I feel a common certain understanding between us – a queer sense of being ‘like’ – not only about literature – & I think it’s independent of gratified vanity. I can talk straight to her. – Virginia Woolf on Katherine Mansfield
Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born in Wellington, New Zealand on 14 October 1888, but was famous for the short stories which she penned under the pseudonym Katherine Mansfield. Despite her deteriorating health, she produced two highly-praised short story collections, The Garden Party and Bliss, during her short life. After living with two debilitating illnesses, she died in France at the age of 34 from tuberculosis. Her writing is part of the Modernist tradition and is characterised by its economical use of language, symbolism and sharp psychological insight.
Katherine was the third daughter of Harold Beauchamp, who would later become chair of the Bank of New Zealand, and the formidable Annie Beauchamp. Raised in affluence, and by parents who regularly travelled to the UK, Katherine was exposed to European culture from a young age.
In 1903, Katherine and her sisters were sent to Queen’s College in London. The school encouraged intellectual exploration and the pursuit of individual interest. Katherine excelled at the school and was introduced to the richness of London culture. It was here that she met Ida Baker who would become her constant companion, later accompanying Katherine on trips to convalesce in Europe during long periods of ill health. When Katherine returned to New Zealand at age 18 – although she continued to write and was published in The Native Companion – she longed to return to London, and to Ida.
Upon her return to England in 1908, Katherine lived a bohemian existence in London. She entered into a relationship with Garnet Trowell and intended to marry him, however her relationship with his family was strained and so their engagement was broken off. Katherine then found herself pregnant. She rashly married George Bowden, but abandoned the marriage soon after.
Upon hearing of her daughter’s pregnancy, Annie Beauchamp travelled to London, collected Katherine and took her to Bavaria in order for her to have the baby, before then returning to New Zealand. There are limited records about Katherine’s time in Germany, but it is thought that she miscarried in the summer and following this, her mother cut her out of her will.
Following her miscarriage, Katherine continued writing in London, inspired by the works of Chekhov whose work she had discovered while living in Germany. However, she was soon admitted to hospital and had an operation to remove her fallopian tube due to a venereal disease – from this point, she would continue to suffer with her health for the rest of her life.
Katherine returned to London in 1909 and proceeded to have her stories – inspired by her time in Germany – published in The New Age and The Idler. The New Age was run by socialist editor A. R. Orage and here, Katherine’s writing style moved firmly towards the crystalline observation which would characterise her later work.
In 1911, at age 23, Katherine met John Middleton Murry who ran Rhythm, a new avant garde magazine. They quickly became lovers and Katherine pledged the monthly allowance she received from her father to the magazine. The two would continue to work together on literary projects, frequently changing address and moving around London’s literary scene. DH Lawrence became a great friend and his recently published novel Sons and Lovers greatly inspired Katherine to plan an ambitious novel which sadly was never completed. However, such was the creativity that they inspired in each other, Lawrence is to have thought to have based Gudrun in The Rainbow on Katherine. The pair would continue to be friends until Katherine’s death.
After trying to find work as an actress, Katherine returned to writing and moved to Paris. She would continue to flit between the two cities, torn between safety with Murry and adventure in Paris, until her brother was killed in France in October 1915 and her health deteriorated again. Katherine took off for the South of France with Murry and began writing what would eventually become Prelude, one of her most famous short stories.
Returning from France in 1917, her divorce from Bowden finalised, she was free to marry Murry. However before they could marry, Katherine was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Her doctor recommended that she recuperate at an English solarium, but believing that this would curb her creativity, Katherine began to look for a more unconventional cure which would involve spending winters in the Mediterranean and summers in England.
During her trips around Europe, Katherine missed Murry terribly. When she did return to London, there would be occasions she was too weak to leave the house but she still received guests. One particular guest was Virginia Woolf, who respected Katherine’s dedication and was fascinated by her work. After Katherine’s death, Woolf wrote that Katherine’s writing was the only writing she’d ever been jealous of.
In September 1920, Ida and Katherine set off again for Europe on a slightly happier note as Katherine had just sold a collection of short stories to a commercial publisher. This was the first time she had been paid for her work. Two highly praised short story collections followed – Bliss was published in December 1920 and The Garden Party in 1922.
Katherine spent the last years of her life travelling around Europe with Ida, which further damaged her health. Despite this, Katherine continued to write at a prolific pace with The Fly being her last finished work in 1922. In 1923, Katherine died in France. After her untimely death, Murry continued to publish her work which included her letters and poems, and he edited two further collections of her unpublished short stories.