Why 1922 was literature’s greatest year

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Mansfield’s own work is best represented in The Garden Party and Other Stories, the last book she published in her lifetime, in 1922. The stories – she never wrote a novel – are fluid, lively and funny, with open-ended plots and a light touch: characters are presented with minimal background information, allowing the reader to fill in the details. Narratives shift perspective, and Mansfield said she wanted to “intensify the so-called small things – so that truly everything is significant.” As well as being modern in style, the opening story At the Bay, seems very timely right now when one character reflects on the horror of going back to the office: “I’m like an insect that’s flown into a room of its own accord – I dash against the walls, dash against the windows, flop against the ceiling, do everything on God’s earth, in fact, except fly out again.”

The stories and books of these writers from 1922 – from Mansfield, Sinclair, Woolf, Lewis and Akutagawa – wear their newness and their brilliance less forcefully than Eliot’s or Joyce’s do. (Eliot, with faint praise, said that Mansfield’s writing “handled perfectly the minimum material – it is what I believe would be called feminine”.) But they were equally important responses to tumultuous years, and we can read their influence in today’s writing just as clearly, both in style and subject matter. The practitioners were not always so confident. Mansfield feared that “I shall not be ‘fashionable’ long. They will find me out; they will be disgusted; they will shiver in dismay”. And Virginia Woolf, near the end of 1922 – on Christmas Day – wrote to her friend Gerald Brenan, saying she worried that their generation of writers would be just a stepping stone for the next: “For I agree with you that nothing is going to be achieved by us. Fragments – paragraphs – a page, perhaps: but no more.” She was, as we can happily see 100 years later, entirely wrong.

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