This Day In Literary History
On October 14th, 1888, the famous Kiwi writer Katherine Mansfield was born in Wellington, New Zealand. She was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp. The third of four children, she had two older sisters and a younger brother.
Her father was a banker who would become the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand and be knighted as well. The Australian-born English novelist Elizabeth von Arnim was her cousin.
Although her first published short stories would appear in the High School Reporter and Wellington Girls' High School magazines, the teenage Katherine Mansfield had musical aspirations.
She was an accomplished cellist who initially planned to become a professional musician; she developed a crush on fellow cellist Arnold Trowell, whose father was her music teacher, but her feelings were mostly unreciprocated.
Mansfield began keeping journals when she was nine years old. She wrote of her growing alienation from provincial white New Zealand society and her disdain for her fellow whites over the repression of the Maori (New Zealand aboriginal) people. In her fiction, she depicted Maoris in a positive or sympathetic light.
In 1903, Mansfield moved to London, where she attended Queen's College with her sisters. While continuing with her cello studies, she contributed to the school newspaper. She eventually became editor of the paper, introducing its readers to the French Symbolists and Oscar Wilde. Her peers regarded her as vivacious and charismatic.
From 1903 to 1906, Mansfield traveled through Europe, living mostly in Belgium and Germany. After completing her schooling in England, she returned to her home in New Zealand, where she began her writing career. She quickly tired of the provincial life and returned to London, falling into the bohemian life.
Katherine Mansfield was known for her restless and rebellious nature, so the bohemian life suited her. She was bisexual and had many lovers, mostly male, though she had some lesbian relationships. One was with Ida Baker, a South African fellow writer who would become a lifelong friend.
In 1908, when she returned to London, Katherine sought out her old friends, the Trowell family. Her teenage crush Arnold Trowell was involved with another woman. Katherine soon found herself involved in a passionate affair with his brother, Garnet.
By 1909, Mansfield had become pregnant with Garnet's child, but his parents disapproved of their relationship, so they broke up. She hastily married George Bowden, a singing teacher eleven years her senior, but left him the same night after failing to consummate the marriage.
Her mother came to see her and blamed the breakup of the marriage on Ida Baker. She sent Katherine to Bad Worishofen, a spa town in Bavaria, where she miscarried after trying to lift a heavy suitcase and place it on top of a cupboard.
Mansfield's life in Bavaria had a major effect on her writing. She was introduced to the works of Anton Chekhov, who would prove to be a bigger influence on her than Oscar Wilde. In January 1910, she returned to London, where she had over a dozen works published in The New Age.
A socialist magazine edited by A.R. Orage, it was a highly regarded intellectual publication. In 1911, Mansfield's first short story collection, In A German Pension, was published. A hit with critics, the book would be greatly enjoyed by readers during World War I, due to its negative portrayal of Germans.
The Great War had a major effect on Katherine Mansfield's life and writing. In 1915, news that her younger brother, to whom she was very close, had been killed in action shocked and traumatized her.
To cope with her loss, she took refuge in her memories of him, basing her fiction on nostalgic reminisces of their childhood together. In one of her poems, she writes of a dream she had shortly after her brother's death:
By the remembered stream my brother stands
Waiting for me with berries in his hands...
"These are my body. Sister, take and eat."
Mansfield's best collection of short stories, The Garden Party and Other Stories, published in 1922, was also inspired by her childhood in New Zealand.
In 1911, Mansfield submitted a short story to a new avant-garde literary magazine called Rhythm. The editor, John Middleton Murry, rejected it as too lightweight.
So, Mansfield submitted another story, The Woman at the Store, a dark tale of murder and insanity. Not only did Murry publish it, he and Mansfield began a seven-year relationship that resulted in their marriage in 1918. Their life, however, was not a happy one.
Stephen Swift, the publisher of Rhythm, fled and left John responsible for all the magazine's debts. Katherine's health began to deteriorate from, among other things, an undiagnosed case of gonorrhea. She left John twice, but returned to him each time.
In 1915, she had an affair with French writer Francis Carco after visiting him in Paris. She retold the story of this relationship in her short story, An Indiscreet Journey. That same year, she learned of her brother's death in the war.
In 1916, Katherine Mansfield entered her most prolific period as a writer, and her relationship with John Murry improved. She broadened her literary acquaintances, meeting great writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Lytton Strachey, and Bertrand Russell through social gatherings and mutual friends.
Unfortunately, in December of 1917, Mansfield fell ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In April of 1918, her divorce from her husband George Bowden was at last finalized, so she married John Murry. The following year, he became the editor of a prestigious weekly journal called Athenaeum.
Mansfield wrote over a hundred reviews for the magazine. During the winter of 1918-19, because of her poor health, she stayed in a villa in San Remo, Italy, with her friend and ex-lover, Ida Baker.
Their relationship became strained, and Katherine wrote to John of her depression, so he came to stay over the Christmas season. But their relationship too became strained and they often lived apart.
Katherine Mansfield spent her last years seeking unorthodox treatments for her tuberculosis, but none of them worked. She died on January 9th, 1923, at the age of 34. She was a master of the short story, a modernist, an early feminist, and a progressive thinker ahead of her time.
Quote Of The Day
“Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.” - Katherine Mansfield
Today's video features a documentary on Katherine Mansfield. Enjoy!