Katherine Mansfield, Master Short Story Writer
By Nava Atlas | On September 15, 2018 | Updated April 28, 2023 | Comments (2)
Katherine Mansfield (October 14, 1888 – January 9, 1923), best known for her mastery of the short story form, was born in Wellington, New Zealand as Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp.
Mansfield is recognized for revolutionizing the modern English short story.
She enjoyed a comfortable childhood as part of a well-to-do family. A serious student of the cello, she first expected that music would be her career. Still, she found the colonial Edwardian atmosphere stifling and was inspired by rebels like Oscar Wilde.
According to her biography, Katherine Mansfield: A Life by Antony Alpers, “she gave early evidence of the impulsiveness, the intensity, the impatience with convention which she would pour into her later life.”
Her pretension of grandeur are reflected in this odd quote: “I like to appear in any society – entirely at my ease – conscious of my own importance, which in my estimation is unlimited, affable and very receptive. I like to appear slightly condescending, very much of le grand monde.“
A new life in Europe
Rejecting her bourgeois background, she moved to London in 1903 to attend Queens College. There, influenced by the heady literary scenes of the emerging Bloomsbury circle and others, she began writing in earnest, determined to make a name for herself.
New Zealand felt alienating to her upon returning from her studies. Reflecting on that time she later wrote to a friend in a 1922 letter:
“I am a ‘Colonial.’ I was born in New Zealand, I came to Europe to ‘complete my education’ and when my parents thought that tremendous task was over I went back to New Zealand. I hated it.
It seemed to me a small petty world; I longed for ‘my’ kind of people and larger interests and so on. And after a struggle I did get out of the nest finally and came to London, at eighteen, never to return, said my disgusted heart.”
Exploring the short story form
In 1908, firmly ensconced in the bohemian life in London, she began writing short stories. Her first collection was published in 1911 and reflected a certain disillusionment with her native country. Titled In a German Pension, it received favorable reviews and was praised for “acute insight” and “unquenchable humour.”
She went on to contribute stories to Rhythm, an avant-garde literary publication. with her partner and husband-to-be, literary critic John Middleton Murray.
Mansfield’s younger brother Leslie, a World War I soldier, was killed in 1915. This devastated her. She found some solace in redirecting her grief into a kind of emotional debt to his memory, and to the shared experiences in their native land of New Zealand. The short stories in Prelude (1918) that evoked these memories tenderly.
The 1920 collection Bliss and Other Stories (1920) followed by The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922) sealed her reputation as a master of the short story form. The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories (1923) and Something Childish (1924) were published after Mansfield’s untimely death.
Some of her most highly regarded stories include “At the Bay,” “The Voyage,” “The Stranger,” and “Daughters of the Late Colonel.”
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Many lovers and tortured relationships
In her brief life, Mansfield had a great many lovers, both male and female; her bisexuality was known to her from adolescence. Her relationship with a childhood friend, Garnet Trowell, when both were twenty, resulted in a pregnancy that she miscarried.
Mansfield had a somewhat tormented friendship with fellow author D.H. Lawrence, who used her as the model for Gudrun in Women in Love. Famously, she had a disastrous one-day marriage to George Bowden.
Her most tumultuous relationship was with the man with whom she had a long love affair and then married, John Middleton Murry, whom she met in his capacity as an editor of a magazine to which she submitted work. Though their relationship began in 1912, she was unable to marry him until 1918, when she finally obtained a divorce from her first husband.
Friend and rival of Virginia Woolf
An odd rivalry percolated between her and Virginia Woolf, who said of Mansfield, “I was jealous of her writing. The only writing I have ever been jealous of.” On the other hand Woolf wrote, “The more she is praised, the more I am convinced she is bad.”
However, though Mansfield and Woolf have long been painted as bitter rivals, they were actually quite close as friends and as writing colleagues.
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An untimely death from tuberculosis
Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917 but continued to write on a daily basis until she could no longer do so by 1922. Fighting mightily to combat her illness, she entered the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France.
Sadly she died there three months later, in 1923, at the age of 34. Before her tragic death from tuberculosis in 1923. Toward the end of her life, she searched for truth in the “spiritual discipline” teachings of the Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff.
The legacy of Katherine Mansfield
Even though her career was cut short at a young age, it’s widely accepted that Mansfield revolutionized the English short story. According to The Penguin Companion to English Literature:
“The quiet clarity of detail, the symbolic use of objects and incidents presented with extraordinary physical accuracy, the cunning distillation of atmosphere, are the outstanding features of her stories, which have something in common with those of Chekhov.”
Her legacy is summed up on the official Katherine Mansfield site:
“She was a writer of short stories, poetry, letters, journals, and reviews, and changed the way the short story was written in the English language. She was a rebel and a modernist who lived her short life of 34 years to the full.
Her life spanned a time when gender roles for women underwent a radical change. Katherine Mansfield was among an emerging female professional class and saw herself as a writer first, a woman second.”
In the late 1920s, her husband John Middleton Murry edited collections from her journals and letters.
More about Katherine Mansfield
On this site
- 7 Gutsy Quotes on Life’s Challenges
- Courageous Quotes by Katherine Mansfield
- Envy & Inspiration: The Friendship of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield
Full text of short stories
- “Bliss ” (1918)
- “Miss Brill” (1920)
- “The Garden Party” (1920)
- “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” (1920)
- In a German Pension
- Something Childish But Very Natural
- The Garden Party & Other Stories
- Mansfield Notebooks: Complete Edition
- The Collected Stories
- Bliss and Other Stories
Biographies about Katherine Mansfield
- Katherine Mansfield: A Darker View by Jeffrey Myers
- Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin
- Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller by Kathleen Jones
- Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf by Angela Smith
- Katherine Mansfield House and Garden – Wellington, New Zealand
- Inventory of the Mansfield Papers 1903-1942 – The Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois