Heritage: Passionate Hampstead writers inspired Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson’s characters in Women In Love
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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 first of a two-part article.
Well known for his pacifist attitudes during World War Two, writer John Middleton Murry was a witness at D.H. Lawrence’s wedding. After the novelist died he had a brief affair with Lawrence’s wife Frieda.
Lawrence, a fellow Hampstead writer, portrayed his sometime neighbours - Murry and his wife Katherine Mansfield - as Gudrun and Gerald, a “couple of intensely connected fellow spirits”, in his 1920 novel Women In Love.
Murry (1889–1957), writer, critic and journal editor, was born in Peckham, London, on August 6. His father, also named John, was a self taught man from a poor illiterate background, who was proud to have secured employment at the Inland Revenue. Armed with bags full of ambition, Murry senior taught himself to write. He reasoned that education was the best way to escape poverty and fulfil his aspirations for his young son. As a result, from the moment Murry was able to utter his first words he was subjected to intense pressure to learn. By the tender age of two he was able to read.
His father’s intentions and ambition paid off handsomely. In 1901 Murry won one of the first six scholarships to Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, West Sussex. He remained an outstanding pupil at Christ’s until 1908. Having completed his high school education Murry managed to win a scholarship to study classics at Brasenose College, Oxford.
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After a trip to Paris, in 1911, Murry returned to England and set up Rhythm, an avant-garde literary and arts magazine. Shortly after founding his periodical Murry met his future wife, the New Zealand-born writer, Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923). Mansfield had recently had her first work of short stories, In a German Pension, published.
He moved in with her, initially as a lodger, at her flat in Clovelly Mansions, Gray’s Inn Road, King’s Cross. The two soon became lovers and Murry abandoned his formal studies. The couple dubbed themselves “the two tigers” and worked together as editors on Rhythm (which later became the Blue Review).
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To begin with the duo lived primarily on Mansfield’s allowance and whatever small amounts they could earn from other work. Consequently they often moved houses and frequently found themselves in debt. They were however able to attract exceptional talent, such as D.H. Lawrence, to write for their publication.
Lawrence and his future wife, Frieda, became close friends with Murry and Mansfield. Frieda recalled that “theirs was the only spontaneous and jolly friendship that we had”. Apparently Frieda had fallen for the pair “when she caught them making faces at one another on a bus”. The Lawrences invited them to stay with them at Broadstairs, Kent, where “they all bathed naked”.
When Lawrence married Frieda in 1914, at Kensington Registry Office, it was Murry and Mansfield who acted as witnesses. Apparently, “Frieda didn’t care much about being married; it was Lawrence who wanted to be ‘respectable’”.
Sometime in 1915, the Lawrences, Murry and Mansfield were invited to a party at the house of the writer H.G. Wells. “Murry wanted to go in flannels, but Lawrence insisted on wearing his new dress-suit,” it was said. Murry later commented: “This initiation into the dress-suit world was for him [Lawrence] a serious and ritual affair.” Apparently the party was dismal and Lawrence denounced Wells as “suburbanian”.
Professionally Murry excelled as a journalist. He reviewed literature and art for the Westminster Gazette (1912–14), and wrote articles for the Times Literary Supplement (1914–18). Between 1916 and 1919 he worked for the War Office in the political intelligence department, first as a translator and then as editor of the confidential Daily Review Of The Foreign Press. In 1919 he was made chief censor, for which he was awarded the OBE in 1920.
From 1919 to 1921 Murry edited the ailing but highly prestigious Athenaeum where he championed modernism in literature. It was through his work for the publication that he offered a vehicle and platform for many writers, including D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. Years later, in 1957, Eliot wrote of his affection for Murry stating, “This affection was not merely, on my part, a feeling of gratitude for the opportunities he had given me early in my career during his editorship of The Athenaeum, but was something solid and permanent”.
Tragically Mansfield had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917. She travelled alone through wartime France to Bandol in a desperate search for cleaner air. In 1918 she returned to London and the couple were married on May 3 at Kensington Registry Office. Soon after their wedding Mansfield developed pleurisy and was forced to spend time recuperating in Cornwall.
In the vain attempt to aid Mansfield’s health Murry found a house in Hampstead, at 17 East Heath Road, where he hoped the air might offer her some respite. The property, nicknamed “The Elephant” by the newlyweds due to its tall grey Italianite look, offers splendid views of the western heath. A printing press was installed in the basement where small editions of the couple’s works were produced. Visitors to the house included Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and Lady Ottoline Morrell and a single plaque, erected in 1969, commemorates the couple as “writer and critic”.
On Mansfield’s 30th birthday a specialist in tuberculosis told her that if she didn’t go to a sanatorium she would not survive. “Rebelling against that advice, she decided she would stay at home, dedicating herself to her writing and to the renewing of her friendships.”
Ida Baker, Mansfield’s lifelong friend and Hampstead housekeeper, stated that “Katherine saw in the house her last chance of a home of her own”.