Katherine Mansfield
Katherine Mansfield; drawing by David Levine

Nearly sixty years after her death, the name Katherine Mansfield still projects a sharp, strong presence. Not that Mansfield was her true name; it was one of several she made up. Her image too can be turned about; it changes, now vulnerable and wounded, now imperious and exacting, now the wild, ambitious colonial girl, now the simple seeker after purity and truth in art and life.

It was said, by Leonard Woolf and others, that her face was like a mask. She was described as both pale and dark: first too fat and then too thin; elegant and not quite elegant. If she had genius, she lacked stamina, the sticking and staying power genius needs if it is to do more than flash erratically. Yet this was not for want of struggle—to make something new and perfect, to overcome disease, to keep her balance as a person and a writer in an awkward age and within a group of other gifted and difficult people.

She was disliked, both as a person and as a writer; she was also revered as both. Not many took a position between these two attitudes, although some alternated, bewildered and fascinated. The fascination continues; this is the second major biography Katherine Mansfield has received in two years* (and I must declare an interest: I have one in hand). Whether, when she was living, her power to fascinate stood her in good stead is a reasonable question to ask. Wyndham Lewis, quoted by Antony Alpers, referred to “the famous New Zealand Mag-story writer” having been “advertised and pushed cynically.” The implication is that her success was due to nonliterary causes, her personality, her attractiveness, her connections, etc. Yet it has continued among readers, surviving both the ill-judged attempts of her husband Middleton Murry to sanctify her for literature and the condescension of critics who never knew her but dislike her legend—Frank O’Connor’s phrase about “the brassy little shopgirl of literature,” for example.

It would be absurd to try to disconnect the life and the work. She herself was heartily dissatisfied with her own achievement at the end, and even her warmest admirers have to make what they can of the small quantity of first-rate Mansfield. She died at thirty-four and illness was destroying her steadily throughout most of her adult life, first undiagnosed and untreated gonorrhea and then tuberculosis. Poverty, or the fear of poverty, and an inability to settle in one place or let anyone settle her played their parts. Mr. Alpers points to her sense of insecurity—the cultural insecurity, he suggests, of the uprooted colonial—which he makes responsible for much of the “peculiar intimacy” of her tone.

She cared a great deal for friendship. She continually sent out letters, making offerings, seeking reassurance. But she was not an easy friend. The predominant impression from all those letters to her lovers and Murry, to Ottoline Morrell, Virginia Woolf, and Bertrand Russell, and to her fellow-expatriates, the Russian Koteliansky and her cousin Elizabeth—now so carefully gathered in the great libraries of three continents—is of someone isolated not merely from the country of her birth and her family, which she chose to leave, but among the people surrounding her in adult life. It is as though she put so much energy into breaking away from the confines of her New Zealand background that she damaged herself and lost the art of establishing a close and undefended intimacy.

In her fiction too it is the rigidity, the consistency of each character’s isolation that gives the particular quality and stamp of Mansfield. In the early stories, such as “A Birthday,” “Germans at Meat,” “The Swing of the Pendulum,” “A Truthful Adventure,” and “An Indiscreet Journey,” the cold, sharp eye of the separate and defensive young woman observes her fellow men and women and finds them wanting. Beneath family complacency she divines cruelty and terror. Later Mansfield gave her characters a more inward sense of isolation; they see and enjoy and suffer the world but are pierced with the knowledge that, although they watch one another and exchange words, they do not share real joy or real desolation, which are experienced alone. This is the burden of her finest work: “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” “The Man Without a Temperament,” “Her First Ball,” “The Garden Party,” and of course “The Aloe,” rewritten as “Prelude,” and its sequel “At the Bay.”

In character Mansfield was secretive to an extraordinary degree, and given to tortuousness and sometimes spite in her dealings. This is undeniably troubling to anyone who reads through her letters and journals and studies the pattern of her life. Antony Alpers rises to a sort of Olympian detachment, invoking the spirit of “compassionate biography” which “must turn to life’s evasive ironies” in the face of so much deceit. Jeffrey Meyers was less charitable in his book; today’s biographers cannot accept secretiveness as anyone’s right. It arouses suspicion and dislike because we tend to prize openness above conformity to set patterns of behavior.


Whether or not Mansfield knew what she was frightened of, we feel the need to inquire, what did she fear? What made her feel so guilty? Why was she obliged to reject pieces of her past, pieces of herself? And it does look as though some of her shortcomings as a writer must derive from her inability to draw on the whole of her self; she covers awkward experience with effects that are meant to be charming (Lawrence’s damning term) or clever, like a self-conscious hostess directing attention away from dangerous topics. There is a persistent tendency to make lovers and even married couples see themselves as children, coyly innocent, and to admire them for this strategy—as in the sentimental “Something Childish but Very Natural” or “Marriage à la Mode,” where the wounded husband reflects on how his wife was once like the rose-bush he shook over himself “when he had been a little boy…and he was still that little boy. But there was no running into the garden now, no laughing and shaking.”

In this story the innocence is placed against a chirpily satirical background. In “Je ne parle pas français” it comes with a flavor of self-pity (the heroine is known as “Mouse”) that is a good deal less disarming than it is meant to be. These are stories that make the reader uneasy because he is being invited to complicity in a knowing, nudging game; perhaps this is what Mr. Alpers is pointing to in his phrase about her intimacy of tone.

Antony Alpers comes to Mansfield with several special qualifications, and the story of his involvement is worth telling for its own sake. He is her fellow-countryman. In his youth he experienced as she had done an imperative urge to leave New Zealand and what he felt as its smug conformities and materialism. Coming across her work, he read the late and masterful New Zealand story “At the Bay” with “the delightful sense of experiencing a revelation.” He followed her traces to Europe and in 1954 published a very well researched and readable biography of her, the first to appear. He had gained the confidence of Ida Baker, Mansfield’s closest woman friend, which was precious and colored the narrative in a particular way. But he felt constrained by the knowledge that many of her friends and family were still alive; and he did not ask Middleton Murry for any extensive cooperation because (he says) Murry’s reputation in the world of letters was so low that the association of his name with the book might have sunk it (this I doubt). He tells us however that Murry read the typescript at the request of the publishers and recommended it. Murry is also on record as saying he learned a good deal he had not previously known about Katherine’s life from Alpers’s book: an unusual situation for a widower.

Since then, Murry has died and had his own biography, a kindly one by the late Frank Lea. Alpers has spent twenty-five years re-researching, waiting for more material to become available and sifting his facts so thoroughly that one minor figure in the story told me he can remember far less of the detail of his own life than Alpers can confidently tell him of it. Thoroughness and dedication of this kind must mean we can rely on his facts, and there is much factual gain in the new biography; still, there is a loss too. The author’s emotional concentration has gone, the flavor is weaker, as though some of Katherine’s spirit has evaporated away.

The drama of her life falls into three parts. In the first we see her born to a Wellington (New Zealand) businessman in 1888, and proving the unpopular ugly duckling of the family. Her father’s sudden crescendo of success decided him to do something for his womenfolk and Katherine was taken with two of her sisters to school 12,000 miles away: Queen’s College, Harley Street, in London. As she put it later, she was to be made into an obviously expensive product. She was not a good scholar, but Queen’s was unorthodox and she was encouraged to read adventurously in finde-siècle writings, and to write herself. In the school hothouse she bloomed, and learned to establish and relish emotional dominance; other girls fell in love with her, she knew how to dazzle and control them. When her family bore her back to New Zealand in 1906, she was determined to escape to London again, fantasizing and experimenting with notions of love, work, and freedom.


Mr. Alpers says she was “never an incipient feminist” and it is true that the one suffragette meeting she attended in London in 1908 sent her away deciding she could not join the Cause herself because the world was “too full of laughter,” she was currently in love with a young man, and the suffragettes looked too like “badly upholstered chairs.” (A further reason may have been that New Zealand women had enjoyed the vote since 1893 without any obvious change in their status.) But the feminism of the time was not a single-strand affair, and the whole tendency of her life then was a feminist one: her determination to work and earn her own living; her sexual boldness; her disgust at the idea of marriage, expressed in fragmentary stories in the notebooks: “Ugh…I loathe the very principle of matrimony. It must end in failure, and it is death to a woman’s personality. She must drop the theme and begin to start playing the accompaniment. For me there is no attraction.”

Melodramatic expressions of guilt about her own evident bisexuality are understandable enough at that date (Mr. Alpers produces a startling one unknown until now):

In New Zealand [Oscar] Wilde acted so strongly and terribly upon me that I was constantly subject to exactly the same fits of madness as those which caused his ruin and his mental decay. When I am miserable now—these recur…I think my mind is morally unhinged and that is the reason….

This “confession,” never delivered, refers to a brief lesbian affair in Wellington in 1907. Mansfield’s lifelong friendship with Ida Baker (known as LM) was based on something quite different. Katherine Mansfield was interested in LM’s self-abasing but innocent passion, wrote about it—in “Psychology” for instance—and made use of it when it suited her to lean on Ida for help, companionship, or support. But clearly Katherine Mansfield had no physical feeling for LM: witness many cruel remarks on the subject of her appearance and gracelessness. In the long run, she came to recognize Ida as a “wife”; but the sense of this was that Ida tended her much as wives traditionally tended busy husbands, in particular providing her with tolerable working conditions, which Murry was incapable of doing. As a woman who needed to earn her own living, and the daughter of a patriarchal man, Mansfield no doubt felt entitled to her wifely servant and servile wife.

What makes her bisexuality interesting to us is that it seems a part of the revolt against the Victorian patriarchal system she saw in operation at home (and described in her stories), in which the wife is sacrificed to the husband and the daughter to the parent—physically, socially, and intellectually, and learning at best to manipulate their tyrants—the same system Virginia Woolf anatomized in The Pargiters and long held responsible for the destruction of her own capacity for sexual fulfillment.

Between 1908 and 1912 Mansfield went through what might be termed a complete range of sexual misfortunes: a hasty marriage to a husband who proved sexually repugnant; elopement and quick boredom with a lover; an embarrassing pregnancy, which led to estrangement from her mother; a miscarriage; and the contracting of a venereal disease which made her infertile. The long third act of her drama is the association with Murry. There were friendships and quarrels with most of the leading literary figures of the time; there was work, the war, travel, and, increasingly, the dragging claims of illness. But the chief question that hangs over these years must be whether Murry was on the whole beneficent or harmful to Mansfield and her work.

Mr. Alpers is cautious, anxious to be fair, commendably unwilling to pounce on anyone’s sins or turn out reductionist caricatures of his protagonists; and perhaps the question is unanswerable after all. But I’d say she gave Murry more than he ever gave her (good advice about his editing among other things); and that it was a pity that nobody better turned up for her. Mostly one feels she was clinging to the idea of her love for him because she needed some personal justification so badly, and that would do. And then, in the perpetual pendulum swing between her desire to be independent—and unlike her mother—and her envy of her protected mother (and of Virginia Woolf, served and protected by Leonard), Murry had to be on call when the desire for a protector arose.

They are an uncomfortable couple to contemplate. And finally it is not Murry’s bad behavior—his infidelities and vacillations, his failure to “look after” her emotionally, sexually, or financially—matched by hers—infidelities, lies, and terrifying swings of mood—that makes one uncomfortable so much as his appalling propensity for making both “Love” and “Art” into religions, which he and Katherine were to serve. These large, abstract notions stood so far from her best, small, brave, original perceptions that it seems they were looking at the world through opposite ends of a telescope.

This Issue

May 15, 1980