Heritage: Katherine Mansfield - The turbulent love live of a ‘very serious writer’

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry in 1920. Picture: National Library of New Zealand

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry in 1920. Picture: National Library of New Zealand - Credit: National Library of New Zealand

In the latest of our series exploring the lives of people commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin looks at the passionate relationship of writers John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, in the second of a two-part article.

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. Picture: Victoria University of Wellington Library

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. Picture: Victoria University of Wellington Library - Credit: Victoria University of Wellingto

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the death of Katherine Mansfield, who was famous for her short stories, sexual ambiguity and string of lovers.

Her friends included Virginia Woolf and husband Leonard, who published Prelude in 1918. Leonard labelled her “a very serious writer”. Another friend and collaborator, DH Lawrence, fictionalised her and her critic husband, John Middleton Murry, in his 1920 novel Women In Love.

Mansfield was small, slim and attractive, with short, dark hair and a fringe like that of a Japanese doll. Virginia Woolf described her “beautiful eyes – rather doglike, brown, very wide apart, with a steady slow rather faithful and sad expression. Her nose was sharp … her lips thin and hard”.

Mansfield (1888–1923) was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand, on October 14. Her father had little education but a desire to better himself and his family. With hard work, he thrived in New Zealand.

Initially the family lived in Wellington, later moving to a country house in Karori, but by 1903 Mansfield’s father decided that the education of his daughter was to be ‘finished’ in London at Queen’s College, a liberal girls school.

At Queen’s, classes were taught by visiting professors, and pupils were free to walk about London without a chaperone. Pupils chose their own course of studies and Mansfield opted for music, English, French and German. She edited the school magazine and contributed short stories while immersing herself in the writings of Ibsen, Tolstoy, Shaw, and Wilde. It was also at Queen’s that Mansfield met Ida Baker, who would become a lifelong friend and eventually her housekeeper in Hampstead.

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In 1906 Mansfield returned to New Zealand but was determined to convince her parents that her place was in London in the world of art and literature. Back in the antipodes she managed to publish some short stories in the Native Companion, a New Zealand publication, and kept on reading every day. During this stay she visited the northern wilderness and had an affair with a young female artist. Whether the affair cemented her return to Europe is not clear, but in 1908 she left New Zealand for the last time.

In 1908 and 1909 Mansfield lived on an allowance of £100 a year and lodged at a women’s hostel in Warwick Crescent, Paddington. To be with a young musician she had met in Paris, she joined a touring opera company, had an affair with him and soon fell pregnant. Mansfield split from the musician and quickly married a singing teacher, George Bowden (1877–1975), but left him after the ceremony.

At this point, a rather concerned Mrs Beauchamp, Mansfield’s mother, set sail for London to determine what was happening to her seemingly fancy-free daughter. She warned Ida Baker of lesbianism and the result was to take Mansfield to a Bavarian spa, Bad Wörishofen, where she was later disinherited by her mother. Fortunately for Mansfield her father continued to pay her an allowance, which was eventually increased to £300 a year. In Germany, Mansfield began work on what would later become her first book of short stories, In a German Pension (1911). While abroad she miscarried, acquired a Polish lover and ran out of funds. Her ever reliable friend Ida Baker sent her the return fare and Mansfield found her way back to London.

It was around this time that Mansfield first met the writer and critic John Middleton Murry (1889–1957). Murry, a classics scholar at Brasenose College, Oxford, was publishing a literary magazine, Rhythm, which he had recently set up after returning from a trip to Paris. He moved into Mansfield’s Gray’s Inn Road flat which she shared with Baker. At first Murry was a lodger but soon became her lover and collaborator, eventually abandoning his own studies. The flat was decorated with oriental wares, bamboo matting and a stone Buddha.

The couple managed to attract DH Lawrence to contribute to the periodical and when he returned to England in 1913, with his future wife Frieda, the two couples became close friends. Once the First World War had started the Lawrences, Murry and Mansfield moved to two cottages near Chesham, Buckinghamshire, and dined together at least twice a week. Mansfield’s tales of her experiences with other women “probably inspired Lawrence with the lesbian episode in his novel The Rainbow (1915)”.

After a stint in Paris and another brief affair, Mansfield was back in London in 1915 and living with Murry in a “huge pink-washed semi” on Acacia Road, St John’s Wood. The couple worked together on a new publication, Signature, which, due to its pacifist leanings, folded after just three editions.

Other trips to Europe followed and in 1916 the couple moved to Cornwall. Lawrence had requested they come to stay with him and his wife Frieda to try communal living but the experiment was a failure.

In 1917 Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She married Murry in 1918 once the divorce from her first husband had been finalised and they moved to Hampstead where it was hoped she might benefit from the fresher air. The house they found, 2 Portland Villas (now 17 East Heath Street), where there is now a blue plaque, was dubbed “The Elephant” due to its appearance. Mansfield hoped for some normality in her life, with “a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music”.

Lawrence was a regular visitor. Mansfield wrote that he was “just his old, merry, rich self, laughing, full of enthusiasm”. When Virginia Woolf visited in November 1918, she wrote: “Katherine was up but husky and feeble, crawling about the room like an old woman. How far she is ill, one can’t say.”

By October 1922 Mansfield only had a few months to live and travelled to France to stay with a guru, but by January 1923 her health had declined. On January 9, 1923, when Murry visited, he found her “very pale, but radiant”. That evening as she ascended the stairs she began to cough, a haemorrhage started, she said: “I believe … I’m going to die,” and in minutes she was dead.

A week later, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “She was only 33. And I could see her before me so exactly, and the room at Portland Villas. I go up. She gets up, very slowly, from her writing table. A glass of milk and a medicine bottle stood there. There were also piles of novels. Everything was very tidy, bright, and somehow like a doll’s house.”