October is the birth month of Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) a modernist short story writer born to a socially prominent family in New Zealand. Her real name was Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp and it is telling that she chose to change her name and rid herself of some of the upper class trappings of the family to which she was born when she moved away from home and went about getting her stories published.
She travelled around continental Europe and lived for long periods of time in London, being part of the bohemian set there. She was friends with D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and Woolf wrote in her diary: “I was jealous of her writing—the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”
Throughout all this she followed the ‘modern’ path of living her life as she saw fit. Like many artists and creative people in the new century, she wanted to lose the oppressive old Victorian rules about sex and had numerous affairs with both men and women (scandalising her mother back in New Zealand) and used the experiences in some of her stories. She also had two marriages, the first was a mistake and the second was to John Middleton Murry, an Oxford graduate, writer and editor of literary magazines.
Her greatest loss was the death of her much-loved brother, Leslie Heron “Chummie” Beauchamp in the First World War. It was for him that she wanted to write about their happy childhood together in New Zealand. She suffered from ongoing illnesses and as her health was so precarious she tried to write as much as she could in the years before she succumbed to tuberculosis when 34.
This is a short, scrappy run-down of Mansfield’s rich but all too brief life. The reality was far more complicated, interesting and, at times, contentious. The most important thing to know about Mansfield is that she wrote exceptional short stories! And if you don’t know her work then go and find one of her story collections. Middleton Murry ensured her work, fiction and non-fiction, was published after her death.
If you want to know more about Mansfield’s life check out Claire Tomalin’s biography of Katherine:
And these two websites are worth a look too:
Of course nothing really beats reading her work, her short stories or her very revealing and at times heart-rending journal.
A new edition of this journal is available from Persephone Books http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/