The life and work of short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, in five pieces of trivia
1. Katherine Mansfield was the only writer who made Virginia Woolf jealous. When Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis, aged just 35, in 1923, fellow modernist writer Virginia Woolf confided in her diary: ‘I was jealous of her writing – the only writing I have ever been jealous of.’ Mansfield’s short stories – notably ‘Bliss’ (1918) and ‘The Garden Party’ (1920) – are among the most important works of Anglophone modernist fiction. Like many modernist writers (though unlike Woolf), Mansfield was born and raised outside of Victorian England, in New Zealand (where she was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888, the same year as fellow modernist T. S. Eliot). She grew up to be unconventional in both her lifestyle and her writing.
But that is the satisfaction of writing – one can impersonate so many people. – Katherine Mansfield
2. She was friends with D. H. Lawrence for a time, though their friendship ended sourly. Another writer of modernist fiction, D. H. Lawrence, hosted Mansfield and her second husband John Middleton Murry (an influential critic and editor, and the executor of Mansfield’s work after her death) at his house in Cornwall. However, as John Sutherland records in his absorbing Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, the friendship took a drastic wrong turn and Lawrence and Mansfield fell out. Later, when she was dying of TB, Lawrence sent her what Sutherland describes as a ‘get worse’ card: ‘You are a loathsome reptile I hope you will die.’ Lawrence himself would die of tuberculosis seven years after Mansfield.
3. Indeed, although Woolf admired her writing, she was less enthusiastic about Mansfield personally. Personal hygiene in particular was an issue: Woolf recorded that Mansfield ‘stank like a civet cat who had taken to street walking.’
4. Katherine Mansfield wore mourning dress to her first wedding and left her husband on their wedding night. Murry was Mansfield’s second husband; her first marriage had lasted all of one day. Having fallen in love with a musician who did not return her affections, Mansfield got herself pregnant by his twin brother, and then persuaded her music teacher to marry her. The marriage was never consummated and she spent the wedding night with Ida Baker, her close female friend (or more than friend?) whom she called her ‘wife’. Shortly after her disastrous marriage, she lost the baby. She reinvented herself as Katherine Mansfield (disowning her birth name, Beauchamp), and published her first volume of stories in 1911.
The pleasure of all reading is doubled when one lives with another who shares the same books. – Katherine Mansfield
5. She is acknowledged as one of the leading modernist writers, though her output is relatively small – she never wrote a full-length novel. Katherine Mansfield died in her mid-thirties in 1923, and only wrote short stories. She learnt to innovate in the short-story form thanks largely to her reading of Russian writer Anton Chekhov, whose short fiction tended to focus on individual moments and on everyday observations, rather than exciting or action-packed plots. Among her most celebrated short stories are ‘The Garden Party’ (which we’ve analysed here) and ‘Bliss’.
Image: Katherine Mansfield, author unknown, Wikimedia Commons.