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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



It happened to be her father who was indirectly responsible for the paid publication of Katherine Mansfield's first short stories—when she was eighteen.

She had been writing what her Wellington acquaintances called “stories of the sex-interest type.” The justification for the description was slight. True, she was inclined towards the exoticism of the ‘nineties, which represented for her, as for many others of her age and generation, the vindication of art against the Philistine. Since New Zealand was, in her eyes, in comparison with London, Philistia itself, she leaned more heavily towards the 'nineties than she would otherwise have done. The exotic perfume was very noticeable in the New Zealand atmosphere; and it was labelled “sex-interest.” The same label, we may be sure, would have been attached indiscriminately to Flaubert and Hardy, to Tolstoy and Tchehov.

New Zealand had had no time for modern literature. Its literary classifications were simple: as simple as good and bad. Writing was either “pretty and sweet,” or “sexy” and horrible. It was very obvious to which kind Katherine Mansfield's belonged. There was a legend current at the time concerning a story of hers called From my Bedroom Window, which was rumoured to have been published in some New Zealand newspaper—a story page 267 of lovers overheard talking on a bench in Fitzherbert Terrace. This story was reputed to have burst on the community like a bomb.“A nice sweet young girl to have such thoughts!”

It is fairly certain that the story had no existence, though, as we shall see, there was something out of which eager scandal-mongers may have fashioned it for themselves. But the legend lasted for years. It seems to have been chiefly born of a scandalised apprehension of moral outrage, lurking always in the fact that Kathleen claimed the freedom of an artist. The very conception was outside the range of contemporary New Zealand. The books which she had read were quite unknown to them; they were completely unprepared for the liberties of the artist. To them, with their curtailed opportunities for making the acquaintance of “modern” literature, it seemed that Kathleen was a pioneer of what appeared to them literary licence: that she had invented freedom of speech in fiction.

When a young New Zealand journalist remarked that “she wrote like a mature and widely experienced woman of thirty,” he might have found had he searched for it—that “wide experience of life” dormant between the covers of the books in Kathleen Beauchamp's studio-room. This secret, closed from him, and other Wellington contemporaries, was indicated in the first paragraph of one of her stories, printed at that time, In a Café:

“Each day they walked down Bond Street together, between the hours of twelve and one, and turned in at the Blenheim Café for lunch and conversation. She, a pale, dark girl, with that unmistakable air of page 268 ‘acquaintance with life’ which is so general among the students in London and an expression at once of intense eagerness and anticipated disillusion. Life to a girl who had read Nietzsche, Eugene Sue, Baudelaire, D'Annunzio, Barrés, Catulle Mendés, Suder-mann, Ibsen, Tolstoi, was, in her opinion, no longer complex, but a trifle obvious …”

Kathleen had showed her sheaf of stories to several friends whom she hoped might help her with publication. Among others, she took them to a young journalist who admired her work but was in no position, then, to aid her; and one of the musicians who played in her trio—a fastidious, highly sensitive woman, older than herself. Even she was shocked.“But, Katie!” she said in consternation,“In a Garret is beyond words! How do you know such things?”

“I just know them,” Kass answered.“That is life.

“She was like the ultra-modern painters,” her friend said afterwards.“She had to have all barriers down before she could do new things. And her quality of imagination was such that it was difficult to tell where truth ended and imagination began.”

True it was that she tinged her anecdotes with colour all her own; she gave them form and substance—sensing the dramatic possibilities of the immediate situation, and the responsiveness of her audience. The anecdote had been formed by wit and invention, before she had done with it; for even then she was telling her story as a writer.

First success came upon her in the most unexpected manner. Her father said casually, à propos of page 269 nothing:“Re your stories, Katie, I saw young Mills to-day at a match. I told him I thought you'd been spoiling paper long enough, but your mother was sympathetic; I asked him if he still ran the literary page of The New Zealand Mail. He said, ‘No. Why?’ I told him I remembered he used to read MSS. of young writers as a feature of the page, and wondered if he ever read them now. He said, ‘Yes, whenever they happen along.’ So I said you were following ‘Elizabeth's’ footsteps, but hadn't got out of the bush, and I asked him if he'd read some of your stuff.”

She went up to her room and shut herself into her own world, spread out the big black Note Book and the smaller Black Note Books scrawled heavily with violet ink, and read everything with a newly critical eye. She even went back through the Queen's College years, re-reading sketches and jottings, and the verses in Little Fronds. Nothing was good enough. None would do. She put away the long sheets of foolscap upon which she meant to copy out something for Tom Mills. She would have to write all new ones.

From the sheets she destroyed during the next weeks she saved a series of brief sketches—hardly stories—Vignettes she called them—and two poems like those written with E.K.B. So much time had elapsed between her father's meeting Tom Mills and her mailing the sheaf of MSS. that he had completely forgotten the incident.

A few days later, however, he rang her up to make an appointment for afternoon tea.

“But how shall I know you?” Kass cried.

page 270

“Watch for a slim fellow wearing a split hat, and with a handkerchief wrapped around his left hand,” said the voice in her ear;“then you stand up at your table in the D.I.C.”

What he had to tell her was this: he thought the verses “the sweetest songs of childhood” he had ever read;“the six stories—of the sex-problem type… a matured and widely experienced woman of thirty might have written.”

He added, long afterward, that “the psychology of Katherine Mansfield in her teens was remarkably precocious.” He made much the same remark to her—after he knew her rather better—and added:“I don't like your preference for the sex-problem story.”

“That is my business,” she retorted quickly.“It is none of your business what I write about, but merely to assure me that I can write successfully.”

He didn't argue the matter; neither did she.

“Another outstanding feature,” he continued,“is the spirit of London in the sketches.”

“London is my Ultima Thule,” she answered hotly.

“As to their publication,” he told her,“there are very few publishers in the world to-day who would either buy or publish such tales.”

“I don't want to be paid for the writing,” Kass answered quickly.“I want to prove to the family that my writing is worth while.”

“Then send them out for publication. You will not only confirm my own opinion, but you will realise the very best criticism—payment for work.”

“But where shall I send them?”

page 271

“There's a monthly magazine in Melbourne,” said Mills,“that takes the sex story—The Native Companion, edited by E.J. Brady. Send three of the sketches there, and three to a London Magazine.”

Kathleen knew that for such an experiment they must be typed. Her father had bought her a little-used Fox machine which she meant to master some time; but she was too impatient for results to go through the arduous process of typing. The appearance of her written page was important to her; once it was copied, it no longer seemed her own; yet she knew how difficult her script was to read.

She remembered Mattie, her father's secretary. But the matter needed delicate handling! She divined something of what actually did happen— several years later—when In a German Pension reached Wellington:

“This would never uplift anybody,” Mattie remarked to Kathleen's father, returning the book to him.

“Her thoughts were always in a minor key, even as a child,” Mr. Beauchamp said diplomatically.

That Kathleen was fully capable of handling the immediate situation, however, is apparent in the notes she left for Mattie with the various MSS. she wanted to have typed. They are characteristic of a certain diplomacy to which she had recourse throughout her life.

“Thank you very much indeed for the ‘Poor Child’—Mattie. I am most grateful—

“Yes—I quite agree that she was—to say the least— page 272 rather a morbid little individual—but to write—she was most fascinating. Never mind—soon I shall write some Poems full of cheerfulness—though to tell you a secret I prefer the others—the tragic pessimism of youth—you see—is as inevitable as the measles!

“I send you the sheet—it ought to read—‘She and the Boy’…and that is all—

“It is so fine to see my children in such an abnormally healthy—clean—tidy condition—

“Thank you for that—

“Yours sincerely

“Kathleen Beauchamp.”

“This is written specially for you—a sort of continuation of the last at least it is the same style. Could you—any time type it for me—dear, and I do hope you will like the man, because I think he is a dear. On one place you will see a sign (∗) where I where I left out a sentence— I've just written it in on the back of that page.

“What weather! Winter or Autumn I think.

“I'd like to go with you to a concert this afternoon Mark Hambourg & Gerardy. Wouldn't it be fine.

“Yours with love


“My dear,

“Here is the work—it is written really in a ‘faire hand’ and will I hope not be too much of a bother. I'm afraid you won't like ‘—Amore.’ I can't think how I wrote it—it's partly a sort of a dream. Castles have been tumbling about my ears since Father came home. Do not mention—I pray you—my London prospects to him—he feels very sensitive—but—willy nilly I Go I'm determined.

“I wish that you were not always so busy. I always feel when I am with you that theres so much I want to say—oh delightful sensation and so rare.

page 273

“Well I must go to but—shall I build a castle with a spare room for you. Yes I will—so please return the complement.

“Thanking you in anticipation.


“Am I asking too great a favour—when I say— could you type this for me my dear. I feel horrid to do so but really I will make it the last and conquer my Fox machine if I die in the effort! But my Editor wants something for a Summer Number the haste. If its impossible for you just send it back by Father and I shall understand. Are you better? I hope so— And here is a man that you will like—will you—I wonder? Hmm!

“Yours a little nervously


“Thank you indeed for Audrey—It was most good of you to bother about her at all—And you have typed it so beautifully for me. Is your room a success? I do hope so— Of course you have been busy lately— and so have I in a very pleasant sort of way—writing I mean. I am just off to Island Bay for a long day and maybe an evening—I am going to write and have to go to the sea for copy—Do bring a book and come—too—Dear—and we shall ‘paddle’ and ‘bathe’ — Don't you love the two processes?

“I wonder if you have read Lube Delinge by Father Sheehan—Father Macdonald lent it to me—some days ago—and it is very good—Oh, what a beautiful day—

“Thank you again—Dear—I feel most horrid to have bothered you so persistently about my annoying children… You have indeed been a godmother to them—and they—too—are grateful—

“Lovingly yours


page 274

The editor of The Native Companion, Mr. E. J. Brady, accepted three from the sheaf of sketches which Mattie had typed and which Kathleen had sent him in Melbourne: a Vignette, hovering in atmosphere between Wellington and London; a Silhouette, a picture from the window of Fitzherbert Terrace; and In a Café set in London. These appeared almost immediately in consecutive issues of the magazine for October, November and December, 1907. Mr. Brady was so impressed by them that he preserved two letters which Kathleen sent him. The first was in reply to his letter of acceptance.

“Dear Sir—

“Thank you for your letter— I liked the peremptory tone—With regard to the Vignettes I am sorry that (they) resemble their illustrious relatives to so marked an extent—and assure you—they feel very much my own—This style of work absorbs me at present but—well—it cannot be said that anything you have of mine is ‘copied’—Frankly—I hate plagiarism.

“I send you some more work—practically there is nothing local—except the ‘Botanical Gardens’ Vignette. The reason is that for the last few years London has held me very tightly—and I've not yet escaped.

“You ask for some details as to myself. I am poor— obscure—just eighteen years of age—with a voracious appetite for everything—and principles as light as my prose—

“If this pleases you—this MSS.—please know there is a great deal more where this came from—

page 275

“I am very grateful to you and very interested in your magazine—


“K. M. Beauchamp.”

Her letter reveals the marks left by Dorian Gray. When she, rather rashly, wrote that she was a person “with principles as light as my prose,” she was echoing and improving upon the sentences of Wilde which she had already copied into her reading notes:“I like persons with no principles better than anything in the world.”

Evidently her statement of her age aroused Mr. Brady's suspicions. If she really was only eighteen— he seems to have argued—then her work could not be original. But probably she was a great deal more than eighteen—the mature woman of thirty whom Tom Mills had conjured up. Kathleen showed a letter expressing these doubts to her father. His reply (written without her knowledge) was also preserved by Mr. Brady.

“Dear Sir:—

“My daughter, Kathleen, has shown me the letters you have written in respect to her literary contributions, and I desire to thank you sincerely for the practical encouragement you have given her. At the same time, I should like to assure you that you need never have any hesitation in accepting anything from her upon the asumption that it may not be original matter. She, herself, is, I think, a very original character, and writing—whether it be good or bad— comes to her quite naturally. In fact, since she was eight years of age, she has been producing poetry and prose. It may be that she inherits the literary talent page 276 of some members of our family, amongst them being my cousin, the authoress of Elizabeth and her German Garden, and other well-known books.
“As to Kathleen's statement concerning her age, this, I notice, you politely question, but I can assure you that she spoke quite correctly when she told you she was only eighteen years old.
“Until the close of 1906 she was a student at a college in London, and left that institution to return to New Zealand with me, and other members of my family, in October of that year. I may add that she has always been an omnivorous reader, and posesses a most retentive memory.
“Pardon me for troubling you with these details, but I wished to deal with the two points raised in your kind letter, viz., ‘originality’ and ‘age.’
“In concluding, may I ask you to be kind enough to treat this as a private letter and not to mention to Kathleen that I have written you concerning her.

“I am,
“Yours very truly

Harold Beauchamp.”

The encouragement had been practical indeed, in a form convincing to her father—a cheque, which Kathleen promptly acknowledged.

“Dear Mr. Brady

“Thank you for your note—and the cheque—too—
“Encouragement has studiously passed me by for so long that I am very appreciative.
“I like the name ‘Silhouette’— If you do print more than one ‘Vignette’ in the November issue— please do not use the name K. M. Beauchamp. I am anxious to be read only as K. Mansfield or K. M.
“Mr. Brady—I am afraid that so much kindness page 277 on your part may result in an inundation of MSS. from me—but the kindness is very pleasant.


“Kathleen Beauchamp.”

The selection of a pen-name cost her no little effort. She was determined not to use her own. She meant to leave the old life completely, once she was free, and in London; and for a new life—to which her now published writing might open the door—she needed a new name. And, no doubt, she was partly influenced by the example of her father's cousin, who had achieved world-wide fame with a series of anonymous books (of which the sixth had just been published).

Kathleen tried several experiments: first “Julian Mark” (in the rhythm of “Dorian Gray”); the German form of her own name,“Kath Schönfeld” (which she had used in corresponding in German with Arnold Trowell while he was in Brussels); and “K. Mansfield.” That she decided permanently upon her second Christian name, her Grandmother's name—Mansfield—may have been due to something which recently had happened.

The Grandmother had been living with a friend in Bolton Street, off Hill Street since the girls' return from London. Time flew swiftly—Kathleen was always meaning to stop to see her.

At a quarter to twelve, the last few minutes before the New Year of 1907, Grandmother Mansfield Dyer had a stroke.

Kathleen never forgave herself for being so wrapped in her own problems that she had let the time pass until too late. She was not devoid of page 278 sentiment. Death always made her keenly conscious of the essence of a personality, and this was her first experience of the death of one dear to her.

But it was not until she began writing for the New Age, in 1910, that she returned to the form Katherine—after experimenting with “Katherina” and “Katharina.”

For these first stories, submitted to The Native Companion, she asked “to be read only as K. Mansfield or K.M.” and how eagerly she awaited the first publication!

“It seems strange to remember buying a copy of The Native Companion on Lambton Quay and standing under a lamppost with darling Leslie to see if my story had been printed.”

Under this new incentive she wrote continuously— of the City in which she lived her detached existence —of cafés, and “life” : the girl who bought Parma violets instead of a bun; and the girl who—having given the violets to a boy who begged them—found them discarded on the street. She wrote of “Mimi,” and the long stairs to the top of Westminster, and the delicate images floating before them as they gazed over London—wondering how long they would remember. She wrote of Gwen, and the dreams they had for fame in the future.

She sent copies of stories to each of them, so they should see how London was loved, and they, too, being part of it. The mails to Arnold, to Ida, to “Mimi,” and Gwen, to Sylvia were heavy with these stories, and with letters that often reached ten pages. How could the days have been long enough for so much writing? With what facility she wrote page 279 when the mood was right! And how fully and poignantly she wrote when she was unhappy! For she was one who grew most quickly under pressure of unhappiness. Since she was willing, from that moment onward, to sacrifice to writing almost every other thing that life was to hold—so she owed to adversity and heartbreak the fulfilment of her one consuming wish:“to become a writer.”


“It is evening and very cold. From my window the laurestinus bush, in this half light looks weighted with snow. It moves languidly, gently, backwards and forwards, and each time I look at it a delicate flower melody fills my brain.
“Against the pearl sky the great hills tower, gorse-covered, leonine, magnificently savage. The air is quiet with thin rain, yet, from the karaka tree comes a tremulous sound of birds song.
“In the avenue three little boys are crouched under a tree smoking cigarettes. They are quite silent, and though terrified of discovery, their attitudes are full of luxurious abandon…. And the grey smoke floats into the air—their incense, strong and perfumed, to the Great God of the Forbidden.
“Two men pass down the avenue talking eagerly…. In the house opposite are four beautiful squares of golden light…. My room is almost in darkness. The bed frightens me—it is so long and white. And the tassel of the window blind moves languidly to and fro. I cannot believe that it is not some living thing…
“It is growing very dark. The little boys, laughing shrilly, have left the avenue.
“And I, leaning out of my window, alone, peering into the gloom, am seized by a passionate desire for everything that is hidden and forbidden. I want the night to come, and kiss me with her hot mouth, and page 280 lead me through an amethyst twilight to the place of the white gardenia. The laurestinus bush moves languidly, gently, backwards and forwards. There is a dull, heavy sound of clocks striking far away, and, in my room, darkness, emptiness, save for the ghostlike bed. I feel to lie there quiet, silent, passively cold would be too fearful—yet—quite a little fascinating.

“K. Mansfield.”

(The Native Companion, November, 1907.)

It is just conceivable that this is the “story” which burst like a bombshell on New Zealand. Granted a certain amount of enthusiastic amplification over tea-tables, the first lines of the final paragraph might be swelled into the monster of New Zealand legend.