Katherine Mansfield (born Kathleen Beauchamp, daughter of the manager of the Bank of New Zealand) has had more influence internationally than any other New Zealand writer. Along with Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence and other members of the London-based Bloomsbury group, she was one of the founders of literary modernism during and after the First World War.
Mansfield’s place in literary history is due to her technical innovation and sophistication as a writer, her use of a floating indirect narrator and her ‘plot-less’ stories.
Most of Mansfield’s writing career took place in England, where she went to live in 1908 at the age of 19. In 1912 she published ‘colonial’ stories in the avant-garde magazine Rhythm, including ‘The woman at the store’ and ‘How Pearl Button was kidnapped’. It is Mansfield’s famous stories set in Wellington – ‘Prelude’, ‘The garden party’, ‘At the bay’ and ’The doll’s house’ – that most readers know.
Mansfield’s famous 1921 story ‘At the bay’ opens, ‘Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and which was sea.’1
These stories centre on the Burnell family, who resemble Mansfield’s own family (the Beauchamps), and they describe the Wellington places in which she lived as a child. Mansfield began writing these stories after the death of her brother Leslie in 1915 during the First World War, as a deliberate act of homage.
They form the core of her work and are expressive of late colonial society seen from shifting viewpoints, which include Mansfield’s fictional self-portrait as the child Kezia. Mansfield’s evocation of local landscapes, extended families, a child’s point of view and complex emotional psychology established a pattern for later short-story writers like Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Janet Frame and Owen Marshall, but the brilliance of her writing has never been equalled.
Collections, journals and letters
Mansfield published three collections of stories in her lifetime, In a German pension (1911), Bliss and other stories (1920) and The garden party and other stories (1922), as well as her long story ‘Prelude’ (1918). More stories, as well as letters and journals, were published by Mansfield’s husband John Middleton Murry after her death from tuberculosis in 1923.