Katherine Mansfield

Short story writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is noted for her short stories with themes relating to women's lives and social hierarchies as well as her sense of wit and characterizations.

Katherine Mansfield has played an important role in the genre of the short story. The New Zealand-born writer, who spent much of her adulthood in Europe, "is a central figure in the development of the modern short story," noted Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. "An early practitioner of stream-of-consciousness narration, she applied this technique to create stories based on the illumination of character rather than the contrivances of plot." Mansfield also attempted to free herself from the domination of her bourgeois family and the expectations for women of her class. As a young woman she often heeded her own determined whims, but later settled into a period of stability and literary creativity with her 1918 marriage to a fellow writer, editor, and literary critic. Together they moved in social circles that included some of the most acclaimed English-language writers of the early twentieth century.

Mansfield was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand, to a family of English descent in 1888. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, was a successful merchant who eventually became one of the English colony's most prominent citizens, rising to the position of chair of the Bank of New Zealand. She once described her mother as "constantly suspicious, constantly overbearingly tyrannous," and from an early age Mansfield seemed resentful toward her middle-class provincial family. As a writer, she later explored the theme of the hierarchy of class distinctions that restricted upbringings such as hers. As a teenager she was sent away to a finishing school in London that was a more intellectually rigorous institution than most girls of her class attended. There she became active in its magazine, for which she wrote several short stories, and established a lifelong friendship with classmate Ida Baker. When her schooling came to an end, Mansfield returned to her family's increasingly prosperous household in Wellington, but was determined to take leave again permanently. Enrolling in secretarial and bookkeeping courses, her parents allowed her to live abroad on her own, and in 1908 she returned to London. There she resided in a hostel for young, unmarried women pursuing artistic careers (she herself was an accomplished cellist) paid for by a stipend she received from her father until her death at age 34.

Courting Disaster Led to First Success

A long crush on musician Garnet Trowell eventually led to an unexpected pregnancy, and Mansfield suddenly married another man whom she had been seeing casually, George Bowden. She disappeared for a time, perhaps to serve as a chorus girl in the company of the light opera troupe that Trowell performed in, but her mother soon arrived from New Zealand and took her to a spa in southern Germany. "The most widely recommended cure for girls with Kathleen's difficult complaint was a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise," noted Antony Alpers in The Life of Katherine Mansfield. She suffered a miscarriage later that summer, but remained in Germany for several months. Out of her sojourn came her first collection of short stories, In a German Pension, first published in 1911. The volume was noted for its rather unflattering portrayal of Germans, and "the early appeal of the collection, most said, was to the anti-German sentiments felt by Britons in the years preceding the First World War," noted C. A. Hankin in Katherine Mansfield and Her Confessional Stories. In retrospect, the content of the stories "again and again [underline] her sense that sexual love for women is fraught with physical danger," as Mansfield was attracted to both men and women.

Moving back to London, in 1912 Mansfield met John Middleton Murry, the catalyst behind an acclaimed new English literary magazine out of Oxford called Rhythm. "Henceforth, she had a center to work from, and her early disastrous affairs, though they continued to provide a few themes for stories, sank below the horizon," observed Ian A. Gordon in British Writers. Mansfield instead began to mine her New Zealand upbringing for subject matter, and many of these were published in Rhythm and its successor, the Blue Review.

World War I Brought Tragedy

By 1914 Mansfield and Murry were living together, and the literary journals had ceased publication; for a time he was a reviewer of French books for the Times Literary Supplement. The next year, Mansfield's younger brother stopped by London for a rare visit before joining the British Army. His death later that year in World War I resolved Katherine to further explore their childhood in colonial New Zealand for her stories. It devastated her and she produced little work for a time, and her mental anguish was compounded by her own increasingly fragile physical health. Since arriving in England as a teenager she had been plagued by illness, and by 1916 she and Murry were living in the south of France to escape its damp and chilly climate.

During these years Mansfield and Murry were becoming well-acquainted with such literary and historical figures as D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Bertrand Russell. Mansfield also began writing short stories for a journal called New Age. It was in the south of France that she penned her first major story, "The Aloe," which in a revised form was published first in 1918 as "Prelude." It "set the standard and established the pattern for all her later work," wrote Gordon in British Writers. "Prelude" chronicles the doings of the fictional Burnell family of New Zealand, whose structure and members resemble the Beauchamps of Wellington quite distinctly. There is Stanley, the aggressive tycoon, the harsh mother Linda, the unmarried maiden aunt Beryl, and daughter Kezia, who in some of her youngest incarnations caused Joanne Trautman Banks to assert in The English Short Story that Mansfield was "one of our greatest portrayers of children in short fiction."

Entered Period of Intense Creativity

In 1917 Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and began spending even more time in the south of France. The following year she married Murry after finally winning a divorce from her first husband. This next period saw the publication of some of her most acclaimed works, including the collections Je ne parle pas francais and Bliss and Other Short Stories. Like much of her work, many of the stories feature women prominently, and often portray the few choices available to them outside of marriage. In Mansfield's era, to forsake a husband and children was almost like a death sentence.

"The success of these volumes established Mansfield as a major talent comparable to such contemporaries as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce," noted Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Now dividing her time between Switzerland, Paris, and the south of France, Mansfield wrote at a feverish pace, sometimes one story a day. They frequently appeared in publications such as the Athenaeum, the Nation, and the London Mercury. Much of what Mansfield wrote during 1920 and 1921 was published in the collection The Garden Party. Its title story may be her most well-known, and as in much of her fiction the tale is taken from an actual incident. The wealthy Burnell family in many of her stories is here called the Sheridans, as the story opens their sensitive daughter Laura is excited by the prospect of her family's impending afternoon fete. However, the Sheridans' idyllic afternoon is marred by the death of one of the workmen in the area just outside the Sheridan manse. The family he has left behind lives at the bottom of the hill from the lawn where the party will take place. Upset, Laura wishes to cancel the party, but the other Sheridans convince her otherwise. Later, she brings the party's leftover food to the destitute family, which Mansfield's older sister actually did when the incident happened to them in New Zealand in 1907. Grief, like the miserable fate mapped out for most women of her class, was a strong theme in much of her work. In "The Garden Party" and other stories like "The Fly" and "Six Years After," death and loss are predominant.

Mansfield also penned several pieces of literary criticism during her writing career and a final burst of short stories that appeared as The Dove's Nest, published the year she died. The work contains more of the fictional Burnells, and further explorations into the genre of the short story that "treat such universal concerns as family and love relationships and the everyday experiences of childhood, and are noted for their distinctive wit, psychological acuity, and perceptive characterizations," as Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism assessed. Mansfield spent much of the last two years of her life between Italy and France, eventually staying at a priory in Fontainebleau for a holistic-type cure for her tuberculosis. She sometimes lived apart from Murry for long stretches of time, but her longtime friend Ida Baker was often living nearby.

Some critics charge that Murry, while also serving as an editor of Mansfield's literary efforts, inhibited or excised some elements of her earlier work, most notably her preoccupation with a romantic attraction between women. Biographers assert that both Mansfield and Murry conducted affairs during their marriage, and that after her death of a lung hemorrhage in early 1923, her widower exploited her work, as "he profited from the publication of stories that Mansfield had rejected for publication, as well as notebook jottings, intermittent diaries, and letters," stated Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism.

Further Reading on Katherine Mansfield

Scott-Kilvert, Ian, editor, British Writers: Edited under the auspices of the British Council, Vol. Volume VII: Sean O'Casey to Poets of World War II, Scribner's, 1984, pp. 171-183.

Alpers, Antony, The Life of Katherine Mansfield, Viking Press, 1980.

Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Gale Research, Vol. 39, 1991, pp. 292-331.