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Katherine Mansfield
(1888–1923)

New Zealand's most famous writer, who was closely associated with D.H. Lawrence and something of a rival of Virginia Woolf. Mansfield's creative years were burdened with loneliness, illness, jealousy, alienation - all this reflected from her work in the bitter depiction of marital and family relationships. Her short stories are noted for their use of stream of consciousness and sharp portraits of characters. Like Anton Chekhov Mansfield depited trivial events and subtle changes in human behavior.

Katherine Mansfield was born in Wellington, New Zealand, into a middle-class colonial family. Her father was a banker and mother a genteel. She lived for six years in the rural village of Karori. Mansfield has told that "I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was, too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, that nothing at all." At the age of nine she had her first text published. As a first step to her rebellion against her background, she withdrew to London in 1903 and studied at the Queen's College, where she joined the staff of the College Magazine. Back in New Zealand in 1906, she then took up music. Her father denied her the opportunity to become a professional cello player - she was accomplished violoncellist. Her lifelong friend Ida Baker persuaded Mansfield's father to allow Katherine to move back to England in 1908, with an allowance of ?100 a year. There she devoted herself to writing. Mansfield never visited New Zealand again.

After an unhappy marriage with George Brown, whom she left a few days after weddings. Mansfield toured for a while as an extra in opera, spent some time in Bavaria, where she suffered a miscarriage. During her stay in German she wrote satirical sketches of German characters, which were published in 1911 under the title In a German Pension. Its stories had appeared in The New Age. On her return to London in 1910, Mansfield became ill with an untreated sexually transmitted disease, a condition which contributed to her weak health for the rest of her life. She attended literary parties without much enthusiasm: "Pretty rooms and pretty people, pretty coffee, and cigarettes out of a silver tankard... I was wretched."

In 1911 Mansfield met John Middleton Murry, a Socialist and former literature critic, who was fist a tenant on her flat, then her lover. Mansfield coedited and contributed to a series of journals. Until 1914 she published stories in Rhythm and The Blue Review. During the war she travelled restlessly between England and France. She met in 1915 her brother, and had an opportunity to remember her childhood, which served as a counterbalance to depressing war years. When her brother died in World War I, Mansfield focused her writing on New Zealand, re-creating in her fiction members of her family, grandmother, her parents, her brother 'Chummie.' 'Prelude', one of her most famous stories, was written in 1916. Mansfield had divorce from her first husband in 1918 and married John Murry. In the same year she was found to have tuberculosis. She and Murry became closely associated with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. When Murray had an affair with the Princess (née Asquith), Mansfield did not object to the affairs but her letters to Murray. "I am afraid you must stop writing these love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world."

In her last years Mansfield lived much of her time in southern France and in Switzerland, seeking relief from tuberculosis. As a part of her treatment in 1922 at an institute, Mansfield had to spend a few hours every day on a platform suspended over a cow manger. She breathed odors emanating from below but the treatment did no good. Without the company and friends, family, or her husband, she wrote much about her own roots and her childhood. Mansfield died of a pulmonary hemorrhage on January 9, 1923, in Gurdjieff Institute, near Fontainebleau, France. Her last words were: "I love the rain. I want the feeling of it on my face."

Her family memoirs were collected in Bliss (1920), which secured her reputation as a writer. In the next two years she did her best work, achieving the heigh in the Garden Party (1922). During her life only three volumes of her stories were published. 'Miss Brill' was about a woman who enjoys the beginning of the Season. She goes to her 'special' seat with her fur. She had taken out of its box in the afternoon, shaken out the moth-power, and given it a brush. She feels that she has a part in the play in the park, and somebody will notice if she isn't there. A couple sits near her. The girl laughs at her furry and the man says: "Why does she come here at all - who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?" Miss Brill hurries back home, unclasps the necked quickly, and puts it in the box. "But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying." In 'The Garden Party' (1921) an extravagant garden-party is arranged on a beautiful day. Laura, the daughter of the party's hostess, hears of the accidental death of a young local working-class man, Mr. Scott. The man lived in the neighbor. Laura wants to cancel the party , but her mother refuses to understand. She fills a basket with sandwitches, cakes, puff and other food, goes to the widow's house, and sees the dead man in the bedroom where he is lying. "He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane." She tells crying her brother who is looking for her: "'It was simply marvellous. But, Laurie - ' She stopped, she looked at her brother. 'Isn't life,' she stammered, 'isn't life - ' But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood."

Mansfield was greatly influenced by Anton Chekhov, sharing his warm humanity and attention to small details of human behavior. Her influence on the development of the short story as a form of literature was also notable. Among her literary friends were Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, who considered her overpraised, and D.H. Lawrence, who later turned against Murry and her. Mansfield's journal, letters, and scrapbook were edited by her husband.

 

 

 

 

 

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