Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life

What a relief it is to be able to pick up a book again after two days of being committed to activities that forbade it. I read Tomalin’s biography of Katherine Mansfield with my copy of Virginia Woolf’s Vol 1 Diary close at hand, to revel in Woolf’s dismissal of Mansfield’s hubby Murry and delight in Woolf’s enthusiasms about KM herself. (April 1919: “I had tea with Katherine yesterday & Murry sat there mud-colored & mute… The male atmosphere is disconcerting to me. Do they distrust one? despise one? & if so why do they sit on the whole length of one’s visit?” VW also includes an amusing anecdote about hearing Murry drone on and on about his own accomplishments but VW fearing she’d be late for dinner interjects a brief comment about her own novel, which sends Murry spiraling back to earth … “d’you know I must be going.”) VW and KM famously shared high opinions of each other’s work, and the biographer grants credit for VW’s shift away from the traditional novel structure to KM’s review of Night and Day, who called it “Jane Austen up-to-date.”
In the intro, Tomalin calls out

Her life was essentially a lonely one. She traveled too far outside the boundaries of accepted behavior for her family to feel she was one of them, but she did not find herself at home in any other group, nor did she make a family of her own. The particular stamp of her fiction is also the isolation in which each character dwells. Failure to understand or to be understood is endemic in Mansfield… Family life may have a complacent surface, but beneath it fear and cruelty stalk. In one of her most memorable images a good wife imagines giving her husband little packets with her feelings in them, and his surprise as he opens the last packet to find it full of hatred. Hatred was her favorite emotion.

Mansfield escaped her girlhood home of New Zealand and made her way bravely as a writer in London, although also supported by a modest allowance by her wealthy father. She lived large, free, and shacked up with various men. After becoming pregnant, she hastily married another man whom she then ignored and had an affair with another man who gave her gonorrhea, a disease that would eventually kill her through weakened immune system via tuberculosis. She inexplicably ends up with John Middleton Murry, a flop of a writer whom none of her talented friends ever really liked (including DH Lawrence). Upon the outbreak of war, Murry hurried to enlist, only to change his mind on the bus ride home, going then to his doctor to get an excuse about TB. All in all, this was a lovely biography of a writer whom we’ve all more or less turned our backs on this century.