Troubled lives of two gifted women writers

Dorothy Parker, by Marion Meade. New York: Villard Books. 459 pp. Illustrated. $22.50. Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, by Claire Tomalin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 292 pp. Illustrated. $22.95.

An accident of publication dates has connected two women writers, both famous in the 1920s, both highly esteemed as practitioners of their craft, both personally unhappy and self-destructive. Each came from a provincial background to a great metropolis - one from New Zealand to the London of Bloomsbury and D.H. Lawrence, the other from the wilds of New Jersey to the Manhattan of the Algonquin Round Table. Both drifted from affair to affair, from marriage to marriage, all of this taking a terrible toll in terms of health, spirit, and self-esteem.

Apart from the almost simultaneous appearance of these two biographies, one would not normally think of Katherine Mansfield and Dorothy Parker in tandem. Although they were born within five years of each other, Mansfield died young - in 1923 at the age of 34, while Parker lived on until 1967. Yet there is an underlying similarity beneath their obvious differences: Mansfield's elegiac tone has more than a touch of asperity, while Parker's legendary wit has melancholy undertones.

Both writers are fortunate this time in their biographers, each of these books easily outstripping the previous biographies of their subjects. Claire Tomalin and Marion Meade have written very different sorts of books, the Mansfield life being brisker, slangier, and more impressionistic than the more thorough and detail-laden life of Parker. Yet both biographers share a judiciousness, a scrupulousness, and a talent for hitting the right note in profiling these two difficult, perplexing women. They are aware of the less attractive traits of their subjects - Mansfield's chronic lying, Parker's conspicuous lack of charity toward many people, for instance - yet they neither overplay nor underplay the importance of these qualities. And they never forget the considerable artistic talent that is the central feature of each of these unhappy lives.

Spouses fare very differently in these biographies. Meade's treatment of Parker's husband, screenwriter and actor Alan Campbell, is a model of fairness that seeks to rescue his reputation from the trashing it has taken at the hands of such writers as Lillian Hellman. Meade shows Campbell to have played an important part in Parker's professional life, particularly during the years they worked together in Hollywood.

Tomalin, on the other hand, seems to have taken over Virginia Woolf's dislike for Mansfield's husband, John Middleton Murry, and, in what seems an excess of feminist zeal, not only portrays him as an unsatisfactory spouse, but also cavils at the lengths to which he went to secure his wife's literary reputation.

Both biographies enhance our appreciation of their subjects' literary accomplishments. One may have admired the sardonic wit of Parker's poems and the profound insights of her few but masterly short stories without knowing anything about her life, but one may well find the works less astringent and more genuinely affecting when one sees the misery out of which they arose. Similarly, one admires the artistry of Mansfield's sensitive, supremely evocative short stories all the more when one learns of the personal chaos and suffering amid which their flowerlike perfection was created.

These two biographies arouse a great sense of pity at the waste, as Mansfield wounded herself through a series of entangling personal alliances before her early death from tuberculosis, complicated by venereal disease, and as Parker drank and slept her way through a myriad of binges. But there is the saving grace of what they still managed to achieve amid so much desolation. These fine biographies should encourage many readers to rediscover the literature that these two women, gifted, troubled, troublesome, restlessly straining to be ``modern,'' left behind them.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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