John Middleton Murry’s Third Marriage

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.

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