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Dr Gerri Kimber, Department of English, University of Northampton
18 March 2013
The New Zealand-born short story writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is now widely recognised as one of the most important modernist women writers. Experimental in her life as well as in her fiction, she shortened her hems as soon as she was able, wore brightly coloured clothes, scarlet stockings, and cut her hair in a bob when other women were still only vaguely thinking about it. She was risqué, she was modern, she was witty, and she had a supreme gift for storytelling.
In 1911, Katherine Mansfield published her first book of short stories, In a German Pension, based upon her experiences and recollections of a stay in Bavaria in 1909. In order to assuage the symptoms of tuberculosis, formally diagnosed in 1918, she spent many months towards the end of her life near the Mediterranean, and subsequently in Switzerland. Bliss and Other Stories was published in 1920, followed in 1922 by The Garden Party and Other Stories. In October 1922, three months before her death, she entered Georg Gurdjieff’s esoteric community at Fontainebleau, just outside Paris, drawn by the spiritual philosophy of its founder. She died there on 9 January 1923, aged just 34. Posthumous collections included The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories in 1923, and Something Childish and Other Stories in 1924, but it was her Journal, in 1927 and her Letters, in 1928, edited by her husband, the critic John Middleton Murry, which sealed her international reputation.
Mansfield and Murry, like their friends D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, were never really part of ‘Bloomsbury’ proper. Mansfield was a colonial, with a father in trade, albeit Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand and a Knight of the Realm by 1923. Murry was a scholarship boy from very lower-middle-class Peckham, and Lawrence’s father had been a Nottinghamshire miner. However, being literary and bohemian, their lives inevitably crossed with the Bloomsbury set, and friendships were formed and, inevitably, broken.
For a time, the economist John Maynard Keynes was Mansfield’s landlord. Lytton Strachey, though homosexual, was attracted to her because of her elusiveness. Bertrand Russell admired her ‘mind’, and attempted some sort of affair (as he so often did with women he met), while T.S. Eliot warned Ezra Pound that she was ‘a dangerous woman’. There were friendships with artists such as the East End painter Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, and the deaf aristocrat Dorothy Brett. But the most famous relationship to develop out of all these Bloomsbury encounters would be the one with Virginia Woolf, six years older than Mansfield. This was important not just on a personal level, but because of the effect the relationship would have on the creative output of both women.