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.