Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) is one of the most highly regarded short story writers of the 20th century. A contemporary of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence, she played her part in shaping modernism by experimenting with style, subject matter and theme in a body of work that re-defined the genre. As well as short stories she also wrote letters, reviews and journals in a prolific career which was cut short by her untimely death at the age of 34.
She was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, the third child of Harold Beauchamp, a prosperous businessman and banker, and Anne Burnell (Annie) Dyer. Her comfortable childhood did little to prepare her for her later experiences of poverty, but provided rich material for her stories.
In 1903, Mansfield went to London and attended Queen’s College where she thrived in the school’s liberal environment, writing stories and editing the school magazine. Here she met fellow pupil, Ida Baker, who became a devoted lifelong friend. Following a brief period back in New Zealand, Mansfield returned to England in 1908 never to return to her homeland.
Her life quickly became chaotic; having become pregnant by a young musician, Garnet Trowell, she then married a singing teacher, George Bowden, only to leave him immediately after the wedding to move in with Ida. On hearing about the marriage, her concerned mother took the long voyage to London and whisked her off to a Bavarian spa, Bad Wörishofen.
Abandoned at the spa by her mother, who also disinherited her at this point, Mansfield had a miscarriage and found a new lover, Floryan Sobienowski, who introduced her to the work of Chekhov which was to have a profound influence on her work. Sobienowski was also the most likely candidate to have given her gonorrhoea which, left untreated until early 1910, had a devastating and permanent effect on her health.
Back in London, Mansfield met A R Orage, editor of the radical weekly, New Age, who included some of her stories in the magazine. This led to the publication, in 1911, of her first collection of short stories, In a German Pension, which was inspired by her time in Bad Wörishofen. She also met John Middleton Murry, an Oxford undergraduate and editor of the avant garde magazine, Rhythm. They became lovers, living and working together editing Rhythm. In debt and always on the move, they attracted many literary talents of the day, including D H Lawrence and Frieda Weekley with whom they became close friends.
In 1915, Mansfield travelled to the front in France to visit her new lover, writer Francis Carco, an experience recounted in her short story ‘An Indiscreet Journey’. Living in Paris for a time, she began writing the story that was to become ‘Prelude’, a study of family life in post-colonial New Zealand which, in its final version, was published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press in 1918.
Back with Murry, and following a failed attempt at communal living with the Lawrences in Cornwall, Mansfield met Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1916, who introduced her to a number of artists and writers of the day. These included Dorothy Brett, Dora Carrington, Bertrand Russell and Lytton Strachey, through whom she met Virginia Woolf. The two women writers went on to have an intense friendship which, in spite of some rivalry, was one of mutual admiration.
Before ‘Prelude’ was published, Mansfield became seriously ill again and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In 1918, having divorced Bowden, she married Murry who became absorbed in his work as editor of The Athenaeum. Cared for by Ida, whom she now called her ‘wife’ in recognition of the important role she played in her life, Mansfield lived between London, France and Switzerland. In spite of her failing health, this was a very productive period for her work. In 1920 her second collection of short stories, Bliss and Other Stories, was published to critical acclaim, followed by ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ later that year. Publication in 1922, of her third collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories, also received high praise.
Mansfield spent her final weeks at the Gurdjieff Institute at Fontainebleau, outside Paris, where, during a visit from Murry on 9 January 1923, her lungs began to haemorrhage; she died within minutes. After her death Murry edited and published almost all Katherine Mansfield’s remaining stories and other writings, presenting a sanctified version of her while smoothing over the more scandalous aspects of her life.
Further information about the life of Katherine Mansfield can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.