Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

“Innovative, accessible, and psychologically acute,” is how the Poetry Foundation describes the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. Highly regarded in the 20th century, although less known today, Mansfield experimented with modernism and brought new genres to the short story format. Writing about relationships, sexuality, the middle class, war, and everyday life, Mansfield was welcomed by members of the Bloomsbury Group in London. Sadly, her untimely death at the age of 34 prevented Mansfield from rising to the celebrity ranks of her friends, such as D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941).

Born into a wealthy family on 14th October 1888, Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp (Katherine was a pseudonym) grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, with her four siblings: two older sisters and a younger sister and brother. Her father, Sir Harold Beauchamp (1858-1938), was a successful businessman and, later in life, the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand. Katherine’s grandfather, Arthur Beauchamp (1827-1910), briefly stood as a Member of Parliament, and her cousin, Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), became a well-known author and, briefly, conducted an affair with H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

Mansfield’s happy childhood memories made their way into several short stories, which she began writing in the late 1890s. Her first written works appeared in the magazine of Wellington Girls’ High School, which she attended until 13 years old. In 1900, Mansfield submitted a story to the children’s page of the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal, which they published the day before her 12th birthday. The tale, His Little Friend, described the relationship between a man and a young child he met on the road. The man, John, came from a wealthy background, whereas the little boy lived in poverty and had nothing to eat. John gave the child food from his garden, but it was not enough to save the boy from a fatal illness. The sad story revealed Mansfield’s awareness of her parent’s wealth and the poverty of the working-class members of society.

As a child and teenager, Mansfield kept a private journal, in which she jotted down personal experiences and story ideas. They reveal her infatuation with the son of her cello teacher, who did not reciprocate her attention. As she got older, she wrote about the mistreatment of the indigenous Māori people, who she believed were repressed by society. To counteract this, Mansfield portrayed the Māori in a positive light in her stories. On these occasions, she painted white people in a negative light.

Katherine and Ida

In 1903, Mansfield travelled to London with her sisters to attend Queen’s College, an independent school for girls aged 11 to 18. As well as academic studies, Mansfield focused on practising the cello, which she dreamed of playing professionally. Her aspirations soon changed after contributing to the college magazine, which she later edited. Many commented on Mansfield’s aptitude for writing, particularly her friend Ida Baker, who also loved to write.

After completing her schooling, Mansfield returned to New Zealand, where she concentrated on writing short stories. Many of these appeared in the Native Companion, for which she received payment, thus cementing her ambition to be a professional writer. She published these works under the name “K. Mansfield”, her first initial and middle name. 

Mansfield’s journals from 1906 to 1908 suggest she had many romantic relationships. Whilst the majority were male, Mansfield wrote about two women and her conflicting feelings towards them. Same-sex relationships were illegal, but Mansfield felt unable to repress her feelings. On one occasion, she wrote, “I want Maata—I want her as I have had her—terribly. This is unclean I know but true.” Maata Mahupuku (1890-1952) was a Māori woman who Mansfield knew from childhood. They became close after Mansfield’s return to New Zealand, but their relationship ended when Maata married in 1907. The other woman Mansfield wrote about was called Edith Kathleen Bendall, but there is very little information about her.

Growing wearing of life in New Zealand, Mansfield returned to London. Her father agreed to send her an annual allowance of £100, although she quickly took up a bohemian lifestyle. After moving from place to place, Mansfield decided to seek out the son of her cello teacher, Arnold Trowell. Just as before, Arnold did not return Mansfield’s advances, but his brother, Garnet, did. After a brief but passionate affair, Mansfield realised she was pregnant. Sadly, Garnet’s parents, who disapproved of the relationship, forced them to split up.

Not wishing to have a child out of wedlock, Mansfield hastily accepted a marriage proposal from George Bowden, a singing tutor. They married on 2nd March 1909, but regretting her decision, Mansfield fled shortly after the service. For a while, she found solace at the house of her friend Ida. When her mother, Annie Beauchamp, arrived in England after learning about the failed marriage, she blamed her daughter’s “lesbian relationship” with Ida. Angrily, Annie packed her pregnant daughter off to the spa town of Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria, Germany, and cut Mansfield from her will.

While in Bad Wörishofen, Mansfield suffered a miscarriage. After recuperating from the trauma, she returned to London in 1910. Mansfield’s experiences in Bavaria, which included learning of various European authors, prompted her to start writing again. Before her marriage to Bowden, Mansfield only published one poem and one story in London. Her new literary outlook resulted in a dozen short stories, which she submitted to The New Age, a socialist magazine owned by Alfred Richard Orage (1873-1934). Through Orage, Mansfield met the English writer Beatrice Hastings (1879-1943), with whom she developed a close, possibly romantic, relationship.

In 1911, Mansfield published a series of short stories about life in Germany under the title In A German Pension. Some of these tales reference her plight, but most satirically represent the habits of German people and the state of their unhealthy sewage system. On occasion, Mansfield mentioned the misrepresentation of women and how men exploit them.

Mansfield in 1912

For some time, Mansfield attempted to get her work published in the literary, arts, and critical review magazine Rhythm. The editor rejected her first attempt for being too “lightweight”, so she responded with a darker, Fauvist story titled The Woman at the Store. Set in the desolate New Zealand countryside, three friends stop to rest at a store owned by a mentally deranged woman. Whilst the woman attempts to woo the visitors, her neglected daughter reveals to them through her drawings that her mother killed her father.

In 1912, Mansfield joined Rhythm as an associate editor. She developed a close relationship with the main editor, John Middleton Murry (1889-1957), and they had an on and off affair, which inspired the characters Gudrun and Gerald in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love

Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

Rhythm magazine folded in 1913 after the publisher Charles Granville absconded, leaving them with many debts. Around this time, Mansfield experienced bouts of ill health. A friend persuaded Mansfield and Murry to rent a cottage in Cholesbury, Buckinghamshire, where Mansfield could recuperate. When her symptoms did not alleviate, they moved to Paris, hoping a change of setting would boost Mansfield’s health or at least inspire her to write again. Mansfield succeeded in writing a short story titled Something Childish But Very Natural, but it was not published until after her death.

In 1914, Mansfield and Murry briefly split up when Murry returned to London to declare bankruptcy. Remaining in France, Mansfield conducted an affair with the French author Francis Carco (1886-1958), which she narrated in her short story, An Indiscreet Journey. The tale describes the journey of an English woman on her way to meet her lover on the front line during the First World War, and the people she met along the way. 

Mansfield and Murry reunited in 1915, but Mansfield’s outlook on life changed after receiving the news of the death of her younger brother Leslie. While serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Ypres Salient, Belgium, Leslie suffered fatal wounds during a grenade training exercise. His death made Mansfield nostalgic about her childhood in New Zealand, which she reflected in her writing.

Katherine Mansfield

In 1917, Mansfield and Murry split once again. Mansfield purchased an apartment where she lived for a time with her friend Ida, who she referred to as “my wife”. Although no longer together, Murry visited Mansfield regularly and eventually won back her heart. During this time, Mansfield wrote prolifically, often on themes of marriage or lost love, and published many stories in The New Age Magazine.

Later that year, Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard (1880-1969) approached Mansfield to ask for a story. They needed writers for their new publishing company, Hogarth Press, and Mansfield happily presented them with her work in progress, Prelude. Woolf encouraged her to finish the story, which Mansfield based on her childhood, particularly the family’s move to Karori, a country suburb of Wellington, in 1893. Eventually published by Hogarth Press in 1918, Prelude encompasses themes of feminism, isolation, freedom, servility and familial relationships.

Katherine Mansfield Portrait

In December 1917, Mansfield received a diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis. For the rest of the winter and following spring, she stayed with the American artist Anne Estelle Rice (1877-1959) in Looe, Cornwall, hoping the sea air would aid recovery. While there, Rice painted Mansfield’s portrait, which the author requested in vivid red. The painting now lives in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, New Zealand.

Mansfield’s health continued to worsen, but she refused to enter a sanitorium. Instead, she moved to Bandol in southeastern France, where she resided in a quiet hotel. Whilst feeling isolated and depressed, Mansfield focused on her writing, producing short stories, such as Je ne parle pas français and Bliss. The latter became the title story of her collection Bliss and Other Stories, published in 1920.

In March 1919, Mansfield suffered a lung haemorrhage, which prompted Murry to urge her to marry him. As soon as her divorce papers came through from Bowden, the couple married in April in London. Murry’s financial situation had much improved, and he worked as the editor for the literary magazine The Athenaeum. Mansfield contributed over 100 book reviews to the magazine, and many well-known authors submitted short stories and poems, including T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), and Virginia Woolf. 

Mansfield travelled to San Remo, Italy, with Ida to avoid the harsh English winters. Murry joined them for Christmas but returned to London soon after. It became normal for Mansfield and Murry to live apart, which Mansfield used as the basis of her story The Man Without a Temperament. Swapping tuberculosis for heart disease, Mansfield wrote about a man who is scorned for leaving his poorly wife behind while he goes for a walk. 

In May 1921, Mansfield and Ida visited the Swiss bacteriologist Henri Spahlinge in Switzerland in search of tuberculosis treatment. In June, Murry joined her, and they rented a chalet in the canton of Valais. While undergoing treatment, Mansfield wrote rapidly, fearing she had little time left. The majority of her short stories from this period were published in The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. This publication received mixed reviews from critics. Some argued it left them cold, and others claimed it to be a selection of her best works.

One story, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, is regarded as Mansfield’s finest work. It concerns the lives of two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, who are trying to come to terms with the death of their father. Mansfield emphasised that middle-class women brought up in old-fashioned ways do not know how to fend for themselves. Their father always made decisions about their lives, and without him, the sisters are lost. Readers have interpreted the story differently. For some, this is the sisters’ chance to live their life as they wish; for others, the sisters face perpetual misery, unable to live without their father. Although she did not make it clear in her writing, Mansfield favoured the latter outcome, saying to a friend: “All was meant, of course, to lead up to that last paragraph, when my two flowerless ones turned with that timid gesture, to the sun. ‘Perhaps now’. And after that, it seemed to me, they died as truly as Father was dead.”

In early 1922, Mansfield gave up on tuberculosis treatment in Switzerland and searched for alternative methods. A form of x-ray treatment in Paris caused her painful side effects and failed to improve her condition. Mansfield and Murray briefly returned to Switzerland, where Mansfield finished her final short story, The Canary. After this, they visited London before moving permanently to Fontainebleau in France. Here, Mansfield lived as a guest at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man under the care of Olgivanna Lazovitch Hinzenburg (1898-1985), the future wife of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

Katherine Mansfield’s Tombstone at Cimetiere d’Avon in Avon France

On 9th January 1923, after running up a flight of stairs, Katherine Mansfield suffered a fatal pulmonary haemorrhage. Her husband failed to pay for her funeral expenses, so she was buried in a pauper’s grave until he rectified the situation. After this, Mansfield was interred at Cimetiere d’Avon, Avon, near Fontainebleau.

Many of Mansfield’s stories remained unpublished at the time of her death. Gradually, Murry compiled them into volumes and printed them as The Dove’s Nest in 1923 and Something Childish in 1924. He also published a collection of her poems (The AloeNovels and Novelists), letters and journals.

Despite spending half her life in Europe, Mansfield is most known in her home country. About ten schools in New Zealand have a school house named in her honour. Her birthplace is preserved as the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden, which is open to the public. There is also an award called the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, which allows a writer from New Zealand to work in one of Mansfield’s former homes in France.

In the 1970s, the BBC serialised Katherine Mansfield’s life in a miniseries called A Picture of Katherine Mansfield, starring Vanessa Redgrave (b.1937). Apart from this, little is done to keep the memory of Katherine Mansfield alive in Britain. For such a prolific writer, she remains unknown to many. If Mansfield had lived longer than 34 years, she would easily have exceeded the number of works by some of today’s most loved writers. 


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2 thoughts on “Katherine Mansfield

  1. What a life Katherine lived. Fractured having many relationships yet finding happiness where she could. Hazel thank you for shining a light on this author whom I knew nothing. Now I feel I know a little and perhaps should learn more. You are very talented and I think you fit highlighting the less famous and just as intriguing life stories.
    Hazel you are in deed a marvel.

  2. For such a relatively short life Katherine seems to have crammed in quite a lot! Don’t believe I have read anything she wrote but I’m willing to sample a little to see what sort of writer she was after reading this. Well done Hazel for shining the light on a lesser-known writer.

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