Katherine Mansfield stares out of her photographs with a direct gaze that challenges the observer. Courageous, contradictory, self-willed, single-minded, argumentative, elusive, in both her life and her work, she has always defied the attempts of posterity to pin down the qualities that fascinated her contemporaries. Bertrand Russell admired her brain and would have liked to seduce her; Virginia Woolf said she ‘stank like a civet cat that has taken to street walking’ but admitted that she loved her ‘I suppose in my own way’, and that Katherine was the only writer whose writing she was jealous of. Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley were among a number of writers who borrowed not only her words, but also her character for their novels. D.H. Lawrence used her as the model for Gudrun in ‘Women in Love’. He and his wife lived in a ‘menage a quatre’ with Katherine and her husband which ended in such animosity that he afterwards sent her a postcard saying ‘You are a loathsome reptile; I hope you will die’. His wife Frieda also disliked Katherine but acknowledged that she ‘knew more of the truth than anyone else’.
Katherine, often unsure of her own identity, liked to present a sharply defined focus. She had her hair cut like a Japanese doll and when other women were still struggling with Edwardian frills and flounces, had her plain, elegantly designed clothes specially made. Katherine’s writing was similarly uncluttered. ‘Life and work are one thing indivisible,’ she wrote, and for her it was true. Katherine was a passionate woman who dared to live outside the strict code decreed for young women at the beginning of the century and who did not deserve the cruelty of what she sometimes regarded as her punishment. She lived as a free spirit, loving both men and women, risking everything and paying a tragic price for freedoms which women now take for granted. Out of a short life of great daring and considerable suffering she created stories that readers always remember and that critics throughout the twentieth century have compulsively re-visited. Above all she is a writers’ writer, haunting the post modernist consciousness with a strong presence that will not go away. Elizabeth Bowen described her as ‘our missing contemporary’.
Her influence on other writers throughout the twentieth century has been immeasurable. If it had not been for her conversations with Katherine, Virginia Woolf would probably not have written Mrs Dalloway. Carson McCullers read Katherine’s work so often as a student that the library copies of her books fell apart and had to be re-ordered. Katherine wrote constantly about the process of writing, and her letters and notebooks are among her best work. She searched for the universal through what she called the ‘Defeat of the Personal’. She was looking for a new language to express her ideas, having glimpsed the possibilities while looking at paintings by Van Gogh in the Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1910; ‘They taught me something about writing, which was queer, a kind of freedom – or rather, a shaking free.’ Katherine’s way of looking became noticeably more painterly and she had important relationships with some of the colourists, particularly Anne Estelle Rice and J.D. Fergusson, as well as some of the younger Bloomsbury painters.
Born in New Zealand in 1888 – the daughter of a self-made colonial merchant and financier, Katherine came to England at the age of nineteen, fell in love with a young musician – Garnet Trowell – became pregnant, rashly married her singing teacher George Bowden and then abandoned him – all within seven months of her arrival. She was taken to Germany by her mother to have the baby and there met and fell in love with a Polish writer, Floryan Sobienowski, who later blackmailed her into buying back her letters. She destroyed all her diaries and letters from this period. It is possible that Katherine became pregnant again, though peritonitis (possibly from an ectopic pregnancy) resulted in her losing one of her fallopian tubes. Shaped by these early experiences and driven to lead a double life by the necessity of concealing them, Katherine became a much more complex person ‘sexually reckless and socially excitable, temperamentally damaged by illness and as malicious and chilling as she could be appealing and vulnerable’. Subsequently she lived on her own and had numerous love affairs, eventually meeting John Middleton Murry – slightly younger and considerably less experienced.
GERMANS AT MEAT.
Bread soup was placed upon the table. “Ah,” said the Herr Rat, leaning
upon the table as he peered into the tureen, “that is what I need. My
‘magen’ has not been in order for several days. Bread soup, and just the
right consistency. I am a good cook myself”–he turned to me.
“How interesting,” I said, attempting to infuse just the right amount of
enthusiasm into my voice.
“Oh yes–when one is not married it is necessary. As for me, I have had
all I wanted from women without marriage.” He tucked his napkin into his
collar and blew upon his soup as he spoke. “Now at nine o’clock I make
myself an English breakfast, but not much. Four slices of bread, two eggs,
two slices of cold ham, one plate of soup, two cups of tea–that is nothing
He asserted the fact so vehemently that I had not the courage to refute it.
All eyes were suddenly turned upon me. I felt I was bearing the burden of
the nation’s preposterous breakfast–I who drank a cup of coffee while
buttoning my blouse in the morning.
“Nothing at all,” cried Herr Hoffmann from Berlin. “Ach, when I was in
England in the morning I used to eat.”
He turned up his eyes and his moustache, wiping the soup drippings from his
coat and waistcoat.
“Do they really eat so much?” asked Fraulein Stiegelauer. “Soup and
baker’s bread and pig’s flesh, and tea and coffee and stewed fruit, and
honey and eggs, and cold fish and kidneys, and hot fish and liver? All the
ladies eat, too, especially the ladies.”
“Certainly. I myself have noticed it, when I was living in a hotel in
Leicester Square,” cried the Herr Rat. “It was a good hotel, but they
could not make tea–now–”
“Ah, that’s one thing I CAN do,” said I, laughing brightly. “I can make
very good tea. The great secret is to warm the teapot.”
“Warm the teapot,” interrupted the Herr Rat, pushing away his soup plate.
“What do you warm the teapot for? Ha! ha! that’s very good! One does not
eat the teapot, I suppose?”
He fixed his cold blue eyes upon me with an expression which suggested a
thousand premeditated invasions.
“So that is the great secret of your English tea? All you do is to warm
I wanted to say that was only the preliminary canter, but could not
translate it, and so was silent.
The servant brought in veal, with sauerkraut and potatoes.
“I eat sauerkraut with great pleasure,” said the Traveller from North
Germany, “but now I have eaten so much of it that I cannot retain it. I am
immediately forced to–”
“A beautiful day,” I cried, turning to Fraulein Stiegelauer. “Did you get
“At five o’clock I walked for ten minutes in the wet grass. Again in bed.
At half-past five I fell asleep, and woke at seven, when I made an
‘overbody’ washing! Again in bed. At eight o’clock I had a cold-water
poultice, and at half past eight I drank a cup of mint tea. At nine I
drank some malt coffee, and began my ‘cure.’ Pass me the sauerkraut,
please. You do not eat it?”
“No, thank you. I still find it a little strong.”
“Is it true,” asked the Widow, picking her teeth with a hairpin as she
spoke, “that you are a vegetarian?”
“Why, yes; I have not eaten meat for three years.”
“Im–possible! Have you any family?”
“There now, you see, that’s what you’re coming to! Who ever heard of
having children upon vegetables? It is not possible. But you never have
large families in England now; I suppose you are too busy with your
suffragetting. Now I have had nine children, and they are all alive, thank
God. Fine, healthy babies–though after the first one was born I had to–”
“How WONDERFUL!” I cried.
“Wonderful,” said the Widow contemptuously, replacing the hairpin in the
knob which was balanced on the top of her head. “Not at all! A friend of
mine had four at the same time. Her husband was so pleased he gave a
supper-party and had them placed on the table. Of course she was very
“Germany,” boomed the Traveller, biting round a potato which he had speared
with his knife, “is the home of the Family.”
Followed an appreciative silence.
The dishes were changed for beef, red currants and spinach. They wiped
their forks upon black bread and started again.
“How long are you remaining here?” asked the Herr Rat.
“I do not know exactly. I must be back in London in September.”
“Of course you will visit Munchen?”
“I am afraid I shall not have time. You see, it is important not to break
into my ‘cure.'”
“But you MUST go to Munchen. You have not seen Germany if you have not
been to Munchen. All the Exhibitions, all the Art and Soul life of Germany
are in Munchen. There is the Wagner Festival in August, and Mozart and a
Japanese collection of pictures–and there is the beer! You do not know
what good beer is until you have been to Munchen. Why, I see fine ladies
every afternoon, but fine ladies, I tell you, drinking glasses so high.”
He measured a good washstand pitcher in height, and I smiled.
“If I drink a great deal of Munchen beer I sweat so,” said Herr Hoffmann.
“When I am here, in the fields or before my baths, I sweat, but I enjoy it;
but in the town it is not at all the same thing.”
Prompted by the thought, he wiped his neck and face with his dinner napkin
and carefully cleaned his ears.
A glass dish of stewed apricots was placed upon the table.
“Ah, fruit!” said Fraulein Stiegelauer, “that is so necessary to health.
The doctor told me this morning that the more fruit I could eat the
She very obviously followed the advice.
Said the Traveller: “I suppose you are frightened of an invasion, too, eh?
Oh, that’s good. I’ve been reading all about your English play in a
newspaper. Did you see it?”
“Yes.” I sat upright. “I assure you we are not afraid.”
“Well, then, you ought to be,” said the Herr Rat. “You have got no army at
all–a few little boys with their veins full of nicotine poisoning.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Herr Hoffmann said. “We don’t want England. If we did
we would have had her long ago. We really do not want you.”
He waved his spoon airily, looking across at me as though I were a little
child whom he would keep or dismiss as he pleased.
“We certainly do not want Germany,” I said.
“This morning I took a half bath. Then this afternoon I must take a knee
bath and an arm bath,” volunteered the Herr Rat; “then I do my exercises
for an hour, and my work is over. A glass of wine and a couple of rolls
with some sardines–”
They were handed cherry cake with whipped cream.
“What is your husband’s favourite meat?” asked the Widow.
“I really do not know,” I answered.
“You really do not know? How long have you been married?”
“But you cannot be in earnest! You would not have kept house as his wife
for a week without knowing that fact.”
“I really never asked him; he is not at all particular about his food.”
A pause. They all looked at me, shaking their heads, their mouths full of
“No wonder there is a repetition in England of that dreadful state of
things in Paris,” said the Widow, folding her dinner napkin. “How can a
woman expect to keep her husband if she does not know his favourite food
after three years?”
I closed the door after me.
John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield were only 22 and 23 respectively when they met in London, after she had submitted some stories to Rhythm – a review he was editing while studying at Oxford. She floats across the pages of his heavy-footed autobiographical novels, ‘superior, condescending, lovely, untouchable, tired of asking first-rate questions from second-rate people’. Within a few weeks he had moved into her flat as a lodger and shortly afterwards they became lovers at Katherine’s instigation. A few months later she had pledged the allowance she received from her father to pay the debts left by the failure of Rhythm. At the time Katherine thought her relationship with Murry would be ideal. She believed she had found someone she could share her mind with – a soul mate. Murry also wanted to be a writer. Similarly unconventional, he didn’t mind the fact that Katherine was already married. Perhaps remembering the baby she had lost and two further possible miscarriages or abortions, she desperately wanted to have Murry’s child, but her gynaecological history prevented this and Katherine continually grieved over it. She and Murry consoled themselves with fantasy children – a little Katherine and a little John – children John Murry would later father on his second wife Violet le Maistre.
Not surprisingly, since their circumstances and temperaments were so very different, the Murrys’ relationship quickly became turbulent. Whereas Katherine had had a relatively happy, financially secure upbringing in New Zealand, Murry’s childhood had been unbelievably bleak. A child prodigy who could read the Times when he was three, he was beaten and abused by his father, who nevertheless worked overtime every evening at the Penny Bank to pay for his son’s education. When Murry wrote about his childhood later – in the third person – he could recall nothing but misery. ‘There was no sunlight in his memory at all. There was only gloom and grit and sordidness, amid which he had run like a drop of water in grey dust, complete and separate and hidden. . . Why had there been no relief from it all, not one lovely, calm, sunlit thing to look back upon? Why had he worked with terror in his soul at his grammar school when he had taken his scholarship? Why had he never a moment’s enjoyment of his own cleverness, even? Terror and darkness, terror and darkness . . .’ John Murry saw gaining a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital and then to Oxford as his only way out, though the slog of study involved ‘the complete obliteration of [my] childhood’. He emerged a nervous, insecure, guilt-ridden young man with ‘a devouring desire to love and be loved’. Unfortunately the spirit of his father – the penny pinching, joyless bank-clerk was firmly lodged in Murry’s soul.
Throughout his life, women were attracted to Murry’s vulnerability and the sadness they could perceive at the core of his personality. Katherine was no exception. She was drawn to him by the secret tragedies in her own life – some of which (like the story of her baby) were never told to him. But within two years of their first meeting, an utterly disillusioned Katherine had left Murry twice, though she always went back. He appears in her stories again and again, weak, ineffectual but well meaning – the ‘Man without a Temperament’ and ‘Je ne Parle pas Francais’.
Part of the problem was that, while she lived with Murry, Katherine found writing extremely difficult. After the early success with In a German Pension, ill-health and personal troubles as well as her unsatisfactory relationship and the need to earn her own living, restricted her ability to write anything but a few short sketches, reviews and literary journalism. She was relatively unknown outside a small circle where she was regarded as promising, but her potential as yet unrealised. This aggravated Katherine. After one dinner party with Virginia Woolf and her literary friends Katherine said she had felt all evening as if she wanted to jump up and shout ‘I, too, write a little!’ It was John Murry who was seen as the important ‘man of letters’; a career writer, editing weighty periodicals, churning out critical essays and biographies as well as a series of turgid novels, and expecting Katherine to support him – emotionally and sometimes financially. ‘Art is absolutely self-development’ Katherine observed, but for women it was ‘the hopelessly insipid doctrine that love is the only thing in the world, taught, hammered into women, from generation to generation, which hampers us so cruelly.’ Yet she was unable to prevent herself from falling into the trap, walking about ‘with a mind full of ghosts and saucepans and primus stoves’ and Middleton Murry calling from the back room ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea?’ Katherine coped with the help of a devoted female friend, Ida Baker, the woman Katherine referred to as her ‘wife’ and nicknamed L.M. It was Ida who cared for Katherine after she was diagnosed with TB shortly before her marriage in 1918. Ida accompanied her to France and Switzerland where Katherine spent long periods as her health deteriorated.
For the last five years of Katherine’s life – even after their marriage – the Murrys often lived apart and communicated by letter. They got on better that way. Theirs was a relationship constructed from words on paper across vast absences necessitated by Katherine’s ill-health and their mutually incompatible temperaments. When they lived together, their attempts at intimacy always foundered because the reality of their relationship could never bear comparison with the fictional entity they had created in their letters. There was also the invidious presence of the essential Ida. They were both unfaithful, but clung together like survivors of a shipwreck. For ten years, until Katherine’s death, they wrote to each other almost every day and both kept detailed journals.
In January 1923, Katherine was living at the Gurdjieff Institute at Fontainebleau, trying to achieve spiritual peace in the hope that by healing the mind she could also heal the body. Aware that she was in the final stages of tuberculosis, she still hoped that she could be cured. Although she had already said a final goodbye to John Murry when she left England in the previous September, she invited him to visit her at the Institute – perhaps aware that she had very little time left. Ida Baker was working on a farm nearby so that she could be close to Katherine and her diary entries record her emotional confusion. Having devoted her whole life to loving Katherine, she couldn’t understand why her affection was not reciprocated at the same level and why Katherine always preferred the inadequate Murry to herself. On the evening of Murry’s arrival, Katherine tried to run up the stairs to go to bed, began to haemorrhage and died in the arms of the family doctor – James Young. Murry was stunned, and the burden of organising the funeral and dealing with Katherine’s belongings fell to Ida who tried diligently to carry out Katherine’s instructions.
After her death Murry had what he described as a mystical experience, believing that ‘Katherine’s love survived her own physical death’ and that her presence would accompany him always. He vowed that he ‘would not let her die’ and proceeded to idealise their relationship, while having an affair with her friend Dorothy Brett – begun while Katherine was still alive – and another with Frieda Lawrence. But in the emotional chaos of bereavement he forgot to pay for Katherine’s funeral so that her body had to be moved into a pauper’s grave.
Dorothy Brett believed he was going to marry her and Frieda Lawrence also had hopes of a lasting relationship with him. They were very bitter when he became abruptly engaged to Violet le Maistre within a few months of Katherine’s death. His second marriage was a strange repeat of the first. Murry could have collected an Oscar for emotional inadequacy. ‘I couldn’t love anyone but a girl,’ he wrote in his journal. ‘I don’t know what Woman is: and never shall. Not that I have avoided Woman. It is simply that I can’t see, can’t make contact with Woman. She doesn’t exist for me.’
Shortly after Katherine’s death Murry married Violet le Maistre, a girl who was Katherine’s physical double and who also had ambitions as a writer. Violet was very young for her age – the product of a sheltered childhood. In an uncanny echo of his meeting with Katherine, Murry met Violet when she submitted some stories for the literary magazine he was then editing. He liked them and lent her a collection of Chekhov’s stories to read. A few days later he invited her to dinner, ostensibly to meet his younger brother Richard and it was then that she confessed to Murry that she had already fallen in love with him. Always susceptible, Murry succumbed to her adoration and gave her Katherine’s pearl ring to symbolise their engagement. Their first home, the Old Coastguard Station at Abbotsbury in Dorset, was bought with royalties from Katherine’s books. The furniture too was Katherine’s. Not surprisingly Violet was unhappy. The idyllic marriage she had imagined became something else. Her daughter wrote later that ‘My mother felt lost. Deeply in love with my father, she . . . found in this kind and loving man . . . a preoccupation with worlds she could not enter, that no living soul could penetrate.’
Murry’s brother Richard firmly believed that Violet had been ‘possessed’ by Katherine Mansfield. Violet’s son wrote afterwards, more perceptively, that Murry ‘unwittingly chose to see in Violet the heaven-sent reincarnation of his first wife’ and this delusion was to have tragic repercussions for the family. Still obsessed with Katherine and making a career out of her literary remains, Murry held himself emotionally detached from Violet. Her first response was to participate in Murry’s fantasy, subdue her own personality and make herself as much like her dead rival as possible. Violet cut her hair, wrote short stories in the Chekhov style and modelled herself on Katherine Mansfield so completely that even her handwriting became identical. When a baby daughter was born this blurring of identities was so complete that Murry wrote ‘I . . felt, quite simply, that Violet’s daughter was Katherine’s daughter, and I named her accordingly.’ The young Katherine Middleton Murry was believed by both parents to be a kind of spiritual re-incarnation of her namesake. She herself wrote later, with some anger, that ‘the myth and the mysterious presence of Katherine Mansfield, determined the very landscape of the soul with which I was born’. The immediate result of this identification was that Violet rejected her daughter. She was by now desperate for Murry’s love and attention in her own right.
Shortly after the birth of her second child a year later Violet was diagnosed with tuberculosis by the same doctor who had attended the dying Mansfield. Violet, on being informed she had advanced tuberculosis, told Murry in a hysterical outburst; ‘I’m so glad! I wanted you to love me as much as you loved Katherine – and how could you, without this?’ At Dr Young’s insistence Violet spent months in sanatoriums, without any visible effect. Friends thought it possible that she was so unhappy with Murry she walked willingly towards extinction. Doctors told Murry that Violet’s mental state certainly contributed to her demise. Her children were kept away from her in order not to contract the infection, though she seems already to have turned her back on them.
Murry’s diary entries concentrate mainly on his own sufferings. ‘How tired I am of listening to that cough of Violet’s. . . It seems to vibrate upon my spine,’ is the constantly recurring refrain. From the first diagnosis he refused to believe that Violet would recover, fearing that he could not cope with the pain he knew he would have to endure, having already been through it with Katherine. It was a very cruel fate, to lose two wives within such a short time from the same cause. Ted Hughes also had to endure this and even though he was a much stronger character than Murry, found it almost unbearable. Murry simply didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with it. Friends, observing the negative effect that he had on Violet’s spirits, took her to live with them in London for the last, painful weeks. Murry (who had had an affair with Dorothy Brett while Katherine was dying at Fontainebleau) almost immediately sought physical comfort with his house-keeper, Betty, who believed herself to be pregnant in the same month that Violet died.
Within three weeks of Violet’s death Murry had agreed to marry the aptly named Betty Cockbayne – an uneducated farmer’s daughter who had a reputation for ungovernable rages. Her father warned Murry what to expect, but he went ahead with the wedding. His third marriage was as violent, destructive and punishing as his critics could have wished. Violet was erased from his life and Murry made no attempt to keep her memory alive for their children. They later recalled that Katherine Mansfield was infinitely more real for them than their own mother. John Murry was already writing in his journal of his disappointment in them. ‘The difference between the life with my children that I dreamed of before they were born and the reality, is a masterpiece of irony. To think of the little pictures Katherine drew in the margin of one of her letters of ‘our children’, and then to think of the last ten years! And yet, in spite of all, my children are ‘our children’.
By the time he wrote this, Violet was no longer there to protest at his misappropriation of her offspring. But her successor Betty not only protested but subjected ‘Katherine’s’ children and their father to a barrage of abuse. Her own two children, she insisted, were her own – born from her own body – and she refused to let Murry have any hand in their upbringing. Unlike Violet, Betty was not afraid of the ghost of Mansfield, but Murry’s retreat into his study to ‘commune with the dead’ drove her to create scenes that left witnesses shaken and appalled.
The young Katherine and John were physically and emotionally abused by a stepmother who seemed to hate them. They also had to stand by and watch her battering the father they adored, who was powerless to stop her or to protect his children. It was a repeat of Murry’s childhood experiences and in the dark recesses of his psyche it was also a punishment he felt he deserved. Murry hid in his study writing. He was working on an account of his childhood and his relationship with Katherine which he published in 1936 and dedicated to Betty. He called it ‘Between Two Worlds’ taking its apt title from Matthew Arnold’s lines ‘Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born’. He also continued with the transcription of Katherine’s journals and letters and his decision to publish many of the latter was regarded either as an act of great courage or an exercise in masochism. His friends and family decided that he was scourging himself for his behaviour towards Katherine when she was alive. At the time he wrote: ‘I still shrink from any in which she is disillusioned in me – no matter how familiar they are. I still go sick in the belly with apprehension of them . . even though I know that in a day or two it will all be over, as though it had not been. God! How terrible are one’s failures in love. They haunt the secretest places of one’s soul for years and years – for ever.’
Katherine Mansfield was now his means of escape from an intolerable situation. He threw his energies into the creation of a co-operative farm which seems to have been an extension of his and Katherine’s dreams of owning a farm they called ‘the Heron’, still under the influence of D.H. Lawrence, in the days when he and Katherine discussed a community of like minds – ‘Rananim’ – where they would live and work together in complete harmony.
Eventually, after six years of violent marriage, Murry left Betty for Helen Young, wife of the doctor who had attended both Katherine and Violet. It was as though he was still trying to reach Katherine by proxy. Not surprisingly this relationship also failed to live up to his expectations. There was a brief (and scarcely credible) reunion with Betty which produced another child, before Murry was forced to accept that his marriage was unworkable. When he did, finally, find the courage to leave Betty, the children were left behind to endure further cruelty. The paragraphs of self-justification in his diaries are difficult to understand. It was a tragic situation. Murry, battered and bewildered by the failure of his personal life, unable to relate to his own children, or even perceive their suffering, was utterly desperate.
David Herbert Lawrence was born on the 11th September 1885, in a small terraced house in Nottinghamshire, the son of a coal miner. Lawrence’s father was well-liked but had a tendency to drown his depression in drink. His mother was religious, highly articulate and literate (she read widely and wrote poetry) and is generally regarded as the major influence in his life. She ran what used to be called a ‘parlour shop’ selling haberdashery from the front room of the cottage. There were four other siblings and a lot of family conflict. Lawrence once wrote ‘I was born hating my father’. He won a scholarship to Nottingham High School and became interested in literature, reading all twenty volumes of ‘The International Library of Famous Literature’, which his mother had bought by subscription. After he left school Lawrence became a pupil teacher before winning another scholarship to University College Nottingham in order to become certificated. His first post was in Croydon, with easy access to London, where Lawrence bought the English Review which published his first poetry. The editor, Edward Garnett, introduced him to the publisher Gerald Duckworth and gave him a great deal of encouragement. So did the society hostess Ottoline Morrell, who invited him to attend her ‘salons’ in London and then to one of her weekends at Garsington Manor, where he met some of the major literary figures of the day.
Lawrence suffered his first bouts of pneumonia as an adolescent and from then on had what was known as a ‘weak chest’. It rapidly became tubercular, but Lawrence ignored his symptoms until the disease was quite advanced.
Although physically attracted to men, Lawrence always had close female relationships. A six year engagement to Jessie Chambers, whom he credited with helping him to launch his literary career, was broken off in 1910, the year his mother died from cancer. It was a year of considerable emotional upheaval. Lawrence then became engaged to another intelligent, literary woman, Louie Burrows. This too was broken off a month before he met Frieda Weekley – the aristocratic, German wife of a Professor at Nottingham University – in 1912. Two months later they ran away together, travelling through Germany, Switzerland, and France, finally settling in Italy at a little coastal village called Fiascherino near La Spezia. After a protracted and bitter divorce, Frieda and Lawrence were able to marry in 1914. Frieda grieved for the three children she wasn’t allowed to see and it was a stormy and sometimes violent marriage.
After publishing poetry and short stories, Lawrence’s first novel The White Peacock, was published in January 1911 and his second – The Trespasser – in 1912. Sons and Lovers followed in 1913 and established Lawrence’s reputation, though initial drafts (under the title Paul Morel) were turned down because of the explicit content. His fourth novel, The Rainbow, was banned for indecency shortly after publication in 1915 and all remaining copies were ordered to be burnt. Lawrence’s agent was unable to find a publisher for Women in Love, which continued the story of the Brangwen family. It is clear from Lawrence’s letters and discussions with friends, that the character of Hermione Roddice was based on Ottoline Morrell. Her husband threatened to sue if the book appeared. Gerald Crich and Gudrun Brangwen were based on John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield. Rupert Birkin incorporated aspects of Lawrence himself and Ursula Brangwen drew on Frieda’s character.
Lawrence met Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry when they wrote to him in 1913 to ask for a story to publish in Rhythm – the magazine they edited together in London. When the Lawrences came to England the two couples met and established an immediate rapport. Katherine and John were witnesses at their marriage and Frieda gave Katherine her old wedding ring, which Katherine wore for the rest of her life. Katherine and Frieda never became real friends – Katherine’s affinity was always with Lawrence. There was tension in the relationship because Lawrence was deeply attracted to John, wanting to establish a ‘blood brother bond’ with him. John was also attracted to Frieda, with whom he had an affair after Katherine died. The two couples lived close to each other, first in Berkshire in 1914 and then in Zennor Cornwall in 1915. There were innumerable quarrels and the friendship was broken off several times. Lawrence once wrote to Katherine – a fellow consumptive; ‘You are a loathsome reptile stewing in your consumption. I hope you will die.’ Katherine understood Lawrence and even forgave him, writing in her Journal that ‘Lawrence and I are unthinkably alike’
During the first world war Lawrence was classified as unfit for service. He and Frieda were persecuted in Cornwall because of Frieda’s German nationality (her cousin was the German ace pilot Baron Manfred von Richthofen). They tried several times to emigrate to America (where Lawrence’s work was being well received) but couldn’t get the necessary visas. The Lawrences left England in 1922, visiting New Zealand and Australia before arriving in America. Lawrence decided to move permanently to New Mexico and tried to persuade others to join him in a community of like-minded people – the Rananim that he had discussed with Katherine and John. Only one of his English friends – the painter Dorothy Brett – agreed to go with him. They lived at Taos in New Mexico, but Lawrence travelled relentlessly in search of health, coming back to Europe in 1926, where he died four years later at Vence on the border between France and Italy. He was only 44.
copyright: Kathleen Jones
For a full account of Lawrence’s life and staggering list of publications, please follow the link to
In 1941 John Murry left Betty to live with the woman who would become his fourth wife – Mary Gamble. Many found their relationship incomprehensible, since Mary was approaching forty, extremely plain, and rather shy. But they defied convention to live together for fifteen years before they were legally able to marry.
Like Katherine, Mary was a strong, independent woman with her own income. Like Katherine she also had a female companion (‘Val’ Baker) whose presence Murry had to tolerate. As with Katherine and Ida, this friendship was also ambiguous, and Mary wrote of the ‘unkind and unimaginative remarks’ she had suffered when she and Val began to live together, from ‘the conventional, narrow minded folk, [who] could see little or no good in a real friendship based on love and trust.’ Her relationship with Val lasted the whole of her life and remained ambiguous.
Murry had met Mary as early as 1932 when she wrote to him, full of admiration after reading his books and listening to one of his lectures. In the years that followed there were several meetings – they were both involved with the Peace Pledge Union – and an intermittent correspondence until 1939 when the relationship suddenly deepened. The tragedy of Murry’s marriage to Betty and the fiasco of his relationship with Helen Young threw him into an emotional crisis. He wrote to Mary: ‘My hunger for a woman who will be gentle towards me grows month by month. And destiny has determined that the woman is you.’ The letter is full of Murry’s need. ‘Maybe it is only that I am tired, tired, tired. But that is what I want from you – rest from my weariness; the beating of my heart tells me that you are capable of the tenderness of love, and you have this wonderful and precious thing to give me . . . I want, I need terribly, to believe in love between a man and woman again.’ Not a single line offers Mary anything, but like all the other intelligent, independent women before her, Mary thought John Murry worth the sacrifice – ‘I wanted to take care of him forever; I felt that in my arms he was safe.’ She became his lover and they took a room together in London, although it took another two years before Murry was able to disengage himself from Betty and officially live with her. Mary’s one condition was that her friend Val, who had lived with her for more than ten years, should be part of the package. Murry is reported to have groaned ‘Oh god, not another Baker!’
A year after Murry abandoned Betty, his eldest daughter ran away from her step mother and came to live with Murry and Mary. A couple of years later his son Colin came too and Murry was in a position to try to make amends for his earlier behaviour towards his older children. His youngest son and daughter – Betty’s children – were not so fortunate.Far from being jealous of Katherine Mansfield and Murry’s devotion to her, Mary was actually grateful for Katherine’s influence on him. ‘Last night I came across these words of K.M. “At the end Truth is the only thing worth having; it is more thrilling than love, more joyful, and more passionate.” And as I read them I remembered how much John and I owed to Katherine. . . Oh Katherine, I never knew you, but so often I feel eternal gratitude for what you were.’ Katherine’s writings, and Murry’s about her, became Mary’s bible in her struggle to understand her husband. There were many other links to the past in their relationship. Katherine’s doctor, who had also attended Violet, was Mary’s doctor. The friend who had taken Violet in just before her death, was also one of Mary’s best friends.
Murry claimed to have finally achieved domestic happiness with Mary. He wrote in a letter that ‘Never . . has any woman given me such total and entire happiness as you have done.’ He credited this – not to his fourth wife’s absolute devotion to his needs – but to the influence of his first wives. ‘I can see Katherine and Violet lifting their eyebrows at one another when I write this: but they do it in a laughing, gay kind of way; and they quite agree. They say to one another: “But we taught him how to love.” And that’s true.’
Murry repeatedly compared his marriage to Mary with his relationship with Katherine. On their wedding day in 1954 he made a long entry in his diary comparing the two, very different, events. ‘The memory of my wedding to Katherine is a memory of the anguish, not the happiness of love. Yet today it seems that my wedding day is overflowing with happiness . . . it is extraordinary. Yet I firmly believe this happiness has grown out of that anguish.’
It was to Mary that he handed down the task of keeping the Mansfield torch alight when he died in 1957. By then his former life with Katherine Mansfield had begun to seem more and more like an idyll. He had even re-visited the villa they had occupied in Bandol, accompanied by Mary, a few months before his final heart attack. Shortly before he died he wrote; ‘I ask myself: “have I kept faith with my darling?” And I feel deep in my soul a great joy, because I know that I have. And then I feel strangely that I am in touch with her . . . it is as though she gazed into my soul . .’
He had also begun to look back on what he himself had achieved. ‘I do have moments of resentment and a sense of injustice . . . [although] I do not feel any overwhelming conviction of my significance as a writer. It’s possible . . . That I have simply dropped out of the picture, because I have not enough interestingness to be kept in it. Nevertheless, I do feel twinges of resentment, and a rather stubborn feeling that I am not quite so negligible as all that.’ Just before he died he acknowledged that ‘I have made of Love all of my religion. . . To search for . . the reconciliation of Heart, Mind, Emotion and Intellect – I have sacrificed whatever talent for art I possessed.’ It was an answer to those who questioned whether he should have spent so much time promoting Katherine’s reputation at the expense of his own writing.
Murry was still talking about Katherine as he lay in his hospital bed. Katherine, he said, would understand that he was ready for death. She would have given him permission to go when others – particularly Mary – were begging him not to leave. That Katherine’s presence should have been so strongly felt at his bedside is not surprising in view of the fact that he had spent thirteen turbulent years with the living Katherine Mansfield and thirty four with the legend he’d created. It was his most enduring personal relationship.
As with John Murry, Ida Baker’s life was irrevocably altered by her relationship with Katherine Mansfield. Ida had a severe nervous breakdown after Katherine’s death and said afterwards that she had never completely recovered. She also believed, like Murry, that she had a special connection with Katherine beyond the grave.
There has always been considerable speculation about the nature of Katherine and Ida’s relationship. But friends testify to Ida’s complete sexual innocence, and Katherine’s diaries and letters reveal that, although she relied on Ida’s support with various physical tasks like shopping and household duties, she felt considerable physical revulsion for her. Ida’s feelings for Katherine were of a different order. Friends suggest that Ida had in some way become totally fixated on Katherine early in their lives while they were still at school. When they met in 1903 Ida was vulnerable, having just lost her mother and made Katherine the total focus of her emotional life. This position never altered.
After Katherine’s death Ida looked after Murry because she believed that that was what Katherine would have wanted. Murry however, although needing to be looked after, did not want to live with Ida. So the relationship broke down and Ida made a dignified exit. She kept many of Katherine’s belongings, and all the letters that she and Katherine had exchanged after 1915.
By 1971, almost everyone who had known the Murrys had published their version of Katherine’s character and her relationship with her husband. Even Mary Middleton Murry wrote a memoir of her life with John Murry and his invisible other, called To Keep Faith, which she published in 1959. Antony Alpers had published the first full and supposedly objective biography in 1953, relying heavily on conversations with Katherine’s family (who were concerned to reveal as little as possible of her scandalous youthful exploits) and on the memories of John Murry. Alpers also visited Ida Baker, but made it clear that he did not put much reliance on her recollections or opinions, and his biography when it was published relied on Murry’s view and put Ida’s part in Katherine’s life in a rather poor light. It was at this point that Ida Baker was persuaded to tell her own story, to provide another perspective on Katherine and her life with John Murry by someone who had witnessed events at close quarters. Critics remarked that there was ‘the whiff of gunpowder’ about Ida’s memoir. Alpers’ betrayal figures large in its pages. ‘In 1947, [he] came from New Zealand to write a biography of Katherine. . . A friend . . told me he found him sincere and honest and thought I should help him as much as possible with his book. For four years I did all I could to interpret and explain Katherine’s life for him, and to tell him of those parts of which I alone had knowledge. I found later that he had not always accepted my interpretations, not trusting my knowledge and judgement and thinking among other things that I had been enslaved by Katherine and had suffered from that cruel sickness, jealousy.’
The memoir was particularly revealing of the author’s personality. The Mansfield scholar Margaret Scott stayed with Ida for several weeks around the time of its publication and could see quite clearly why, despite Katherine’s reliance on her, Katherine had found her so irritating. ‘I recognised [her] big helpless hands, her inconsequential observations, her lack of intellectual stringency. . . I could understand absolutely how desperately trapped one would feel if, because of ill-health, one could not escape.’
The big drawback of Ida’s memoir was that lack of intellectual stringency. She wrote from a memory which, at eighty three, was not entirely to be relied on for detail. Although frequently the sole observer of particularly important events in Katherine’s life (her early pregnancy, her mistaken marriage), Ida had for the sake of her friendship, often refused to ask questions and turned a blind eye to what was actually happening. At Katherine’s request, she had burned all the letters and diaries from this difficult period in both their lives. And when she recalled events later, Ida, totally innocent in worldly terms, often drew the wrong inferences. But she is not always wrong and even when small details and exact dates have gone awry there is a strong emotional and spiritual truth about her recollections.
Her assessment of Murry’s character seems to be particularly acute. ‘The guiding necessity of Murry’s life at the time seemed to be to find firm ground on which to stand. He needed the absorbed devotion of a patient, loving soul to stand by and help him resolve the tangled problems of his undeveloped personality, which struggled with a far more mature intellectual self.’ He relied on the women in his life to give him this ‘firm ground’, and when they needed things from him was totally unable to give them anything. Ida condemned his lack of generosity – not only on the emotional plane but in every other aspect of his life. Their last meeting was acrimonious. ‘By then he was printing everything of Katherine’s that he could get hold of, including all her private, personal papers, I was angry and told him it was very wrong.’ They never spoke to each other again, but Ida did invite his fourth wife, Mary and her companion Val to the publisher’s dinner to celebrate the publication of the memoir of her life with Mansfield. (A strange and bizarre event!)
The consequences of publication for Ida were tragic. In writing about Katherine she found that the comforting presence of her dead friend which had sustained her for so many years had vanished. ‘My treasured personal secret is gone – people talk and talk – till even I feel K.M. has gone too and just become “a writer Katherine Mansfield” . . . I do feel resentful perhaps at having made my secret K.M. just common property.’
Ida died shortly afterwards and there is now no longer anyone alive who knew either the private or the public Katherine. ‘Ownership’ of Katherine Mansfield seems to have returned to New Zealand, where her birthplace is a museum and a large part of the Alexander Turnbull Library is devoted to her manuscripts and a collection of donated artefacts including many that had belonged to Ida.