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Mansfield, Katherine


Short-story writer, poet, critic, diarist, letter writer

This biography, written by Gillian Boddy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

In spite of her own conviction that 'I shall not be "fashionable" long', Katherine Mansfield has acquired an international reputation as a writer of short stories, poetry, letters, journals and reviews. Her work has been translated into more than 25 languages.

She was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp on 14 October 1888 at Wellington, New Zealand, in a small wooden house in Tinakori Road. There were to be six children in the Beauchamp family: Vera, Charlotte, Kathleen, Gwendoline (who died at three months), Jeanne and Leslie (the only son). Their mother, Annie Burnell Dyer, was a fastidious and delicate woman. Her husband, Harold Beauchamp, was an ambitious businessman, soon to be part-owner in the importing firm W. M. Bannatyne and Company. Both parents had been born in Australia of English stock, and like many New Zealanders of their generation, regarded England as 'Home'. When Harold and Annie Beauchamp visited England after 1889 the children stayed in the care of their grandmother, Margaret Isabella Dyer, for whom Kathleen had an abiding affection. Early in 1893 Harold Beauchamp leased a large Karori house, Chesney Wold, which Kathleen was to describe as 'a great old rambling house planted lonesomely in the midst of huge gardens, orchards and paddocks'. From 1895 she attended the Karori School with her sisters. There she won a prize for an essay entitled 'A sea voyage', apparently based on a ferry trip across Cook Strait to visit Beauchamp relatives at Picton and Anakiwa.

In May 1898 Kathleen and her elder sisters transferred to Wellington Girls' High School in central Wellington. Soon afterwards, Kathleen's first published piece, 'Enna Blake', appeared in the High School Reporter, with a note from the editor: 'This story, written by one of the girls who have lately entered the school, shows promise of great merit'. Another of her stories was published the following year. By this time the family had moved to an imposing house at 75 Tinakori Road. The move reflected the increase in Harold Beauchamp's wealth and status: he had become a member of the Wellington Harbour Board and the board of the Bank of New Zealand (both of which he was later to chair), and director of numerous companies.

From 1900 to the end of 1902 the Beauchamp girls attended Mary Anne Swainson's exclusive Fitzherbert Terrace School. One of Kathleen's teachers there found her 'a surly sort of girl' who was 'imaginative to the point of untruth'. Plump, inky-fingered and moody, Kathleen apparently regarded herself as a misfit. No topic she was asked to write on interested her and her school work was careless and untidy. However, cello lessons were a source of pleasure, as was her friendship with a classmate, Maata Mahupuku.

Early in 1903 the entire family sailed to England, where until 1906 Kathleen, Vera and Charlotte attended Queen's College in Harley Street, London, boarding at the hostel next door. It was a stimulating period: Kathleen discovered the writing of Henrik Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Walter Pater and Ernest Dowson, all of whom had an influence on her later work. She continued to correspond with Arnold Trowell, a young music student in Brussels whom she had met in Wellington, and formed a close friendship with a tall, awkward young woman, Ida Baker, whom she renamed 'Leslie Moore' or 'LM'.

A number of short pieces were published in the Queen's College Magazine. While some, such as 'The pine-tree, the sparrows and you and I', reflected her early interest in popular children's writing, notably the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, others indicated new directions. 'Die Einsame' explored the ideas of alienation and fulfilment in death, which became common themes in her juvenilia. 'About Pat', based on her memories of Karori, demonstrated the vivid sense of childhood experiences that would characterise her best later work.

In December 1906 Kathleen returned reluctantly to New Zealand with her family. In Wellington she participated in the social rounds with some enjoyment, but her notes for an autobiographical novel deplored the futility of her existence: 'the days full of perpetual Society functions – the hours full of clothes discussions – the waste of life…. The days, weeks, months, years of it all.' She desperately wanted to be allowed to return to London – 'it is Life' – and write. She poured out her longing for new experiences in 'huge complaining diaries'. They reveal not only her preoccupation with her own emotions but also deliberate literary experimentation based on a range of models, including Oscar Wilde and Elizabeth Robins and the Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff. Writing, music, reading at the General Assembly Library, and attending classes in typing and bookkeeping occupied much of her time.

In defiance of the rigid conventions of Wellington society, she pursued involved, sexually charged relationships with both men and women. While continuing her intense correspondence with Arnold Trowell, she formed an intimate bond with the artist Edie Bendall, with whom she spent weekends at the Beauchamps' cottage across the harbour at Days Bay and planned an illustrated collection of children's stories and poems. She also resumed her complicated relationship with Maata Mahupuku, who was, among other things, a source of literary inspiration.

While she loathed its social and intellectual restrictions, there were already signs that she valued aspects of her New Zealand life. In November and December 1907 Kathleen joined a group on a demanding camping trip to the rugged Urewera region of the central North Island. Her impressions, which she recorded in a journal, remained with her for the rest of her life, and were encapsulated in 'The woman at the store', a short story published in 1912.

Although he epitomised much that Kathleen rejected, Harold Beauchamp did a great deal to help her realise her writing ambitions. With the assistance of a Wellington journalist, Tom Mills, he helped arrange for the publication of several of her short stories in Australia in 1907. Most of these were vignettes written in a mannered fin-de-siècle style, but 'In a café', published in The Native Companion in December 1907, can be seen as a new departure. In October she had advised the editor, E. J. Brady, that she wished to be read only 'as K. Mansfield or KM'. Her modest success and possibly the literary triumph of her cousin, Elizabeth von Arnim, author of the best-selling Elizabeth and her German garden, finally persuaded Beauchamp to permit her to return to England, with an annual allowance of £100.

In July 1908 Mansfield sailed for London, where she boarded at Beauchamp Lodge near Regent's Canal. The next few years were an often chaotic search for experience, which she later acknowledged contained 'waste – destruction too'. Little was published at first; she sold her cello, and supplemented her allowance by performing musical skits at parties. She fell in love with Arnold Trowell's twin brother, Garnet, by whom she became pregnant. Inexplicably, she became engaged to George Charles Bowden, a singing teacher, marrying him on 2 March 1909 at the Paddington register office, dressed in black, with LM as witness. She left Bowden that evening. Alarmed at these developments, Annie Beauchamp travelled to England. Separating her daughter from LM, she escorted her to the spa of Bad Wörishofen in Germany, before returning to Wellington to delete her from her will.

The lonely six months in Germany, during which Mansfield miscarried, were the basis for the stories published in 1910 and 1911 in the literary periodical The New Age, edited by A. R. Orage. Her close friendship with a fellow contributor, Beatrice Hastings, was an important influence. Many of the stories have a young female narrator, and often the women characters are alone, vulnerable and naïve, questioning their role in society and the double standard that allows men to enjoy sexual pleasures while women suffer the consequences. The stories were collected in 1911 as In a German pension. Katherine Mansfield had begun to build her literary reputation, but was already troubled by illness. She suffered from bouts of pleurisy, and increasingly felt the effects of a long-term infection, apparently of venereal origin.

Events in 1910 and 1911 may have reinforced Mansfield's perception of the disadvantaged status of women. LM related how in 1910 Mansfield became involved with 'a young man, hardly more than a boy in appearance, and very handsome'. Early in 1911 she apparently thought she was pregnant, and wrote repeatedly to him without reply. In April 1911 LM opened a bank account to help with the baby before sailing to Rhodesia to visit her father. Returning five months later she found 'no baby and a closed bank account. We never discussed the matter'. While doubt has been cast on the veracity of this version of events, it could be that some experiences in the late spring of 1911 contributed to the ambivalent views of relationships and childbirth which are evident in her work at this time and in later stories such as 'This flower', 'Prelude' and 'At the bay'.

In December 1911 Mansfield met John Middleton Murry, editor of the journal Rhythm and a student at Oxford. At her invitation he became her lodger, then her lover. Although they were not to marry for another seven years, 'The Two Tigers', as they were known by friends, were deeply committed to each other from this time. The next two years were important for Mansfield's growth as a writer – she published several stories with New Zealand themes – but there were constant financial worries and frequent changes of address. Together the couple edited Rhythm, and its successor, the Blue Review, but failed to prevent Murry's bankruptcy which followed their stay in Paris at the end of 1913.

Their relationship was unconventional, often tormented, and while their mutual regard was profound they frequently misunderstood each other's needs. Increasingly Mansfield required unconditional love and attention, which Murry was often unable to provide; it was LM who offered unquestioning devotion and practical support. For the remainder of Mansfield's short life Murry and LM were both indispensible to her, but for different reasons.

Mansfield and Murry often lived apart for long periods but corresponded faithfully. As well as writing hundreds of letters, partly as a substitute for conversation, Mansfield filled notebooks and writing pads with thoughts, feelings, story drafts, observations and ideas. This habit was vital for the development of her writing, and although the quality is inevitably uneven, some passages are equal to the best in her fiction.

By 1914 Mansfield and Murry were close friends with D. H. and Frieda Lawrence and were witnesses at their wedding. Mansfield shared her memories of New Zealand with the Lawrences, but they were shocked at her brief affair with the French writer, Francis Carco, early in February 1915. The following month, while staying alone in Carco's apartment in the quai aux Fleurs, Paris, she began work on 'The aloe'.

In 1915 Mansfield's brother, Leslie Beauchamp, now engaged in military training, visited her in London, and they spent the summer days reminiscing, planning to return to New Zealand. In October he was killed in Flanders; grief-stricken, Mansfield fled to the South of France. Murry later rejoined her at the Villa Pauline in Bandol. There, in order to recreate the 'undiscovered country' she had known with her brother, she began to rewrite 'The aloe'. Published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf as Prelude in 1918, this evocation of childhood was later described as her first significant literary achievement.

Murry and Mansfield returned to England in April 1916 to stay briefly with the Lawrences in Cornwall. The arrangement proved unsatisfactory, and was partly responsible for D. H. Lawrence's later antipathy towards them. They moved back to London, where Murry took a position at the War Office. By 1917 they were frequent guests at Garsington Manor, Lady Ottoline Morrell's home near Oxford. There they associated with members and friends of the Bloomsbury group: T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey, Dorothy Brett, Siegfried Sassoon, the Woolfs, S. S. Koteliansky and Bertrand Russell. Murry, perhaps because of his lower-middle-class background, was often seen as an outsider, as was Mansfield, the colonial.

While Mansfield's contemporaries recognised her brilliance – Virginia Woolf confessed to being jealous of her writing – her relationships with them were rarely straightforward. Enigmatic and unpredictable, a gifted mimic, she once advised Murry 'don't lower your mask until you have another mask prepared beneath'. She could be witty and charming one day and critical and remote the next. Nevertheless, she was to provide generous support for other writers, such as Koteliansky (with whom she collaborated on the translation of Anton Chekhov's diaries and letters) and the novelist William Gerhardi.

In December 1917 Mansfield developed pleurisy and was diagnosed as having a spot on the lung. Although she did not believe that she was seriously ill, she returned on medical advice to Bandol. Dispirited by wartime restrictions and poor health, she nevertheless completed some significant stories: 'Bliss', a cleverly satirical picture of the Garsington set; 'Sun and Moon', drawing on her Wellington childhood; and 'Je ne parle pas français', a story exploring different facets of sexuality and social behaviour.

Mansfield had her first tubercular haemorrhage in February 1918. Thus began her race against time: 'How unbearable it would be to die – leave "scraps", "bits"…nothing really finished'. After a nightmarish episode when she and LM were trapped in Paris during the German bombardment, she returned to England. Her divorce from George Bowden became absolute on 29 April but her marriage to Murry on 3 May seemed an anticlimax. They moved to Hampstead in August, soon after hearing of her mother's death. Shaken by this news, Mansfield was further depressed by the crass armistice festivities. Pressures of work increased: in early 1919 Murry became editor of the Athenaeum and much of Mansfield's time was spent producing book reviews, which provide considerable insight into her craft as a writer.

Although her tuberculosis was worse Mansfield refused to enter a sanatorium. Instead, in September 1919, at the onset of the English winter, she moved with LM to Ospedaletti in Italy. Weak and ill, she vented some of her unhappiness on Murry in letters, and on LM in person. Her disappointment at Murry's passivity and apparent reluctance to support her prompted her to write 'The man without a temperament' in January 1920. Fearing that she was on the verge of collapse, later that month she travelled to Menton in the South of France to stay near her cousin Connie Beauchamp.

After a summer in London, Mansfield returned with LM to Menton, to the Villa Isola Bella. There she wrote 'The daughters of the late colonel', which she later described as 'the only story that satisfies me to any extent'. It was completed in December, the same month that Bliss and other stories was published. A temporary estrangement from Murry, whose flirtation with Princess Elizabeth Bibescu hurt her deeply, forced her gradually to come to terms with her spiritual isolation.

Mansfield moved again in May 1921 to Switzerland, where she was joined by Murry, who had given up the editorship of the Athenaeum to be with her. At the Chalet des Sapins, Montana-sur-Sierre, she wrote some of the most famous New Zealand stories: 'At the bay', 'The garden party' and 'The doll's house'. The first two were published in The garden party and other stories in February 1922. About this time, in desperation, Mansfield underwent painful radiation therapy in Paris. While there she met James Joyce, and wrote 'The fly'. Her illness, her disillusionment with her father and husband, and her disgust at the pointlessness of the war may all have informed this bitter tale of futile struggle and destruction.

Wearily she travelled back to Switzerland where she completed her last story, 'The canary', set in New Zealand. Then she went briefly to London in August 1922 for what were to be final meetings with her father and friends. In spite of the advanced state of her tuberculosis, Mansfield planned another series of 12 connected stories which would form the principal section in a new book, so becoming the third part of the story that had begun with 'Prelude' and was continued in 'At the bay'. This scheme for 'a kind of serial novel' was never realised.

Influenced by mystical thinkers such as P. D. Ouspensky, she was now convinced that in order to recover her health and fulfil her ambitions she must try to cure the soul, not the body. She was determined to write stories that were free of cynicism, to lead a new kind of life, to become 'a child of the sun'. In October she entered G. I. Gurdjieff's 'Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man' at Avon-Fontainebleau near Paris. Her last letters to her family, LM and Murry show that in that community she at last found something of the resolution she sought. Murry visited her on 9 January 1923. That evening she suffered a fatal haemorrhage. She was buried at Avon-Fontainebleau after a service conducted in French in the small Protestant church.

Katherine Mansfield willed her manuscripts, notebooks and letters to her husband for his disposal, with a request that he 'leave all fair'. In what was seen by some as a betrayal of this trust, Murry used her papers selectively to compile The journal of Katherine Mansfield in 1927. In 1939 he culled more material from the same sources to produce The scrapbook of Katherine Mansfield, and in 1954 he published an enlarged, so-called 'definitive edition' of the Journal. He also published two volumes of The letters of Katherine Mansfield in 1928, and Katherine Mansfield's letters to John Middleton Murry, 1913–1922 in 1951.

Ironically – for Mansfield had described herself as 'a secretive creature to my last bones' – her most private comments and reflections were made public. There was a double irony, in that Murry's careful editing gave the impression she was faultless; by February 1923 she was already being described as 'the saintliest of women'. Murry succeeded in creating a cult of personality, and this undoubtedly contributed to the growth of Mansfield's international reputation after her death. His efforts to build a memorial to her genius may also explain why her life as much as her work continues to be of such interest.

While the quantity of work Mansfield produced is relatively slight – three collections of stories were published during her life and two (The dove's nest and Something childish) posthumously – much has been written about her. Early scholars concentrated on biography, notably New Zealander Antony Alpers, who also compiled a collected edition of her stories. Since the appearance of Alpers's life of Mansfield in 1954 several more biographies, numerous critical studies, and various editions of her letters and journals have appeared. Radio programmes, a television series, a documentary, a feature film and plays have been produced. The house at Tinakori Road where Mansfield was born has been restored and attracts large numbers of tourists. Aspects of Mansfield's personality have inspired fictional characters in D. H. Lawrence's Women in love, Aldous Huxley's Point counter point, Francis Carco's Les innocents and Conrad Aiken's 'Your obituary well written'.

Much of the interest in Mansfield the woman is directed towards understanding her extraordinary achievement as a writer. Although she was influenced by other writers, notably Chekhov, she created a mode of short fiction that was new in many ways; indeed, she is regarded as a central figure in British modernism. She sought to capture the transitory vividness of life and to bring ordinary moments and people into focus so that their full significance could be understood. Accordingly she rejected the conventions of the highly plotted narrative with a carefully wrought conclusion, using instead direct and indirect narrative and a rapid transition of tenses to provide constant shifts of perspective. Often there is resolution but no definite conclusion; pattern but no plot. At times, too, there is an almost cinematic quality in her work, perhaps a result of her interest in film and her occasional work as a film extra in England. Her skilful use of these technical innovations constitutes a major advance in the evolution of the short-story form.

Her international status is unquestioned, but Mansfield's place as a New Zealand writer is somewhat problematical. For many years she was seen as our only literary figure of note, and the annual Katherine Mansfield fellowship to Menton remains the most prestigious prize for writers. However, in view of her long years of absence, some have questioned the extent and nature of her contribution to New Zealand literature. Mansfield herself was emphatic about her debt to the country of her birth: 'New Zealand is in my very bones'. There is evidence in her notebooks that she attempted to transform her youthful experiences into fiction from as early as 1907. She often used New Zealand colloquialisms and words with colonial referents in her stories. The death of her brother in 1915 gave fresh impetus to a process that was already well underway. In the later stories, recollections of childhood events are central. There is no doubt that, trapped by illness, physical isolation and loneliness, towards the end of her life Mansfield increasingly let her fantasy of a return to New Zealand steer her thoughts. Yet writing in Europe as a New Zealander gave her a different perspective from her contemporaries in New Zealand and in England. She could not have written as she did without an understanding of both those worlds.

Mansfield was acutely aware of the autobiographical element in her work and manipulated it carefully. Art always transcended reality, and remembered events or people were shaped to fit the impression she wished to convey. Her lasting appeal is perhaps due partly to the fact that in the best of her writing, fiction or non-fiction, she communicates her individual experience in such a way that different readers can identify with it. Mansfield's recognition of the alchemy by which literature is created from experience is expressed most eloquently in a letter of 1922: 'I think the only way to live as a writer is to draw upon one's real familiar life – to find the treasure in that.…And the curious thing is that if we describe this which seems to us so intensely personal, other people take it to themselves and understand it as if it were their own.'

How to cite this page:

Gillian Boddy. 'Mansfield, Katherine', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m42/mansfield-katherine (accessed 14 July 2024)