Becca Anderson, author of The Book of Awesome Women Writers, has written a new blog post on the unique life and career of author Katharine Mansfield.
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At times, Katharine Mansfield’s life story reads like a tale of two women. She is regarded as a great British writer, but she always felt like little Kathleen Beauchamp, the girl from New Zealand. She had a strict and conservative Victorian upbringing, but she was also bohemian. She had a husband and a “wife.” Even her reasons for writing, as she explained them, were dual.
Her parents were conventional and proper; her father, Harold Beauchamp, was a Wellington banker, hardworking and ambitious. Daughter Kathleen was born in 1888.
Harold’s wife Annie had a delicate constitution, and her sickliness convinced her she couldn’t care for Kathleen on her own, so she moved her mother in to take care of her household and daughters. This was a boon for the child and her sisters, as they were given the affection her work-obsessed father and self-obsessed mother were unable to provide. When a son was born, the girls were sent off to several schools until 1903, when the family moved to London and Kathleen enrolled in Queen’s College for three years. She became an avid student, her favorite authors being the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Robins, Leo Tolstoy, and Oscar Wilde. After her taste of the cosmopolitan city, Kathleen dreaded the return to New Zealand, but turned to writing as compensation. Her talent was recognized right away; her pieces were published in the local journal, The Native Companion. Her father was so impressed that she received payment for her monographs that he permitted her to go back to the London she loved.
She had a romantic correspondence with Tom Trowell, the son of her Wellington music instructor, but got engaged to Tom’s twin brother Garnet. She also had a crush on a former schoolmate, Maata Mahupuka, a Maori heiress, and in college had met a motherless girl, Ida Constance Baker, with whom she formed a lifelong liaison. (Ida’s father was the model for the overbearing patriarch in Mansfield’s The Daughters of the Late Colonel.) Ida soon changed her name to L. M., Leslie Moore, and Kathleen began calling herself Katharine Mansfield. Garnet Trowell’s parents didn’t approve of Katharine, and in a rash move, she married a man she had just met, George Bowden. She and L. M. went to the Registry Office for the civil ceremony, the bride clad all in black. That night, at the beginning of what should have been the honeymoon, she bolted and ran to L. M. for comfort. Mrs. Beauchamp got wind of her daughter’s erratic antics and installed her in a German resort hotel where she was “treated” for her lesbian “affliction” with cold baths and spas. Katharine also recovered from a miscarriage that occurred at the hotel in Germany.
Throughout these romantic adventures, Mansfield wrote. Her first stories were published in A.R. Orage’s New Age; those written from her sanitorium were published in a 1911 collection, In a German Pension. J. Middleton Murry, editor of a newly established review, Rhythm, immediately called her up when she submitted her story, “The Woman at the Store.” In short order, Murry became a lodger and then lover of this writer, one year his senior. Rhythm was short-lived, but Mansfield continued to earn money for her writing to add to a tiny stipend from her father, and Murry wrote reviews and critical essays for pay.
With the onset of World War I, Mansfield’s life and loves were pulled apart. Murry got an assignment for military intelligence, while L. M. became a machinist in an airplane factory. The Beauchamp family was devastated by the loss of their only son, who was “blown to bits” in France. Prelude, written in 1917, and At the Bay, written in 1921, are Katharine’s ruminations about their time spent together in childhood, written in a style akin to stream of consciousness.
Her life in London saw Mansfield at the heart of a lively literary circle, with Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence at its epicenter. Mansfield felt a strong kinship, a “sameness” with Lawrence. She saw his disposition as very much like hers and believed they were both attempting to express the erotic in words. She perceived Lawrence’s attraction to her lover Murry as an attempt at a “blood brotherhood,” and disapproved of his and his wife Frieda’s incessant arguing in public—sudden, fierce outbursts that upset everyone around them. While Mansfield was oblivious to Lawrence’s portrayal of her and Murry as Gudrun and Gerald in Women in Love, she avoided contact with him after he wrote her a nasty, accusing letter in 1920: “You revolt me, stewing in your consumption.”
Katharine Mansfield’s relationship to Virginia Woolf was equally crucial to her emotional and literary life. Woolf’s upper-class, mannered background of comfortable wealth caused her occasionally to reprove Mansfield for her unconventional lifestyle, referring to her as “common.” But Woolf liked the younger writer’s “inscrutable” intelligence more than she disliked her bohemianism. Mansfield looked up to Woolf and turned to her for comradely support, writing in a letter, “We have the same job, Virginia.” Woolf’s diaries contain an entry about Mansfield’s stories as “the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”
Mansfield’s relationship with Murry lasted her entire life, but, particularly after she developed tuberculosis, he was not to be relied on. Like Lawrence, he found her tuberculosis repulsive and seemed to feel more sorry for himself than for her. Mansfield’s satiric story, “The Man Without a Temperament,” depicts his reaction to her illness perfectly. Murry withheld monetary as well as emotional support while she traveled in vain, searching for a place to get well. L. M. was her nurse, cook, valet, and rock, but the unfortunate circumstances of their togetherness eroded the relationship; Mansfield hated losing her independence, referred to L. M. as “The Albatross,” and came to see her as a “hysterical ghoul.”
Katharine Mansfield’s health spiraled downward at a rapid pace, but she refused to let it interfere with her writing. In 1918, she wrote Bliss and Other Stories while she suffered constant nausea, insomnia, night terrors, and chest pain; she could barely walk at times. The Garden Party and Other Stories was released to high praise; her crisp, precise prose and sharp dialogue won her comparisons to Anton Chekhov. At the end of her life at age thirty-four, she was introduced to George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, founder of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau. Mansfield entered Gurdjieff’s community unbeknownst to her friends; in an attempt to restore her health, she undertook the prescribed methods of movement and dance for “centering,” living in a hayloft where she drank fresh milk and lived above the dairy cows in a rustic room painted with pastoral scenes of flowers and animals. The night Murry came to visit her idyll, she hemorrhaged and died immediately.
One must be true to one’s vision of life—in every single particular…. The only thing to do is to try from tonight to be stronger and better—to be whole.
From the expurgated letters of Katharine Mansfield
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