In a diary entry of 11 October 1917, Virginia Woolf remarks, ‘We could both wish that ones first impression of K.M. was not that she stinks like a – well civet cat that had taken to street walking’ (VWD1, p. 58). In this cattish putdown, Woolf enlists her husband, Leonard, in a highhanded matrimonial ‘we […] both’ to mock Katherine Mansfield as a stray, foreign, smelly cat given to promiscuity. As a zoological analogy for Mansfield, the civet cat is probably more apt than Woolf intended. A small, lithe-bodied, solitary, mostly nocturnal mammal, the civet is not in fact a feline but a viverrid, more like a mongoose than a cat, with an extremely variable colouration that enables it to be cryptic or camouflaged. To mark its territory, its perineal glands produce a pungent fluid, also known as civet, which is milked to provide a base note in perfumery – an industry in which the species has been woefully mistreated.
Solitary, lithe, cryptic, variable, aromatic: all these adjectives apply to Mansfield, especially to her propensity for camouflage and masquerade, the ‘lies and poses’ that Woolf deplored (VWD1, p. 108). A ‘polymorphous poseuse’, in Brigid Brophy's damning estimation, Mansfield never settled in a single form, constantly reinventing her name, backstory and persona. In a further diary entry, Woolf reiterates her sense that Mansfield is ‘of the cat kind: alien, composed, always solitary & observant’ (VWD2, p. 44). But this is a cat that marks its territory, which threatens to encroach on Woolf’s, as implied by the image of the civet's ‘stink’. As Mary Douglas says of dirt, stink is matter out of place, invasive matter than exudes from an unwelcome other, imperilling the self's domain. Woolf admitted: ‘I was jealous of [Mansfield’s] writing – the only writing I have ever been jealous of’ (VWD2, p. 227). In fact, Woolf's reactions to her competitor are fiercely contradictory: on the one hand Mansfield is too distant – ‘someone apart, entirely self-centred’, feline, alien, ‘inscrutable’ (VWD2, p. 44; 1, p. 257) – but on the other hand too close for comfort, with a stink that gets up her rival's nose.