Katherine Mansfield: Brief Life Long Legacy

Katherine Mansfield

For my birthday, a kind friend gave me a voucher for any book from Persephone Books. This is a brilliant book shop/publisher which, and I’m quoting now from their website, “reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction, mostly by women writers and mostly mid-twentieth century. All of our 143 books are intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written and are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial.”

I was given a list of books available, but I already knew the one I wanted. I already have a few excellent Persephone Books titles, and was pleased to see a book I’d wanted was available: Journal of Katherine Mansfield. I’ve been a fan of Mansfield’s work for some time and I like to read diaries of writers to see what they were thinking about while writing.

Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born in 1888 into a socially prominent Wellington family in Thorndon, New Zealand. She disliked some elements of New Zealand life in those times. Especially the conservatism and the repressive attitudes towards the Maori population. She changed her name to Katherine Mansfield for her writing work and moved to England, first for her education and later to be part of the more progressive European culture in literature and the arts. 

Her journal covers 1910-1922 and was put together by her late husband John Middleton Murry after her young death at 34 in 1923 from tuberculosis. He gathered all her journal entries, scraps of writing, letters and notes together to give an idea of what his wife was thinking and saying in the last ten years of her life. 

Overall it is a wonderful, bittersweet book. Reading it you see how Katherine loved, suffered and tried to be best writer possible despite her the physical problems she was having. 

Katherine shows herself to be as a courageous writer as she was in other parts of her life. Her relationships with men and the baby she miscarried is known about, but it is her relationships with women that are more interesting. Especially the one with Maata Mahupuku picture below (other names Martha Grace and Martha Asher).

She was two years older and they met at school in Wellington. Maata was the granddaughter of a Maori chief and they stayed close in London and then kept in touch by letter. 

In June 1907 she wrote: “I want Maata—I want her as I have had her—terribly. This is unclean I know but true.” She often referred to Maata as Carlotta. She wrote about Maata in several short stories. Maata married in 1907 but it is claimed that she sent money to Katherine in London

The fact that Katherine was part of the London Literary scene at such a pivotal moment in writing and art when modernism was ripping up the rules of Victorian Britain and reacting to both the horrors of the First World War and the ongoing thrust of science and innovation and demands for equality is exciting! I’m sure she felt it herself and her writing was part of that new world.

Because of this her writing shows both clarity and depth and doesn’t feel like it’s over a hundred years old. It can also often be terribly sad as she doesn’t write happy go lucky stories. Instead her stories peel away the superficial layers that human beings cover themselves with and reveal the hidden truths about individual lives. The hopes, the joys, the worries, the fears and the mistakes they have made and will probably make again. 

Katherine met many of the literary greats of the times in London, mainly through her husband John who was not only a writer and critic like her, but also a publisher aswell. They had met in 1911 and got married in 1918 after living together and getting her work published in various literary magazines.

John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield in France 1921

He introduced Katherine to the Leonard and Virginia Woolf who had begun the Hogarth Press from their Richmond London home with a view to publishing modernist writing of Virginia and the poems for T.S. Eliot.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press 1914 (Alamo Stock Photo)

She became a good friend of Virginia despite the clear sense of writerly competition between them. It is clear Virginia got inspiration from Katherine. As Virginia said of Katherine,

“I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I have ever been jealous of.

And Virginia was very upset when Katherine gave her novel Night and Day a less than positive review.

“We had thought that this world had vanished forever, that it was impossible to find on the great ocean of literature a ship that was unaware of what had been happening. Yet here is Night and Day, fresh, new and exquisite, a novel in the tradition of the English novel. In the midst of our admiration it makes us feel old and chill. We had never thought to look upon its like again!” (Katherine Mansfield, Athenaeum, 1919)

Later Kathrine would get very ill from the tuberculosis she’d been diagnosed with in 1917 and her need to keep recuperating abroad from bouts of the illness meant hers and Virginia’s friendship was often tested. Bearing in mind Virginia was also often ill with her own mental problems it is surprising, but also important to remember how close they briefly were.

Virginia enjoyed the “oddly complete understanding” they both had asked on Katherine’s own love of writing. For Katherine, Virginia inspired her, “She was very nice … She does take the writing business seriously and she is honest about it & thrilled by it. One can’t ask more.”

Although, Katherine’s life was cut cruelly short, her legacy for me is in the modernist stories and incisive reviews and deeply personal diaries she left behind. Also, I believe her influence was at work in Virginia’s later work. Mrs Dalloway is based on ‘stream of consciousness’ writing over one day, but Katherine had already done something very similar to this in her own work, ‘Bliss’ and ‘The Garden Party’ for example, which you can read here: The Garden Party


Published by Yasmin Keyani


2 thoughts on “Katherine Mansfield: Brief Life Long Legacy

  1. I last read some KM in the early 70s, but have finally got round to acquiring a collection of her short stories to read in the not too distant future. All I knew of her back then was that she was for a time a devotee of the mystic Gurdjieff.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: