Short-story writer, critic, and poet.
A new biography of Mansfield, Katherine appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Katherine Mansfield, pseudonym of Kathleen Mansfield Murry, née Beauchamp (1888–1923), was the daughter of Sir Harold Beauchamp and Annie Burnell, née Dyer, Wellington. All her grandparents came to New Zealand by way of Australia; her maternal grandmother was born a Mansfield. Kathleen was born on 14 October 1888 at 11 (now 25) Tinakori Road, Wellington, and educated at Karori School, Wellington Girls' High School, Miss Swainson's (Wellington), and Queen's College, London.
A disturbed childhood caused Kathleen Beauchamp to develop sensibilities that were evident in early attempts to write stories. Her first appearance in the High School Reporter at the age of nine coincided with the success in England of Elizabeth and her German Garden by her father's Australian cousin, Countess von Arnim (later Countess Russell), an accident that undoubtedly helped to shape her future. Happy phases of her childhood were connected with Karori (then a semi-rural village) and holidays at Days Bay, Wellington.
In 1903, with two of her sisters, she was sent to finish her education in London, and at Queen's College was influenced by the romantic figure of Walter Rippmann, and by reading Ibsen and Wilde. She also formed there her friendship with Ida Baker (“L.M.” in the Journal and Letters) who became her devoted follower, financial supporter, and attendant in times of need, until her death. She returned reluctantly to Wellington (“Philistia itself”) and the social life her family enjoyed in the colonial capital. She read and was profoundly influenced by the Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff, retired with it to her room in (now 47) Fitzherbert Terrace and poured out her longings in “huge complaining notebooks” of her own (“I do not care at all for men, but London – it is Life … I am longing to consort with my superiors”). At this time she adopted as her pseudonym the maiden surname of her maternal grandmother, the beloved mother-figure of her early years; and E. J. Brady published her first paid work in The Native Companion (Sydney). After 20 difficult months her father, with understandable misgiving but influenced by Brady's praise and his own cousin's successful example, agreed to her returning to London on an allowance of £100 a year. (All his three other daughters also left New Zealand; but did so by way of happy marriages.) Katherine took her 'cello, and lived in a music students' hostel in Paddington, but before long had sold her 'cello and recklessly married George Charles Bowden, a singing teacher 11 years her senior (see her story, Mr Reginald Peacock's Day), whom she left the day after the marriage. A destructive period of Bohemian living followed, during which she conceived a child (not by her husband) which was miscarried while she was in Woerishofen, Bavaria. The compensating outcome was a number of short stories set in Woerishofen, some of which A. R. Orage published in the New Age. Under the title In a German Pension (1911), these became her first book; and it was through his interest in it (especially in its element of protest) that Katherine Mansfield met the Oxford undergraduate John Middleton Murry, slightly younger than herself, who was editing an avant-garde magazine called Rhythm. Upon her third invitation he went to live in her flat in Gray's Inn Road, where their Rhythm friends nicknamed them “The Tigers”. After an initial period of shaking hands each night, they lived as man and wife, but were unable to be legally married until 1918.
Katherine Mansfield now began to develop as a writer (three New Zealand stories, including The Woman at the Store, appeared in Rhythm) and Murry's more disciplined educational background was an influence for the better. Although they continued in Bohemian ways that were wasteful of emotional energy (and of Katherine's small allowance, and her health), the attachment to Murry caused her to think more, and to read more fruitfully. With the collapse of Rhythm, in 1913, however (and her spurning of the New Age), she had nowhere to publish her best work for several years, and by 1915 her fortunes (and her relationship with Murry) were in low state. A grievous bereavement then affected the whole course of her development. Her young brother Leslie, with whom she had a close attachment, came to London before going to France. Under the inevitable shadow of their fears, the two recalled their childhood days; and Leslie was killed soon after reaching the front. Finding the loss unbearable, Katherine Mansfield herself went to the South of France, to Bandol, where, as “a debt of love”, she wrote the first of her mature New Zealand stories, Prelude (1916), with a Karori setting. It marked her turning back to her lost and much-needed New Zealand background. But four years were to pass before it was published in the collection called Bliss. In that time Katherine Mansfield wrote briefly and unsatisfactorily for the New Age once more, and her life with Murry was unsettled, both emotionally and physically. They continued their constant housemoving in search of an idealised “peace” that was not attainable by them (and not only because of the war). An important and disturbing factor in their lives throughout this time was D. H. Lawrence, Murry's closest friend. Early in 1918, during another visit on her own to Bandol, it became evident that she was in an advanced stage of tuberculosis. She returned to England, to Cornwall and Hampstead, and the remaining five years of her life were spent in hopeful wanderings, in search not only of “peace” now but of a cure as well. She lived (usually with the faithful “L.M.”) in Italy, the South of France (Menton), Switzerland, and France again, but refused to enter a sanatorium. Meanwhile she was writing the finest of her stories, and filling her own notebooks, and letters to her husband and her friends with the brilliant and beautiful perceptions of life immediately around her that now stand equally with her stories in the affections of her readers. Prelude and At the Bay, The Doll's House and The Garden Party are doubtless her most enduring stories. All are set in the Wellington of her childhood. In them her art is, to adapt Wordsworth's phrase, tranquillity recollected with emotion.
With the published collection called The Garden Party (1921), Katherine Mansfield won the acclaim of some of the best critics of her time, and popular success as well. Henceforth she could live by her work. But by then the very disease that was heightening her perceptions and stimulating her fevered bouts of inspired writing (she wrote in “flashes”, and her best pieces were not reworked) was destroying her now fragile body. None of the various “cures” available at that time offered any degree of certainty, and she began to hanker after a miracle. For her it must be a spiritual rather than a bodily cure. (There was indeed reason for feelings of guilt and she expressly wished to make atonement for the “destruction” of her Bohemian years.) Towards the end of 1922 she attended some of P. D. Ouspensky's lectures in London. At that time she was undergoing a medically useless X-ray treatment at the hands of a Russian doctor in Paris; and from the two things it was a short step to G. I. Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, “that factory of magic at Fontainebleau”, as one of her enemies called it, where her friend Orage was already a disciple. Gurdjieff prescribed for the advanced consumptive the odour of cows, and a rigorous and perverse regime of kitchen duties, which she endured in the winter of 1922. By day she lay on oriental cushions on a platform above the cowbyre. On 9 January 1923 Murry arrived to visit her at the institute. She had recently told Orage that when she recovered she was going to write “different” stories, freed of cynicism; and Murry now found her “a being transfigured by love”. After watching some dancing with him that evening she ran upstairs; she began coughing, suffered a massive haemorrhage, and died within half an hour.
For more than 30 years Katherine Mansfield was New Zealand's best known writer, the “one peacock in our literary garden”, as A. R. D. Fairburn once put it. As such she has been a potent influence. In respect of the quality of her work, and her dedication to it, she has been a fortunate example, but in respect of the kind of writing she excelled in it is another matter. Her manner was personal and unique, and not for imitation by those in good health; and the short story is a restricted medium. Her permanent place in English literature is assured, but it is an odd one; nearer perhaps to the lyric poets than to the novelists.
Katherine Mansfield's work is readily accessible in the Collected Stories, the Journal, and the Letters, and is discussed in Sylvia Berkman's Katherine Mansfield – a Critical Study (1952). There are two biographies, by Ruth Mantz (1933) and A. Alpers (1953). F. A. Lea's biography of Murry (1959) throws further light. The only portrait painted of her (by Anne Estelle Rice) is in the National Art Gallery, Wellington, and the Alexander Turnbull Library has a large collection of manuscripts and letters, including the notebooks, etc., purchased from the estate of J. M. Murry.
by Antony Francis George Alpers, Editor, Caxton Press, Christchurch.
- Journal of Katherine Mansfield, Murry, John Middleton (ed.) (1954)
- Katherine Mansfield, Alpers, A. (1954)
- Katherine Mansfield – Life and Stories, Friis, A. (1946).