander Turnbull Library and attend a Mansfield conference being organised at Victoria University of Wellington. The Alexander Turnbull Library had recently acquired boxes of new material from the family of Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry. On reading that the new material included recipes, I was eager to go and look for myself and extraordinary research and conference funding from Birkbeck helped me to do this.


Jottings amid account books. The poem reads:
Tea, the chemist & marmalade
Far indeed today I’ve strayed
Through paths untrodden, shops unbeaten
And now the bloody stuff is eaten
The chemist the marmalade & tea
Lord how nice & cheap they be!

This was my first experience in any archive and it was overwhelming holding papers in my own hands which Mansfield herself had lived with, touched and written upon.

For my stay, I rented a bach in Wadestown that dated from the 1920s, when Mansfield was creating her strongest work. Each morning I wandered to the library down a steep, winding hill that afforded startling views of the ocean, and down past Tinakori Road where Mansfield was born.


Mansfield’s recipe for orange soufflé

I got to see such a diverse range of materials – from postcards to friends, to notebooks, drafts of stories, as well as shopping lists and accounts with poems about food written in the margins. The material also included recipes handwritten by Mansfield, one for orange soufflé and another for coldwater scones, which, she instructs, must be eaten with ‘plenty of butter’. (For a modern interpretation of Mansfield’s orange soufflé, please see Nicole Villeneuve’s excellent Paper and Salt blog about literary recipes.) I had seen some of the material reproduced in publications but you don’t always get the full sense by reading transcriptions, so even seeing things I already knew about was fascinating.

I also came across a 1923 article in New Zealand’s Evening Post about depictions of meals in literature. This was an exciting find because it uses Mansfield as an example of ‘the inferior sex’ being unable to successfully write about food because they have acquired the ‘snack habit’. The argument of this surprising piece chimed so well with my developing thesis, which considered the short story itself as a type of snack – something you can pick up when you need it, something private, rebellious, sumptuous and (often) decadent.

Mansfield was a plump child and later, when she had contracted TB as an adult, increasingly emaciated. Her letters are full of comments about the food she ate as she travelled Europe in search of healthier climates, as well as comments about her weight. But this interest extends beyond that of an anxious patient – in Mansfield’s writing, food is everywhere. It punctuates both her fiction and her biographical writings, and often she conceives of literature in gustatory terms. This fascination is not only intrinsic to Mansfield’s ambition to relay her experience of the world using each one of her senses, but also evidence of her ravenousness for life. In her first collection of stories, In A German Pension (about which she came to be slightly embarrassed), there are pages and pages devoted to gluttonous eating – but the tone is satirical and there’s distance between Mansfield and her subject matter. So while there’s food everywhere, you don’t quite get the sense of tucking in and enjoying it yourself.

In the later, more mature works, food begins to appear at moments when individuals are negotiating for their own personal freedom and engagement with the world. So you find many more instances of eating alone and snacking in outdoor settings or outside of prescribed norms. Snack food was really beginning to come into its own at the beginning of the twentieth century, with fast food becoming readily available, and the modern short story as we know it came into existence at the same time. My research thinks about the way the instances of snacking in the stories parallel Mansfield’s own coming to terms with the short story as a fictional form (rather than something inferior to the novel or poetry) as well as her success in it. Seeing material relics from Mansfield’s own life has provided me with vital insights, which have shaped and informed this consideration of materiality in her fiction.

[Photographs by author reproduce material available in the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Wellington.]

Further references

  •  ‘Katherine Mansfield, Cannibal’, Katherine Mansfield Studies, Vol. 5, (Edinburgh University Press), Autumn 2013.
  • ‘Consuming art: Katherine Mansfield’s literary snack’, Journal of New Zealand Literature 31:2 Special Issue: New Zealand Cultures, October 2013.
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Parenting by older mothers brings benefits to children

This post was contributed by Professor Jacqueline Barnes, Department of Psychological Sciences.

CroppedWhile increasing maternal age, especially for women from their mid to late 30s onwards, is linked to the likelihood of more medical risks for mother and infant, recently published  research by my team at Birkbeck, with colleagues at UCL, indicate that this change to older motherhood could lead nationally to better child health and development, and to fewer parenting problems. The studies, based on two large samples – the Millennium Cohort Study and the National Evaluation of Sure Start – found that:

  • The risk of children having unintentional injuries requiring medical attention or being admitted to hospital both declined with increasing maternal age. For example, at three years the risk of unintentional injuries declined from 36.6% for mothers aged 20 to 28.6% for mothers aged 40 and hospital admissions declined, respectively, from 27.1% to 21.6%.
  • The rate of complete immunisations by three years of age increased with maternal age up to 27 years.
  • Child Language development at ages three and four years was associated with improvements with increasing maternal age, with scores for children of mothers aged 20 being lower than those of children of mothers aged 40 by 0.21 to 0.22 standard deviations.
  • Increasing maternal age was associated with fewer socio-emotional problems. Children of teenage mothers had more difficulties than children of mothers aged 40 (difference 0.28 SD at age 3 and 0.16 SD at age 5).
  • Reported parent/child conflict decreased as maternal age increased.
  • The use of harsh discipline such as smacking was low for teenage mothers and highest in the mid-twenties, after which it declined.
  • Positive and responsive parenting generally increased with maternal age up to about age 40 after which it plateaued.
  • The least home chaos and the most stimulating home environments were identified for mothers in their early 30s.

This research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, was initiated in the knowledge that maternal age was increasing in the UK. It has demonstrated that, while there are many medical reasons why close attention should be given to the physical well-being of older mothers and their infants both during pregnancy and immediately after birth, an increase in older motherhood should not necessarily be a cause for concern in relation to subsequent parenting. Indeed, it is likely that older mothers will be preparing their children well for preschool and school experiences in a warm and responsive home environment. The findings of fewer unintentional injuries with increasing maternal age and fewer child socio-emotional problems may suggest that women with more life experiences may be able to draw upon a wider range of support that can help to reduce some of the stress of parenting. These studies are important for any families undertaking IVF or other forms of assisted conception, who are on average older than other first-time parents, and for women who have delayed motherhood, for whatever reasons.

This study has received media attention:

For more information see:

  • Sutcliffe, A.G., Barnes, J. Belsky, J., Gardiner, J., Melhuish, E.  (2012). Health of children born to older mothers in the UK. BMJ, 345:e5116 doi:10.1136/bmj.e5116
  • Barnes, J., Gardiner, J., Sutcliffe, A.G., Melhuish, E. (2014).  The parenting of young children by older mothers in the United Kingdom.  European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 11(4), 397-419.
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What the Thunder Said: theatre-based intervention for children who have witnessed violent events

Natasha KirkhamThis post was contributed by Dr Natasha Kirkham from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences.

In 2012, I took part in a research project looking into children’s reaction to witnessing violent events. Working with a playwright from Theatre Centre, I conducted workshops in 10 primary schools, located in areas with high levels of violence. The workshops fed into the writing of a new play, which then toured primary schools across the UK. We handed out questionnaires to the children and their teachers about  responses to and understanding of violent behaviour and bullying before and after seeing the play.

Until now, my research has been solidly experimental, investigating theories on attention and learning. This project opened my eyes to just how important it is for developmental scientists to get out of the lab and into the field, to shake up their methods, and to listen to individual children.  And to remind ourselves that development does not happen in a vacuum. These children were extraordinary – tough, interesting, heart-breaking, and funny – and all of them had thoughtful, strong opinions about the very real bullying in their environments. I learned about ‘circle of friends’ (peer-groups assigned to befriend and look out for each other), I learned about the role of humour in the lives of these children (both appropriate and inappropriate), and I learned how easily these children shift between reality and fantasy (seamlessly moving from laughing about parents in prison to discussing Xbox characters). Importantly, I learned that with bullying, ‘walking away’ does not always work.

This experience was personally and professionally cathartic for me, offering new insights into modern-day parenting, coping strategies (for children and teachers), and developmental resilience. Ultimately, it proved to me that a lot of our ideas about how to deal with bullying need to be re-worked.

We hope that the pre and post play surveys will show a significant shift in people’s perspective on community violence and the effects of bullying, and provide some evidence for theatre-based intervention in areas rife with violence and trouble.

Dr Kirkham’s review of her experience with this project was originally published in The Psychologist magazine.

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Why on earth study babies to get a better understanding of Alzheimer’s dementia in adults?

Annette 400 x 400This post was contributed by Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, who will be delivering a paper on this topic at the International Conference on Infant Studies, which is taking place in Berlin from 3-5 July.

Together with my team at the Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, I am studying babies with Down syndrome to identify risk and protective factors for Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

Why babies, when it’s an adult disease?  And why Down syndrome?

During my Invited Address to the International Conference on Infant Studies (ICIS) in Berlin I will argue that it is vital to trace adult outcomes back to their origins in infancy if we are to understand the developmental trajectory of dementia.

Interestingly, Down syndrome lends itself well to such research because one of the genes implicated in the brain pathology of Alzheimer’s in adults, the APP gene, is situated on chromosome 21, so it is over-expressed in Down syndrome from the very start of development because babies with Down syndrome have three copies instead of two copies of the APP gene. All individuals with Down syndrome ultimately get the amyloid-beta plaques typical of Alzheimer’s brain pathology, yet not all of them get dementia in adulthood.  Why?  What protects some and what makes others vulnerable?

The fascinating challenge is to understand how combinations of effects at the genetic, cellular, neural, cognitive, behavioural and environmental levels contribute to these individual differences over developmental time. My talk will explain how the study of babies with Down syndrome may yield clues to protective and risk factors for Alzheimer’s.


Other posts by Professor Karmiloff-Smith:

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