Who the hell was Katherine Mansfield?

Katherine Mansfield: a nice young lady (Click for image credit)

Katherine Mansfield: a nice young lady (Click for image credit)

I kind of hate this photo of Katherine Mansfield (above). I mean, it’s a gorgeous picture and all – KM looking sweetly pretty, with a charming daisy on her lapel and just a touch of poetic intensity. And that’s why I’ve grown to hate it. It encapsulates to me the way I feel Katherine Mansfield has come to be generally represented and thought of in New Zealand: a nice young lady from the past who wrote nice stories about children playing at the beach. Basically, a bit dull.

I think the reason for this is because the place most people first (and maybe only) encounter Mansfield and her writing is at school, where we can’t have anything too racy. I also think it’s because we’ve co-opted her as a national treasure – as we like to do with anyone who came from here and has the tiniest bit of fame overseas – and national treasures need to be a reasonably nice. And also because, although we celebrate her, most New Zealanders don’t actually know that much about her.

Katherine Mansfield – born Kathleen Beauchamp in Thorndon, Wellington, 125 years ago today – was many things, but boring isn’t one of them. Instead, she was audacious, exciting, sometimes badly behaved, independent, talented, deep-thinking and ahead of her time.

As an upper-middle-class girl in Edwardian Wellington certain standards of behaviour were expected. And these are standards young Kathleen did not meet. She had relationships with both men and women (almost certainly sexual) and her scandalous reputation was such that the fiancé of her older sister Vera was warned off marrying into the family. The warnings didn’t work and Vera Beauchamp married James Abbott Mackintosh Bell at what is now Old St Paul’s (the same church where I got married almost 100 years later) in 1909. But Katherine was already gone by then. She had been badgering her parents to let her go back to London, where she had attended school from 1903 to 1906, and (possibly because of scandal) they finally let her.

Katherine Mansfield in 1906 (click for image credit)

Katherine Mansfield in 1906 (click for image credit)

Back in the motherland, Katherine had many youthful adventures and generally threw herself into life. She supplemented her allowance by performing musical skits at parties (while pretending to be one of the guests), became pregnant, married (someone else) and left her new husband the same day. She miscarried alone in Bavaria, and on her return she got involved with writers and artists, at first those associated with the avant garde journal The New Age. And that’s just the start!

There are many more stories I could recount, like the time she snuck into war-torn France to spend a few days with her lover, but space is limited. By the time she died in 1923, at the young age of 34, she had published three collections of short stories, and had written many more stories, articles, letters and journals which were collected and published after her death. She, to steal a phrase from a friend of mine, makes you feel you’ve done nothing with your life.

I can’t remember where I read it, or even if it’s quite true, but it has been said that she was the first woman in London to wear purple stockings – which encapsulates to me the kind of person she was, or at least the kind of person I think she was. But knowing what she was really like is a little bit of a problem with Mansfield. I’m fascinated by photographs of her because she generally looks so different in each one. Partly it’s because her face changed a lot as she became older and sicker (with tuberculosis), but partly I think because she was tricky to pin down. She once said to John Middleton Murry (who became her second husband), ‘don’t lower your mask until you have another mask prepared beneath.’

Katherine Mansfield in 1911 (click for image credit)

Katherine Mansfield in 1911 (click for image credit)

There are a lot of biographies of Mansfield, each with their own, sometimes wildly differing, views on their subject, and I think I must have read them all. The earliest was by the delightfully named Ruth Elvish Mantz, co-authored with Murry, who was busy growing the myth of his late wife (which turned out to be quite lucrative for him, but that’s another story). It represented Mansfield as some kind of brilliant angel, and a similar sort of reverential tone pervades Antony Alpers’s first biography (published in 1953). By his 1980 The Life of Katherine Mansfield he’d dropped the reverence and had a more indulgent ‘wasn’t she clever but naughty little monkey’ attitude. Others represent her as a bit of a bitch, while some biographers (I’m looking at you Jeffrey Meyers) seem to actively dislike her. In general, I’ve found them to take a one-sided view of Mansfield – as if they’ve only looked at one of those elusive photographs rather than a whole bunch. Of course this isn’t quite fair of all of them, and I do recommend the recent Katherine Mansfield: the story-teller by Kathleen Jones (2011), which I think treats Mansfield and the other people in her life more like people rather than characters.

You will have got by now that I’m a bit of a Mansfield fan. And, while I’ve been writing more about her life than her work, it’s her work that I’m actually a fan of. But it was her life that first got me hooked. As an aspiring teenage writer, she came to mean a lot to me as an inspiration – not only was she a woman writer, but she was a woman writer who came FROM HERE, from the very city I lived in (or, more truthfully, from the very city of which the city I lived in was a satellite). Not only that, but she was a writer of international importance.

Katherine Mansfield in 1920 (click for image credit)

Katherine Mansfield in 1920 (click for image credit)

I think it’s sometimes hard for us to tell how important New Zealanders are overseas – giants here might be minnows out there – but Mansfield deserves her fame. In her favoured form – the short story – she was developing new, modernist ways of writing that were, for example, less concerned with plot and more interested in psychology and character. While I love her New Zealand stories, such as ‘At the Bay’ and ‘Prelude’, my favourite story might well be ‘The daughters of the late colonel’, which arguably goes past modern and right into post-modern, with its surreal flights into the minds of the daughters (‘Jug’ and ‘Con’) that recall the ‘fantasy sequences’ that were considered so cutting-edge in television shows like Ally McBeal (if you can remember the 1990s).

Virginia Woolf, who was a friend of Mansfield’s, is now considered to be THE great modernist writer; but when the younger Mansfield was writing and publishing her modernist short stories, Woolf was still yet to find her way to the new techniques that would make novels like To the lighthouse such modernist masterpieces. Not to diminish Woolf’s considerable talent, but her way was paved by writers such as Mansfield (whose way, in turn, was paved by writers like Anton Chekhov).

I for one welcome our new Mansfieldian overlord

I for one welcome our new Mansfieldian overlord

A new public sculpture celebrating Katherine Mansfield was recently erected in Wellington, in Midland Park. Before it was installed I was sure I was going to hate it. The images I’d seen of how it was going to look made me think it was going to be part of the ‘Katherine Mansfield was a nice writer who wrote nice stories’ school (see for yourself here). But now that it’s up, I’ve grown to love it. To me the sculpture doesn’t look all that much like Mansfield, but rather like a giant alien Amazon/suffragette who is going to conquer our planet, AND she lights up at night. What’s not to like!

Her words light up at night

Her words light up at night

What do you think? Do you like or hate the sculpture? How do you think of Katherine Mansfield? Are you going to do anything to celebrate her 125th birthday?

For more about Katherine Mansfield read our biography of her, originally published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, check out events to celebrate her birthday, visit the websites of the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace and the Katherine Mansfield Society, watch Bliss, or read one or more of the many books about Katherine Mansfield and her work.

9 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Kerryn || October 14th, 2013

    I can’t like the sculpture, thought I admit I haven’t seen it at night. She looks like a robot and I fear she’s about to come to life and shot death-rays from her eyes. I’m not fooled by the outstretched hand. Her shoulders would be at home in a rugby forwards pack. But I do like the writing, which must look amazing at night.

  2. Comment made by Julia || October 14th, 2013

    Such an interesting read!

    My first taste of Mansfield was at high school, hearing Bliss read aloud – which whatever your thoughts are of it now- was perfect listening material for a teenage girl.

    Later, it was one paper at university on New Zealand literature that killed my love of it… not because it was too nice- but because the writers kept on moaning about how much better it was in England* ‘Go back then and stop your moaning’, I thought to myself, I have little patience for moaning at the best of times- I certainly don’t want to dedicate myself to the reading of moaning. Anyway, sadly, and rightly or wrongly, KM got included in a group I will call ‘moaning NZ lit’. Your blog has alerted me to the fact that I may wish to revisit her writing.

    *I realise here is where I need a citation, and without one my comment seems dubious, I just can’t remember which stories were the “moaniest”.

  3. Comment made by Stefanie || October 14th, 2013

    Totally agree with you on the picture. I much prefer the more badass, self-assured later portraits. With the statue, I find it a bit disappointing. I acknowledge the artist’s work and all the careful vision that has gone into it, but it’s the shoulders that really put me off. Too wide. Is it structural? Who knows. Long like KM.

  4. Comment made by Megan Cook || October 14th, 2013

    I hate the sculpture! Its maker somehow imagined that the muscularity, nuance, and supple flow of Mansfield’s writing could be represented by this stiff, unwieldy, robotic thing, punctured with words that are taken out of context.

  5. Comment made by Peter Clayworth || October 14th, 2013

    Personally I love the sculpture, KM meets Fritz Lang (appropriate given the modernist nature of the movie Metropolis).

    My own favourite KM story is a little known number called ‘The Woman at the Store’ where she indulges in a bit of NZ backcountry gothic. I remember seeing a TV version of it done many years ago (1970’s) a sort of precursor to the ‘Cinema of Unease’ genre.

  6. Comment made by Ewan Morris || October 14th, 2013

    Unfortunately today’s Google doodle celebrating Mansfield’s birthday seems to perpetuate the kind of image of her that is critiqued in this post:

  7. Comment made by Helen Rickerby || October 14th, 2013

    Ewan, I agree – although I think the image is supposed to be one of the characters in ‘The Garden Party’ – there’s even the band in the marquee in the middle of the O. And maybe the tree with the yellow flowers is attempting to be a karaka tree?

  8. Comment made by Jodi Apperley || October 16th, 2013

    I like the statue. There’s a certain larger than life defiance about aspects of KM and her life (evident in some of her photos too, in the eyes) and when I see the statue I think of it as a sort of outward expression of her inner self, if that makes sense. She knew who she was. I always chuckle when I read Virginia Woolf’s diaries and all the bitchy comments she made about KM. ..

  9. Comment made by Katherine Mansfield and late 19th century NZ women | Vivienne Morrell || June 16th, 2016

    […] Mansfield in 1920 from Te Ara blog ‘who the hell was Katherine Mansfield?’; and KMB from KMB website. […]

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