Literary Fusion: The Story of Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

By Berry, Neil | Contemporary Review, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Literary Fusion: The Story of Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry


Berry, Neil, Contemporary Review


WHEN Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis in 1923 at the age of 34, she left behind three volumes of short stories and the poignant sense of an aborted career. It is testimony to the power of her fiction that it has been continuously in print for almost a century. Yet the reason Mansfield impinges on literary consciousness still is not just because of her stories but also because of her journal, notebooks and luminously expressive letters. Composed of sentences that read as if freshly minted, her literary remains have come to be regarded as all of a piece. Angela Carter remarked that they could be construed as a 'fabulous autobiography of the soul'.

By this stage, Mansfield has been the subject of both formal biographies and biographical novels: if her miscellaneous writings comprise a unity, it is also true that they have melded with the narrative of her life to project the personality of a many-sided pioneer. In Edwardian London, this New Zealand businessman's daughter enjoyed the kind of freedom which recent generations of women have taken for granted but which was unusual then. A mercurial, bi-sexual fugitive from genteel Wellington, she was as adventurous in her life as in her elliptical, modernist fiction. Sustained by a paternal allowance, she treated the British capital as a stage on which to try out an assortment of personae, not always refraining from outright deception as she led what was in many ways a theatrical existence. She can seem especially contemporary in the way her life straddled cultures and classes: in New Zealand a white settler mindful of the subjugation of the indigenous Maoris, in London often patronised as a colonial interloper. Struggling to resolve the question of her true identity, the woman whose original name was Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was sure of only one thing: that she was a writer.

Mansfield's most notable biographers have been the New Zealand scholar Anthony Alpers, who followed up his original life of her, Katherine Mansfield: A Biography, published in 1954 with a much more ample one, The Life of Katherine Mansfield, in 1980, and Claire Tomalin, whose Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life appeared in 1988. Now, in Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller, Kathleen Jones has written an outstanding fresh life of New Zealand's greatest claim to literary fame. Ten years in the making, the book is the most penetrating portrait of Mansfield yet. Among much else, it demonstrates how, though she had to come to Europe to mature as a writer, it was her New Zealand childhood and ambivalent relations with her parents, three sisters and younger brother that inspired her best work.

Mansfield's New Zealand mirrored Victorian England in its bourgeois Christian aspect. Her father. Harold Beauchamp, who traced his roots back to a silversmith in Pepys' London, rose to prominence as a colonial financier, becoming director of the Bank of New Zealand and receiving a knighthood for his services to commerce. Though it could boast of being more progressive than Britain - it was the first country, in 1893, to grant women the vote - what New Zealand conspicuously lacked was a literary culture. As an insatiably bookish teenager, Mansfield felt ashamed of "young New Zealand", railing against her people's mental torpor and exclaiming that they needed to be intoxicated by a "mad wave' of 'super-aeslheticism'. Her first exposure to London between 1903 and 1906 as a pupil at the Harley Street finishing school for young ladies, Queen's College, deepened her sense of her country's defects. She went home equating London with the possibility of self-realisation. New Zealand with the 'Suitable Appropriate Existence', the deadly prospect of becoming somebody's dutiful wife. Already exhibiting literary Hair, she begged her father to let her go back to England. When she sailed away for a second time in 1908, it was for good. Yet for all that Wellington stilled her, she was indelibly marked by the land of her birth. …

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