Katherine Mansfield, p.1
A Secret Life
List of Plates
1 ‘The favourite of the gods’
2 Queen's: ‘My wasted, wasted early girlhood’
3 New Zealand 1907: ‘The Suitable Appropriate Existence’
4 London 1908: New Women
5 ‘My wonderful, splendid husband’
6 Bavaria 1909: ‘Käthe Beauchamp-Bowden, Schriftstellerin’
7 The New Age: ‘You taught me to write, you taught me to think’
8 ‘Make me your mistress’
9 ‘All I remember is sunshine and gaiety’
10 1914: ‘Other people, other things’
11 Cornwall 1916: ‘A whole spring full of blue-bells’
12 1918: ‘A great black bird’
13 ‘He ought not to have married’
14 ‘A brother one loves’
15 ‘A sense of being like’
16 ‘I am a writer first’
17 ‘Read as much love as you like into this letter’
18 ‘I want to work’
19 ‘What is going to happen to us all?’
Appendix 1. ‘Leves Amores’
Appendix 2. ‘The Child-Who-Was-Tired’: The Times Literary Supplement Correspondence
List of Plates
Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, aged about nine (collection of the author)
Mrs Harold Beauchamp (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
Caricature of Sir Harold Beauchamp by Bloomfield (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
The Beauchamp clan photographed at Las Palmas (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
Queen's College, Harley Street (courtesy of Queen's College)
Ida Constance Baker (courtesy of Peter Day)
Katherine in 1906 (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
Edith Kathleen Bendall (by permission of Mrs Barbara Webber)
Garnet Carrington Trowell (by permission of Dr and Mrs Hopkins); inset of Garnet Trowell (by permission of Dr and Mrs Hopkins)
Floryan Sobieniowski with George Bernard Shaw (courtesy of the Polish Social and Cultural Association Ltd)
Floryan as Polish correspondent to Rhythm (from Rhythm, September 1912)
George Bowden (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin)
A. R. Orage (courtesy of John Carswell)
Beatrice Hastings (from supplement to the New Age, 1 May 1913)
Katherine in 1910 (from Hearth and Home, 28 November 1912: British Library)
John Middleton Murry in 1912 (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
Katherine presiding at the Chaucer Mansions flat in 1913 (courtesy of Peter Day)
Lady Ottoline Morrell (courtesy of Mrs J. Vinogradoff)
Francis Carco (collection of the author)
D. H. Lawrence and Frieda on their wedding day in 1914, with Katherine and Murry (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin)
The changing face of K.M.
1910: Convalescent at Rottingdean (courtesy of Peter Day)
1911: The New Age contributor (courtesy of Colin Middleton Murry)
1913: The successful young author (collection of the author)
1915: Returning from the front in France (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
1916: In her St John's Wood garden (courtesy of Mrs J. Vinogradoff)
1917: A dramatic studio portrait (courtesy of Colin Middleton Murry)
August 1919: Leaving for San Remo (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
D. H. Lawrence (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin)
Virginia Woolf (courtesy of Nigel Nicolson)
Murry on the terrace at Villa Isola Bella (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
Ida's photograph of Isola Bella (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
The Chalet des Sapins (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
Katherine standing in the garden at Isola Bella (Alexander Turnball Library, Wellington)
Katherine in 1921 (courtesy of Peter Day)
Claire Tomalin has worked in publishing and journalism all her life. She was literary editor first of the New Statesman and then of the Sunday Times, which she left in 1986. She is the author of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, which won the Whitbread First Book Prize for 1974; Shelley and His World (reissued by Penguin in 1992); Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (1988), a biography of the modernist writer on whom she also based her 1991 play The Winter Wife; the highly acclaimed The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, which won the 1990 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, the NCR Book Award in 1991, as well as the Hawthornden Prize; Mrs Jordan's Profession (1995), a study of the Regency actress; Jane Austen: A Life (1998); a collection of her literary journalism entitled Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades (1999); and Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, which won the Whitbread Biography Award and which went on to win the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for 2002. All her books are published by Penguin.
This book is dedicated with love
to my father and stepmother
Emile and Katharine Delavenay,
who lent me a sunny Mediterranean terrace
on which to work
and gave me help, advice and encouragement
over many years
‘I am a secretive creature to my last bones’
– Katherine Mansfield to Ida Baker, 22 March 1922
Research for this book was begun in the mid 1970s and laid aside for various reasons, one of them being the appearance of biographies of Katherine Mansfield by both Jeffrey Meyers (in 1978) and Antony Alpers (in 1980). Inevitably, there was a wide overlap of research. It could hardly have been otherwise. Mr Alpers has devoted many decades to interviewing and researching – he published an earlier biography in 1953 – and must be the greatest living authority on his subject. Professor Meyers is also prodigiously widely read and vigorous in pursuit of his subject. I read both of their books with admiration, and have profited from both of them.
My own notes, correspondence and draft chapters were put to gather dust and I turned to other work. After some years, however, I began to think that there might be something else to say about Katherine Mansfield after all, some fresh material to be considered, a different perspective from which to view her. Mr Alpers had certainly produced the epic version, with Katherine as playful genius, undervalued and misunderstood on the whole by her contemporaries; he was cautious of J. M. Murry's powers of recall, but inclined to accept his version of those events in which he was involved. Professor Meyers, altogether more cynical in his approach, drew what he called a ‘darker’ Katherine without, I thought, fully exploring the nature of this darkness.
Both seem to me to have underestimated the importance of certain aspects of her life, in particular the chain of events leading from her first foray into sexual freedom in 1908, and the various long-term results of her association with Floryan Sobieniowski in 1909. I felt that her medical history required more careful study, and the result of this has been a reinterpretation of certain key questions in her life. I have also looked afresh at the blackmail in 1920, and suggested a new approach to that.
Katherine's relations with D. H. Lawrence have been generally underplayed. I have, I hope, shown just how close and important the links between them were, and in particular the
The fact that I have been able to use the recently published letters of J. M. Murry to Katherine (as well as having access to the unpublished ones) has added a new dimension to the picture of their relationship. I have also had the benefit of many talks with the only daughter of the late Edith Robison (née Bendall) about her mother's character and feelings for Katherine; and Mrs Robison herself kindly taped a long interview for me before she died.
Neither the Oxford University Press Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield (vols. I and II) nor the Cambridge University Press Letters of D.H. Lawrence (vols. I, II, III and IV) were available to earlier biographers. Both have enriched and facilitated my work.
One final point is that I am of the same sex as my subject. It may be nonsense to believe that this gives me any advantage over a male biographer. Yet I can't help feeling that any woman who fights her way through life on two fronts – taking a traditional female role, but also seeking male privileges – may have a special sympathy for such a pioneer as Katherine, and find some of her actions and attitudes less baffling than even the most understanding of men.
Virginia Woolf said that women think back through their mothers. As I worked on Katherine Mansfield's story, I often thought of my mother-in-law, herself a wild colonial girl from Canada who brushed the fringes of Bloomsbury; and of my mother, who came to London from Liverpool in 1917 with a music scholarship. They are both dead now, but they were both gallant and gifted outsiders, and through what they told me of their adventures, ambitions and terrors I felt I approached Katherine Mansfield's experience at certain points. Hers was a painful life, and it has been a painful task to write about it; but I am glad to have done it, and to have had the chance to salute a character in whom recklessness and scrupulousness combined in so extraordinary a fashion.
‘The Favourite of the Gods’
Katherine Mansfield was born a century ago and died in 1923, but there is still something tantalizing about the ‘faint ghost with the steady eyes, the mocking lips and, at the end, the wreath set on her hair.’1 She has been praised and attacked in memoirs, biographies, critical essays, even fiction and drama, and appeared in different guises as the tragic cult figure; the sharp-tongued comedienne; the true modernist who changed the rules for the English-language short story; the pioneering ‘New Woman’; the sentimentalist and miniaturist, overpraised and with bad morals – there are many variants of K.M. Readers all over the world have responded to the letters and diaries that record her illness, loneliness and exile and her yearning for husband and a home; at the same time there has been criticism of the way in which her husband, John Middleton Murry, exploited the image of his dead wife by publishing her private papers, and doubts as to the truth of his version of her as ‘a perfectly exquisite, perfectly simple human being’.2 Seen through different eyes, her image trembles and blurs: now ambitious and reckless, now vulnerable and wounded; now a simple seeker after purity and truth in life and art, now tarnished and false.
The very names her parents gave her – Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp – she transformed into multiple alternative versions to suit different moods, different friends, different facets of her personality: Kass, Katie, K.M., Mansfield, Katherine, Julian Mark, Katherine Schönfeld, Matilda Berry, Katharina, Katiushka, Kissienka, Elizabeth Stanley, Tig, and of course the name by which she became known to the world as a writer, and which, for convenience, this book will stick to.
Her face was often described as being like a mask. She was pale and dark, innocent and decadent, first too fat and then too thin. She was sexually ambiguous, with a husband and a wife, and lovers of both sexes. In her lifetime she was disliked both as a person and as a writer, and also revered as both. Not many people took a stance between these two attitudes, although some – Virginia Woolf was one, D. H. Lawrence another – alternated. The testimony left by these two friends, each outstandingly gifted and sensitive to other people, is of the greatest importance in trying to understand Katherine. She herself cared a great deal for friendship. Her letters went out in convoys, seeking reassurance and making offerings; but she was also manipulative and treacherous. The letters and journals are dizzying switchbacks of love and hate as well as vivid records of work, travel and suffering.
Her life was essentially a lonely one. She travelled too far outside the boundaries of accepted behaviour for her family to feel she was one of them, but she did not find herself at home in any other group, nor did she make a family of her own. The particular stamp of her fiction is also the isolation in which each character dwells. Failure to understand or to be understood is endemic in Mansfield. Foreigners misinterpret one another, adults and children are at cross purposes, gulfs of incomprehension separate wives from husbands. Neither happiness nor pain is shared very much, or for very long. Family life may have a complacent surface, but beneath it fear and cruelty stalk. In one of her most memorable images a good wife imagines giving her husband little packets with her feelings in them, and his surprise as he opens the last packet to find it full of hatred. Hatred was her favourite emotion.
Couples are like cannibals; a man like a python invites a friend like a rabbit to share his flat, and the rabbit agrees meekly. Kindly old men turn into ogres, friendly women into rats, a man wanting a kiss shows teeth like a dog's. The oddities of human appearance and behaviour are relished – Lawrence noted her affinity with Dickens3 – but there is no history in these stories, and no exploration of motive. The most brilliant of them are post-impressionist (and post-Maupassant) works, grotesquely peopled and alight with colour and movement. For Mansfield, the indifferent beauty of the natural world was a force as strong as any human emotion, giving her a pleasure so keen that it breathes through her sentences today as freshly as when she set them on the page.
Not that she lacked an interested and admiring circle. Many of its members were famous in their own right, and there are patches of her life that look like a literary Piccadilly Circus, as Frank Harris, Rupert Brooke, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, the Lawrences and the whole of the Bloomsbury group crowd past. The convolutions of her relations with them, and the diverse testimony they offer of her kaleidoscopic nature, provide some rather welcome comic relief to a story whose main theme is undoubtedly a black one. For Katherine's early and reckless pursuit of experience brought atrocious punishments. She lived, worked and died with the Furies on her heels.
It could even be said that her story hinges on a single physical fact. By becoming pregnant during the first months of her passionately sought freedom in London, she set in motion a sequence of events which ran to her death fourteen years later, events which darkened her relations with her family most unfortunately; which profoundly affected both her marriages; which involved her reputation as a writer; and which destroyed the foundations of her bodily health. It is a bleak, inescapable, cautionary tale, reading more like one of George Eliot's plots of nemesis than any of the modernist works of Katherine herself or her contemporaries, and involving her in exactly those desperate, secret stratagems into which the heroines of Victorian fiction – Mrs Transome, Lady Dedlock, Lydia Glasher, Gwendolen Harleth – were so often forced.
To become a writer, Katherine felt she had to begin by escaping from her family and country. She changed her name, and she fled from her native New Zealand; and although much of her best writing returns to both family and country, and she herself wondered at the end whether she had been done more harm than good by transplanting herself,4 the relationship was profoundly uneasy. To understand her, it is necessary to understand her background, the mixture of adventurousness and anxiety she felt as a colonial coming to England, and, not least, the curious attitude displayed by the English towards
Katherine's father was also a banker and born in Australia, although he made his fortune in Wellington, New Zealand. Her mother too was born in Australia, and both were children of men and women who had, for one reason or another, found that they were not wanted, or could not make their way in England. In the nineteenth century, New Zealand was for many a colony of Australia as much as Australia was a colony of England; it was the very last place, the furthest you could go, the end of the line. Perhaps for that very reason the people (‘the most provincial on earth’, according to Beatrice Webb in the 1890s) yearned towards ‘Home’ 12,000 miles away all the more, trying to overlay the alien landscapes, plants, beasts and seasons with whatever could lend an illusion of what many had never seen. The wooden bungalows, the municipal buildings, the schools and shops were built to match English mid-Victorian buildings. The pleasant country house in which Katherine spent part of her childhood was named ‘Chesney Wold’ after the Dedlock mansion in Dickens's Bleak House, a name determinedly expressive of cultural loyalty, but less than appropriate to the actual wooden building.
Anthony Trollope, visiting New Zealand in the 1870s when Katherine's father, Harold Beauchamp, was a lad, noticed the New Zealander's ‘confidence that England is the best place in the world and he is more English than any Englishman’.5 As soon as Beauchamp achieved a position which permitted it, he travelled to England. He repeated the journey as often as he could and, by the time he came to write his memoirs, he was able to boast that he had ‘crossed the line’ twenty-four times. The first of these trips was made in 1889, a year after the birth of his third daughter, Kathleen.