Katherine Mansfield
Katherine Mansfield; drawing by David Levine

Katherine Mansfield’s contemporaries, including, though reluctantly, Virginia Woolf, agreed that she was brilliant. Woolf admired her besides for going “every sort of hog,” while she herself remained regretfully respectable. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mansfield is that she managed to construct for herself, a century or at least half a century too late, a classically Romantic career. Born in 1888 into a prosperous New Zealand family and educated for three years at Queen’s College, Harley Street, an enlightened London girls’ school, she rejected her background, comforts and all, to starve in a succession of European attics and unheatable cottages, to combine a hectic love life with dedication to her work, to make it into the literary and artistic avant-garde of her day, and to die, at thirty-four, of a mixture of tuberculosis and gonorrhea. Even Baudelaire could do no more.

The trouble with Mansfield is that she’s exciting without being interesting. Hardly anyone could fail with a biography of such lending-library potential as hers. Claire Tomalin does better than that: it’s hard to find fault with her book. It is both sensible and sensitive, sympathetic and sufficiently detached, and written with elegance, irony, and humor. She even manages to be fair to Mansfield’s second husband, Middleton Murry, a man of letters whom she forced into bed when they were both twenty-three and he should have been finishing his studies at Oxford. Nobody could stand him. “Squirming and oozing a sort of thick motor oil in the background,” he spoiled Virginia Woolf’s visits to Katherine.

Tomalin analyzes a number of Mansfield’s works as she goes along. In the end her assessment boils down to admiring Mansfield’s gift for conveying mood and atmosphere in a manner she calls Post-Impressionist, presumably because of the fragmentation, but which could also be labeled Impressionist for its characteristically vivid way with light, texture, and movement. “The lack of stamina,” says Tomalin, “which prevented her from producing a novel encouraged other virtues: speed, economy, clarity. They became her hallmark, admired and imitated by later writers.”

Tomalin also speaks of her talent for deadpan comedy, agreeing with Leonard Woolf that it was underused. “Murry corrupted and perverted and destroyed Katherine both as a person and as a writer,” he thought. “She was a very serious writer, but her gifts were those of an intense realist, with a superb sense of ironic humour and fundamental cynicism. She got enmeshed in the sticky sentimentality of Murry and wrote against the grain of her own nature.” Not much humor is left in, unless you count the embarrassing mimicry of genteel and working-class speech which makes some passages in her work sound like the party pieces of a snobbish, ill-natured debutante. It’s a cheap device. (“Cheap” was Virginia Woolf’s recurrent adjective for Mansfield: “I thought her cheap and she thought me priggish.”) Still, it can work, and in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” it does.

“When I was with Lady Tukes,” said Nurse Andrews, “she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah. It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the—on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork. When you wanted some buttah you simply pressed his foot and he bent down and speared you a piece. It was quite a gayme.”

What makes the passage bearable—well, successful—is the nurse’s dainty accent matching the dainty horror of what she’s describing—both so out of key with the desolate bewilderment of the colonel’s newly bereaved daughters. Thomas Hardy liked this story. Mansfield was always being compared to Chekhov (particularly by Murry), but it’s hard to see any resemblance except in this one example, unbearably sad but with a passage (not the one about Nurse Andrews) so funny that it makes you laugh out loud.

Deadpan humor turns up occasionally in Mansfield’s many stories about children. Children are deadpan people. Unfortunately, Mansfield’s understanding that they are sometimes shades into finding them cute. The winsome shadow of Mabel Lucie Attwell looms, and one remembers that Christopher Robin was getting ready to toddle from the nursery soon after Mansfield’s death in 1923. The Edwardians and Georgians could be much worse about children than the Victorians; just as soppy, but with a twinkle in the eye.

Mansfield was also quite terrible about the poor, wallowing in a little match girl kind of pathos. “The Doll’s House” has a rich little girl inviting two poor children to admire her new doll’s house; they are chased away, humiliated, by the rich girl’s aunt. It’s Andersen’s scenario with a different ending. The rich family who give the garden party in the story of that name discover that while it was going on a poor man was dying in a cottage just outside the gate. Appalled, they can think of nothing better than to send down one of their daughters with a basket of leftovers for the mourners. Virginia Woolf also overexploited the poignant contrast between the deprived and the spoiled with Mrs. Dalloway and the wretched Warren Smiths; but not to Mansfield’s degree: in “The Life of Ma Parker” (a patronizing title if ever there was one) a “literary gentleman” reduces his poor old charlady to despair by inquiring airily whether her grandchild’s funeral “went off all right.” He obviously descends from the heartless courtiers in Oscar Wilde’s tear-jerkers “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose.” In her teens Mansfield was dotty about Wilde; she wrote Wildean epigrams and in her diary: “O Oscar! Am I peculiarly susceptible to sexual impulse? I must be, I suppose—but I rejoice.”


This was when she was eighteen and had a crush on a painter called Edith Bendall, who was twenty-seven. Bendall married soon after and always denied that there had been anything sexual in her relations with Mansfield. Reviewing Tomalin’s book in The London Review of Books, the New Zealand writer C.K. Stead thought that Tomalin made too much of Mansfield’s lesbian inclinations, not just in connection with Edith Bendall, but also in her handling of Mansfield’s lifelong relationship with Ida Constance Baker, whom she met when they were both pupils at Queen’s College. Mansfield referred to Baker as her “wife,” her “slave,” “the Monster,” and “the Mountain”; all her life she relied on her and exploited her loyalty, moving in on her when she was destitute, taking her money and her furniture when she needed them, and later, when their circumstances were more or less reversed, employing her as a housekeeper-cum-ladies’ maid and treating her as a skivvy—no better than the literary gentleman treated Ma Parker. Mansfield was not a nice person. Bertrand Russell (she rejected his advances during a period of hectic popularity with Ottoline Morrell and Bloomsbury) wrote that “her talk was marvellous. Much better than her writing, especially when she was telling what she was going to write, but when she spoke about people she was envious, dark and full of alarming penetration.”

But there was nothing lesbian about Mansfield’s relations with Baker, except if her usage of this poor fish was made possible by Baker’s suppressed lesbian feelings for her. It does not seem to me that Tomalin overstresses what lesbian elements there were. On the other hand, when she shows that D.H. Lawrence may have based the lesbian episode in The Rainbow on things that Katherine had told Frieda about her past—then one does feel a slight weariness at threads spun so fine. It’s all part of the problem of finding things to say about Mansfield apart from just retelling her picaresque life.

Still, Tomalin finds one or two things. She is very good on the strong rapport between Lawrence and Mansfield, and also on Mansfield’s attitude to men and to feminism. She envied men their freedom of action and of choice, but without wanting to give up feminine trimmings and privileges. Like Gudrun in Women in Love, she wanted to be liberated but went on dreaming of “a rosy room, with herself in a beautiful gown, and a handsome man in evening dress who held her in his arms in the firelight, and kissed her.” Unlike Gudrun, Mansfield was a colonial: and in her case part of the dream (if she shared it) was surely a longing for the gracious living of the Old World.

Mansfield has a use for men, but not much liking or respect. “Throughout her work,” Tomalin says, “men appear as clumsy, emotionally inept, cruel, treacherous, foolish, pompous, tyrannous, greedy, self-deluding, insensitive and disappointing; and the theme of women conspiring against and excluding men is a recurring one.”

Mansfield’s diary reveals a very sexy teen-ager—and not just in the invocation to Oscar. The first of her multinational lovers, when she was eighteen and he nineteen, was her cousin Garnet Trowell, a musician whose family lived in London and naturally befriended her. Trowell made her pregnant. Possibly he never knew he had. Marriage was out of the question: the Trowells had no money and turned hostile when they discovered Katherine’s behavior with their son. So she managed—unfortunately Tomalin cannot explain how—to bulldoze a mere acquaintance into marrying her at a moment’s notice. This was George Bowden, another musician, but older and better off than Trowell. It was a marriage blanc lasting one night. Katherine returned immediately to Trowell, treating Bowden as badly in the short run as she was to treat Baker in the long.


At least her child would have a name. In the event, the marriage turned out to have been an unnecessary precaution, because Katherine had a miscarriage. By this time she had been separated from Trowell by her mother, who stormed in from New Zealand and carried her daughter off to a Bavarian spa, where she dumped her in a pension. It was an unfortunate move. In Bavaria Katherine met a literary Pole called Floryan Sobieniowski. He introduced her to Chekhov, gave her gonorrhea, and became a sponging incubus on her for the rest of her life. In 1920 he blackmailed Middleton Murry over letters that Mansfield had written to him in 1909. Mansfield told Murry to pay up. Ida Baker provided the cash.

Sobieniowski is Tomalin’s key to the “secret life” in her title. She assumes—convincingly enough, though the assumption rests on another: that Mansfield wasn’t “completely promiscuous”—that it was Sobieniowski who infected her with the illness that spoiled her life from the age of twenty—long before she contracted tuberculosis; though the tuberculosis got a grip on her because her health was already ruined. In 1910, shortly after separating from Sobieniowski, Mansfield had peritonitis caused by an infected Fallopian tube. The tube was removed: a fatal operation, because it spread the infection throughout her body. From then on she suffered agonizing arthritic pains in her hip and feet, frequent pleurisy, debility, and other nasty symptoms. She had to spend a great deal of time either on or in her bed, “suffering agonies of illness and loneliness combined,” and consumed all the while by her rage to live and to work. It is really because of her dogged determination to go on writing as her life grew cruelly and predictably emptier of pleasure and fuller of terrible pain—all of which is marvelously conveyed by Tomalin—that one develops some sympathy for a woman who seems to have been ruthless and manipulative, though excellent company.

Tomalin’s most startling gambit is not to insist that Sobieniowski was the origin of Mansfield’s illness but to suggest that when he blackmailed her in 1920 it was not about venereal disease but about plagiarism. In 1909 he gave her German translations of Chekhov stories that had not yet been translated into English. Among them was “Spat’ khochetsia.” Mansfield is supposed to have recycled its plot for her own “The-Child-Who-Was-Tired,” published in 1910. This is an old mini-scandal. It was first mooted in 1935, and in 1951 became the subject of a controversy in The Times Literary Supplement, which Tomalin reprints in an appendix. She makes a reasonable case for her theory, but it is hard to care very much, especially since “The-Child-Who-Was-Tired” was suppressed after the first printing (this is part of the evidence) and is therefore almost impossible to come by. Perhaps Tomalin felt that a bit of literary sleuthing would put some zip in her book. She needn’t have bothered: it’s a first-rate biography anyhow.

This Issue

March 17, 1988