Kiri Te Kanawa
"A rapacious appetite for everything and principles as light as my purse." --Katherine Mansfield about Katherine Mansfield.
Katherine Mansfield's life was a short and tragic one. When young she was reckless, independent and daring, the very epitome of the modern woman of the day. Yet this same sense of adventure was to turn her into an invalid and eventually cause her premature death.
October 14th, 1888, and a daughter was born to Harold and Annie Beauchamp. They named this child Kathleen. She once described herself as the ugly duckling of the family and the odd one out. Certainly, she was a difficult child, known to be moody, irritable and intense.
She learned the cello and was torn between becoming a writer and a musician. The final decision was made by her father who forbid she continue with a career as a professional musician. At this stage Katherine noted that there was "no earthly good warring with the inevitable -- so in future I shall give all my time to writing."
She started writing stories, keeping journals and writing extensively to friends. In October 1907, at the age of eighteen, three of her stories were published and this convinced her parents Katherine should be permitted to live in London, something she desperately desired as she saw New Zealand to be a little unimportant backwater.
By the next year Katherine was living in London supported by an allowance from her father. She fell in love with Garnet Trowell and, though both were underage, they planned to marry. Heavy opposition from Garnet's father put a stop to these plans.
Soon after splitting up with Garnet, Katherine met George Bowden. The pair were fascinated with each other and within weeks he had proposed to her. They married on March 2nd 1909, with Katherine dressed in black and one friend to witness the ceremony. Later that same day Katherine had second thoughts, refused to consummate the marriage, then left George Bowden on their wedding night.
It is likely Katherine married Bowden because she was pregnant and it was a disgrace for a woman to give birth out of wedlock. Alarmed by this news her mother arrived from new Zealand and whisked her off to Bavaria where she could have the child in secret and without risking a scandal. Then, leaving Katherine alone and pregnant her mother returned to New Zealand and cut her daughter out of her will.
Meanwhile Katherine lost her baby but during the time she spent in Bavaria she once more started to write, something she had not done much of during her time in London. She wrote a number of short stories about the Germans and these were published in her first book, 'In a German Pension'.
She met Floryan Sobieniowski, variously described as untrustworthy, charming and distinguished. The pair fell in love and planned to live together. He introduced her to the works of Russian author Anton Chekov and Katherine wrote turned one of his stories, "Sleepyhead', into her story, 'The-Child-Who-Was-Tired. Almost thirty years after her death this act was to get her accused of plagiarism. As a result, Katherine Mansfield's reputation as a writer was seriously damaged.
When compared the two stories are almost identical. They both cover a day in the life of a child who is so exhausted and desperate for sleep that she kills a crying baby to silence the child. This story was one published in her first book and Katherine always stubbornly refused to allow this book to be reprinted. She claimed it was "not good enough" and "far too immature", however it may have been that she was concerned about having copied Chekov's story.
Soon after the publication of In a German Pension Katherine met John Middleton Murray. He moved in with her as a lodger and they soon became lovers. Theirs was a strange relationship with Katherine sometimes finding Murray to be "dimwitted and dull". They married in 1919 and their marriage was interspersed with frequent short separations though they remained together for the remainder of Katherine's life. (Murray remarried three times after her death).
Many of Katherine Mansfield's stories were based upon people she knew, events in her own life, or places she lived. Her mother was the basis for two characters whilst an affair she had during her marriage inspired one of her best-known stories, An Indiscreet Journey'.
In December 1917 Katherine was diagnosed with pleurisy and told she mustn't spend another year in England least she become consumptive. There was also a spot or weakness found on her lung. Her health had been steadily deteriorating since 1910 when she had an operation to remove a fallopian tube -- probably due to a gonorrhoea infection -- which she had picked up when quite young. Unless picked up early gonorrhoea was uncontrollable and spread quickly throughout the body. It caused problems of arthritis, pleurisy and heart trouble, all of which Katherine suffered.
Along with the other problems caused by gonorrhoea resistance to disease was significantly reduced and when Katherine encountered tuberculosis she was unable to fight off the infection. (She possibly caught it from D.H. Lawrence during the months they spent together in 1914 and 1916). From this time onwards she continued to get sicker. The rest of Katherine Mansfield's life was to be spent battling her declining health while still trying to write the great work she knew she was capable of.
The big sign of advanced tuberculosis was the coughing up of bright red arterial blood. Katherine's first episode of this occurred in February 1918 and without the benefit of the penicillin, (it had yet to be invented), this was a death warrant. She rapidly lost weight, became weak and short breath, was unable to walk without a cane for support.
In May of that year Katherine's divorce from George Bowden came through and she and Murray married the next day. He visited regularly but was an unfaithful husband having had a number of flirtations back in London.
Despite her increasing frailty Katherine continued to write stories, at one point producing eight in very quick succession. By 1920 she had a tubercular gland in her neck which required regular lancing and she could barely walk. In her years of illness Katherine moved around to try and ease her problems and spent eight months in the pure mountain air of Switzerland. This was her final sustained period of creative writing and much of the work she is best remembered for was written in just four months. 'At The Bay', 'The Garden Party', 'The Doll's House' and 'The Voyage' were all the product of this time with the first three being set in New Zealand.
December 1920 bought the publication of her second book, 'Bliss and Other Stories'. This was a collection of fourteen stories, many of which Katherine Mansfield was highly critical of. She labelled them "trivial" and "not good enough". Throughout her short life perhaps the worst critic of Katherine Mansfield was Katherine herself.
Katherine's health was now worse than ever leaving her unable to walk, weak, exhausted, in constant pain from rheumatism and sore lungs, and with decaying teeth. In her search for a miracle she decided to try a Russian living in Paris. He claimed to be able to cure advanced tuberculosis by bombarding the spleen with x-rays. Murray opposed her trying the idea and declared it expensive quackery. However, Katherine was willing to try anything and commenced the treatment. She noted that after five doses of x-rays she was, "hotted up inside", and felt like her very bones were melting. Murray was correct about the treatment, it had no medical benefits at all. In the days prior to antibiotics a good diet and plenty of rest was the best treatment for tuberculosis.
In February 1922 Katherine's third book was published. 'The Garden Party and Other Stories' quickly sold out and went into second and third editions. Critics termed her, "one of our most notable writers".
Katherine completed her x-ray treatment and, feeling no better, returned to Switzerland where she wrote her will and a rather vague letter to Murray instructing how he should dispose of her unpublished works after her death.
She then moved into the Institute for the Harmonious development of Man just outside Paris. Mystic, George Gurdjieff believed civilisation had thrown people out of harmony and to regain control people needed to balance intellectual, physical and emotional centres. This meant following a rigid course of hard physical labour, exercises, dancing and meditation.
She entered the Institute in October and spent three months there planning what she direction her writing would take when she recommenced the following Spring. But this was not to be. Murray was summoned on the 9th January, 1923 by a letter from Katherine, he found her "pale, but radiant". That night, as she went to her room, Katherine Mansfield experienced a severe coughing fit followed by a great gush of blood from her mouth. Within minutes she was dead at only 34-years-old. She is buried in a communal graveyard at Avon.
Murray went on to publish much of Katherine's work from unfinished manuscripts to private letters and her journals. A great deal of criticism was levelled at him for this and there is some confusion about what Katherine wished be done with her work after her death.
In her will she wrote:
"All manuscripts note books papers letters I leave to John M. Murray likewise I should like him to publish as little as possible and to tear up and burn as much as possible. He will understand that I desire to leave as few traces of my camping ground as possible."
It would seem to be pretty clear from this that Katherine did not want her other work open to public viewing. The confusion arises from a farewell letter written to Murray in which she said:
"All my manuscripts I leave entirely to you to do what you like with. Go through them one day, dear love, and destroy all you do not use. Please destroy all letters you do not wish to keep and all papers. You know my love of tidiness. Have a clean sweep, Bogey, and leave all fair -- will you?"
Still, Katherine was not so sick she couldn't have arranged the destruction of her papers before her death.
Controversy may always surround the publishing of her works by Murray, but one thing is not in doubt, her terrible illness and death at such a young age prevented Katherine Mansfield reaching her potential as a great author.