Selected products from Katherine Mansfield


New Zealand in the 1880s was a politically turbulent, progressive environment. Despite the normality of masculine dominance, there was an uprising of strength of mind and independence of character amongst various middle class women who were employed by progressively minded newspapers and journals who, bolstered by their own success, formed the incubative literary environment into which Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp was born, on 14th October 1888. Prominent female and feminist writers such as Mary Taylor, Mary Colclough (who utilised the ironically derogatory pseudonym Polly Plum) and Ellen Ellis had established a formative and politicised collective female literary and critical identity which would find its first recognition as part of the now-famous Contagious Diseases Prevention Act.

Her family, based in Wellington, were socially prominent, her father being a middle-class colonial banker while she was the cousin of Countess Elizabeth von Arnim, the Australian-born British novelist. She had three sisters, two elder and one younger, and a younger brother. Harold Beauchamp, her father, would become the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand, receiving a knighthood for his services to crown and country, and her grandfather, Arthur Beauchamp, had briefly represented the parliamentary electorate of Picton in Parliament. The family moved between suburbs in Wellington, beginning in Thorndon and arriving in Karori in 1893, where Mansfield spoke of “the happiest years of [her] childhood”. During this time she attended various schools in each district, displaying literary and musical talent beyond that which was expected of girls her age. It was during her time at the Wellington Girls’ High School that her first published stories appeared in the High School Reporter, in 1898 and 1899. Her musical talents found their outlet in the ’cello, and in 1902 she found herself enamoured by fellow ’cellist Arnold Trowell, from whose father she received ’cello lessons, though she would find her infatuation largely unreciprocated by the young Trowell. This rejection, combined with a wider social awareness of the difference between the colonising, ex-patriot community to which she belonged and to the indigenous Māori people, led to a humanist approach to race difference and a positive portrayal of those ethnic minorities, who often found themselves portrayed in favourable light in her stories. A prime example of this can be found in How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped, the 1912 modernist story in which a child, taken into Māori culture at birth, is later alienated and affrighted by the white men who come to ‘liberate’ her from the Māori who had previously taken her in and looked after her.

Having moved to London in 1903 she and her sisters attended Queen’s College, where she resumed her ’cello playing, expecting to take the talent to a professional level, though her contributions to the school newspaper and subsequent dedication to the same eventually led her to become editor, proving key as an indication of the path her career would take. During this period she found interest in the work of the French symbolists and Oscar Wilde, and the vivacious charisma she exhibited in her approach to life and work saw her appreciated and respected by her peers. While in London, and despite her prominent position as editor of the Queen’s College paper, she did not actively pursue politics, either as a reader, writer or an activist. Most surprisingly is that, despite the women of New Zealand being granted the right to vote in 1893, she did not follow the suffragette movement in the UK, indicating a level of detachment from or apathy towards the wider social and political issues which dominated the nation at that time.

During her residence at Queen’s College, she spent some time travelling in continental Europe, particularly to Belgium and Germany in between 1903 and 1906. By 1906 she had finished her stint of schooling at Queen’s College and returned to her home in New Zealand in 1906, which marked the beginning of her endeavours in short stories proper. The Australian journal Native Companion published several of her works, which were to be the first of many of which she was paid, and it was this critical interest and public success which cemented her decision to become a full-time writer. These instances of publication are the first recorded examples of her using the pseudonym K. Mansfield. Despite her success here and the abundance of life upon which to comment and record, having been exposed to the hustle and bustle of London, she soon tired of the provincial New Zealand lifestyle and resolved to return to London, finally heading back two years later in 1908. Her father, though saddened by the absence of his daughter, sent her an annuity of £100 for the remainder of her life. The hustle and bustle which she so missed found itself to some extent manifest in the two, openly recorded, lesbian relationships she had on returning to London. These were quite comfortably recorded in her journals, and this period has been described as evidence of her “transgressive impetus”. Nevertheless, she continued to sustain male lovers, even attempting to repress her feelings towards women at certain times. The picture of confidence which she portrayed in her journals and in society, then, was not always supported by her emotional security behind closed doors. The first of these relationships was with Maata Mahupuku, a young Māori woman whom Mansfield had met first in Wellington and then again coincidentally in London. Writing particularly candidly in 1907, she announced “I want Maata - I want her as I have had her - terribly. This is unclean I know by true”. The second of these relationships, with Edith Kathleen Bendall, lasted between 1906 to 1908, and Mansfield was equally adoring, lustful and open in her journals.

Now back in London, she found herself swept up by the bohemian lifestyle which prevailed throughout much of London society, particularly its more artistic side, of the era. This, perhaps, explains the scarcity of her work during the first fifteen months there, during which she published only one story and one poem. Seeking out the Trowell family while she was there, with whom she had variably studied the ‘cello and fallen somewhat in love, she found Arnold in love with another and so embarked on a passionate love affair with his brother, Garnet. She had become pregnant by Garnet by 1909, though his parents considered the relationship beneath both him and them, and so they separated shortly thereafter. Acting on something of a rebound, she hastily married George Bowden, a singing teacher some eleven years her senior. Marrying on 2nd March, she left him that evening before the marriage was consummated. A brief reunion with Garnet followed, after which her mother, Annie Beauchamp, arrived in London in 1909. Blaming the breakdown of her marriage to Bowden on the relationship between her and Bendall, Annie had her daughter quickly sent to the spa town of Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria, Germany. Upon arrival she attempted, innocuously, to lift her suitcase atop a cupboard, an action which resulted in a miscarriage. Although it is not clear whether Annie know of this miscarriage, Mansfield left Germany shortly thereafter and was left out of her mother’s will.

This time in Bavaria had a significant and lasting effect on her approach to literate, both reading and writing. Having been introduced to the works of Anton Chekhov, she returned to London in January 1910 and saw over a dozen of her works published in A.R. Orage’s socialist magazine and highly regarded intellectual journal, The New Age. Orage lived with Beatrice Hastings, the writer, poet and critic, and during this period she and Mansfield became lovers. Her first published collection, In a German Pension, was inspired by her time there and was well-received by a variety of literary critics, both for its literary excellence and for its negative, comical portrayal of the Germans. Later, though, she would describe the work as “immature”. Of this collection, the most successful story was Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding. Though the volume itself sold relatively poorly, one of the stories she submitted to the magazine ‘Rhythm’ garnered the attention of its editor, John Middleton Murray, though he requested something darker instead. In response to his demand, she wrote The Woman at the Stone, which was subsequently published.

By 1911, she and Murray were in a relationship, though it started rockily; she left him twice between 1911 and 1913. Part of the stress which caused this was brought about when the magazine’s publisher absconded to Europe and Murray had to pick up the magazine’s debts. Though Mansfield pledged the allowance she received from her father towards the magazine, it lasted only three more issues before it was discontinued in 1913. Mansfield’s ill-health at this time encouraged her and Murray, induced by their friend Gilbert Cannan, to rend a cottage by his windmill in Cholesbury in Buckinghamshire. It has been suggested that she was suffering from gonorrhoea by this time, although there is little real evidence of this. They stayed here for a year before moving to Pais in January 1914, hoping that a new environment would boost their creativity. She managed only one story during her time there, Something Childish But Very Natural, before the bank called for Murray to return to London and formally declare the bankruptcy with which he had been crippled by the magazine debt. Mansfield proceeded to have a brief affair with the French writer Francis Carco, visiting in Paris in February 1915. She would later retell this in An Indiscreet Journey.

Her brother, Leslie Heron Beauchamp, died as a New Zealand soldier while fighting the first world war in France. Shocked and traumatised by the unexpected news, she began to take refuge in nostalgia for her childhood, a reminiscing about early memories which found itself manifested in her writing. In a poem she wrote shortly after his death, she describes a dream, writing

By the remembered stream my brother stands

Waiting for me with berries in his hands [...]

‘These are my body. Sister, take and eat.’

The shock of the experience proved the boost to her creative which she had sought in moving to France, and she now entered her most prolific period of writing, becoming intensely aware of her own mortality as she witnessed the war unfold around her. She and Murray reconciled and their relationship duly improved, though the friendship they had forged with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda von Richthofen in 1913 was deteriorating, and the two couples fell out in 1916. Following this, Mansfield endeavoured to broaden her literary connections and made acquaintance with, among others, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Lytton Strachey and Bertrand Russell. She and Murray separated again in 1917, though he continued to visit her in her new apartment. Her networking paid off as Woolf and her publisher husband, Leonard, who had recently established Hogarth Press, approached her for a story and Mansfield offered Prelude, which she had begun in 1915. Its lack of external plot and claustrophobic attention towards a small family of New Zealanders moving home opened it up for critical criticism on publication in 1918, though it would endure this initially hostile welcome to become one of her more celebrated stories.

December 1917 saw her diagnosed with tuberculosis and, having briefly considered the idea of entering a sanatorium but rejected it in order that her writing would not be stifled, she resolved to move abroad to Europe in order to avoid the harsh British winter. Settling on Bandol, in France, she stayed at a near-deserted and cold hotel, which left her depressed. While there she wrote Je ne parle pas français, one of her darkest works and considered to be inspired at least in part by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, casting Murray in a pale, negative light. Meanwhile, she collected her second set of stories and titled it Bliss, named after one of its stories which had been published in 1918, the collection being published in 1920. Her divorce from Bowden now completed, she married Murray in April 1918. Their turbulent relationship prevailed, for they parted two weeks later, only to reunite shortly thereafter. In March 1919 Murray took the post of editor of Athenaeum, a weekly journal with a prestigious reputation. She stayed in San Remo for the winter of 1918-19, and during this time she felt strain on her relationship with Murray again, which caused him to visit her over Christmas. Despite this their relationship continued to be fraught, though his journeying to visit her inspired The Man Without a Temperament, a story about a wife in ill-health and a patient husband. This story has been called a turning-point in her writing, after which she was able to express “a new objectivity that gives the story a universal dimension”. Concurrently, Bliss was met with critical acclaim, while the equally praised volume The Garden Party followed in 1922.

Mansfield focused the final years of her life seeking ever-less orthodox cures for her Tuberculosis, including the ‘revolutionary’ practice of the Russian physician Ivan Manoukhim, a treatment which involved a bombardment of x-rays of her spleen, causing only heat flashes and numbness in her legs. Encouraged by the inevitability of her death to explore spirituality, she endeavoured to atone for the rebellion of her earlier years. She became a resident of Georges Gurdieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainbleau, France, in 1922, where she was cared for by Olgivanna Lazovitch Hinzenburg and later Mrs Frank Lloyd Wright. This care served only to delay the massive pulmonary haemorrhage she suffered on 9th January 1923, having run up a flight of stairs to show Murray how much better she was feeling. Murray then undertook to publish the works she had completed during these final years, resulting in two volumes of short stories, The Dove’s Nest (1923) and Something Childish (1924), a collection entitled Poems, The Aloe, a compendium of her critical writing entitled Novels and Novelists and various letters and journals. Considered one of the best short story writers of her period, the excitement, drama and darkness of her life found itself manifested in her work.