Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The 90th Anniversary of Katherine Mansfield's Death

Katherine's last photograph
Today is the 90th anniversary of the death of Katherine Mansfield - one of the icons of 20th century literature.  She died from tuberculosis, a couple of months after her 34th birthday, leaving behind 4 collections of short stories and a huge mass of unpublished journals, letters and fragments of fiction.

She died at Fontainebleau, in Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, haemorrhaging to death in front of her husband on the very day he had come from London to visit her.


Katherine had known she was going to die, though she preferred to ignore it and just get on with life.  Her struggle to come to terms with the death sentence that was advanced TB sometimes makes harrowing reading, but her courage is humbling.  Three months before she died, as she made her decision to go to Gurdjieff, she wrote in her diary:

'Risk! Risk anything!  Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices.  Do the hardest thing on earth for you.  Act for yourself.  Face the truth.'


I don't think for a moment that she believed that Gurdjieff could cure her with his spartan regime and musical exercises.  I think she went to find a safe haven, something a little like a hospice, away from the people she loved, whose grief had become a burden.  It was probably, she wrote in a letter 'the soul's desperate choice'.


In Katherine's notebook she writes of  what she wants. Not death and darkness and the paraphernalia of sickness;  but to feel that she is walking towards life and light.  She wants 'the power to live a full, adult, living breathing life in close contact with what I love - the earth and the wonders thereof, the sea, the sun.  All that we mean when we speak of the external world . . . I want, by understanding myself, to understand others.  I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be - (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it's no good - there's only one phrase that will do) - a child of the sun.'

Strange things happen after the death of an author.  They either sink gracefully from view, or their work develops a life of its own, marching forward into a future they could never have imagined, read by people in bizarrely different circumstances, finding meanings they never consciously intended.  In Katherine Mansfield’s case, her husband, the editor and critic John Middleton Murry, was so full of guilt at the way he’d treated her when she was alive, he made it his life’s work to preserve and publish everything she’d ever written.  His obsession with her ruined the lives of his subsequent wives and created a poisonous legacy for his children and grandchildren.  His second wife was so desperate for his attention that she turned herself into a replica of Katherine Mansfield in order to please him.  Murry really believed that their daughter was in some way ‘Katherine’s daughter’ and that’s what he insisted she be called. The damage percolated through three generations.  But Murry’s obsession did mean that Katherine’s work was preserved for the future and her genius, both as a writer of fiction and a memoirist, were recognised.
John Middleton Murry at work
It was Katherine’s private journals that I fell in love with when I was 16 - the personal journey of the young woman from New Zealand, adrift in London, lost in a quagmire of love and ambition, and negotiating those treacherous gate-keepers of literature - the Bloomsbury lions.   Her courage in facing her own personal tragedies - giving birth to a still-born baby on her own in Germany as a disgraced teenager, the diagnosis of TB, her belief in love as a healing force - still moves me.  Then there were her intense relationships with DH and Frieda Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and the American painter Anne Estelle Rice.  She went to parties in Paris where Modigliani and Beatrice Hastings threw each other out of windows and set alight to the apartment; attended seances with Aleister Crowley; spent evenings with Bertrand Russell and Lytton Strachey. 

This was a woman who made the most of her short life, even as she trailed like a gypsy from health resort to health resort, frantic to find a cure.  Katherine was a very remarkable woman as well as a brilliant writer and her early death was a tragic loss, not only for her friends and family, but for literature.




 Within the last couple of weeks Neil and I have published an e-edition of my biography (originally published by Penguin NZ and Edinburgh University Press in UK).  I’ve updated the biography to include new information that has come to light in the last few weeks (exciting new discoveries!) and included lots more photographs from my own archives.  It's very reasonably priced at £5.10, so even the most impoverished Mansfield fan can now afford it!




Available on Amazon.co.uk
on Amazon.com
and on Kobo 

6 comments:

  1. I am currently rereading your biography of Katherine Mansfield in the ebook format, with lots of new data and pictures. I thought I had read all of her short stories, 85, until I received the University of Edinburgh complete edition of her work and saw there are in total 220 works. I was moved by your post. There is much we will never know about Mansfield but you have helped us a lot in knowing her and her work. Her short stories are read all over the world, not just in English language countires. I can track readership based on hits on stories on my blog.

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  2. Thanks Mel - she was such an extraordinary writer as well as a wonderful person. I'm very grateful for the work you've done in introducing her writing to a whole new international community of readers. Your blog is fantastic!

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  3. A second edition!

    Does that mean the first you gave me is more valuable? :-)

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  4. While there's life there's hope Al!

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  5. And I have just bought this - my first electronic book purchase! (I use a Kindle for work - downloading typescripts to assess - but have been waiting to see what I'd try on it for my own pleasure.)

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  6. Thanks for buying it - all writers need to eat! Hope you enjoy it. She's such a wonderful writer and her life is extraordinary.

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