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.