Mary Middleton Murry

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.

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