Katherine Mansfield

The life of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield



Written by Kerry Monaghan

With a mercurial mind, at times untameable but unashamedly honest, one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed literary icons lived a brief but tumultuous life.

With a mercurial mind, at times untameable but unashamedly honest, one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed literary icons lived a brief but tumultuous life.

Born as Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, October 14th, 1888 in a small wooden house in Thorndon, Wellington, she was the third daughter of five siblings in a commercially and socially expansive family. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, had been born in the gold-prospecting fields of Australia, before immigrating to New Zealand and becoming a success in insurance, and serving both as a director and eventual chairman of the Bank of New Zealand in the early 20th century. Her mother, Annie Burnell Dyer Beauchamp had also been born in Australia, migrating to New Zealand with her family when her father was sent to Wellington to start a branch of an Australian insurance firm.

The Beauchamp family lived an idyllic life in Thorndon, but for young Kathleen (her stories were penned as Katherine) with all the privileges of being a middle child, she always believed herself to be different than her siblings. While her older and younger sisters and brothers would grow up to do everything expected of them by their parents and social peers, Kathleen’s refusal to conform or be pleasing in order to please others was stark. As a child, her resistance showed itself in the stubborn, direct scowl that could be seen in many family photographs along with relentless, point-blank penetrating questions to others that often disconcerted both her family and their social circle. As a highly imaginative child, she had a natural affinity to create her own fun and any adventures created in her head were as real as anything that happened outside of it. She was though, often labelled a liar and actress by her family for these imaginary tales making her develop a keener inner life that only divided her more sharply from her family.

As life in the nineteenth century progressed, so too did socio economic changes of Wellington and the rest of the country. Filled with the highs and lows of economic growth followed by the economic depression that began in 1879 and health inequality that contributed to the infectious diseases epidemic in Wellington in the late 19th century.

It was Wellington’s dirty secret of raw sewerage being pumped directly into its harbour that created its unsanitary living conditions causing horrific diseases such as typhoid and cholera and with it, imminent death. This era of infectious diseases cast a definite shadow over the household and sadly claimed a victim in Kathleen’s three-month old sister, Gwendoline who died of cholera in 1891. Not long after his youngest daughter’s death, Harold Beauchamp made the decision to move the family to a country home in Karori, no doubt fearing the safety of his family’s health as many more Wellingtonians also fled inland to escape the harrowing epidemics.

The move to the then rural Karori and Gwendoline’s death no doubt affected Kathleen, made apparent in her later writings, The Garden Party that addresses the risk of catching diseases from the ‘poverty-stricken people’ who lived in ‘little mean dwellings’ down the lane, In A Birthday, a character walks through Thorndon muttering "Everything here's filthy, the whole place might be down with the plague." But death had been a constant topic since the day she was born where background discussions of the household filled her earliest childhood consciousness, that fed the depression and despair of afflicted relatives and acquaintances within the family’s inner circles.

Once settled in Karori, Kathleen attended Karori Normal Primary school from age six to nine where she won a prize for her first written essay, titled, A Sea Voyage that was based upon a ferry trip across Cook Strait to visit relatives at Picton and Anakiwa. After finishing primary school, Kathleen and her two elder sisters transferred to Wellington Girl’s High school where her first published piece, ‘Enna Blake’ appeared in the school’s newspaper, The High School Reporter with a note from her editor, that “It showed promise of great merit”

By this time, the Beauchamp family had moved again to a grand house in Tinakori Road, Wellington, a house that reflected the increase in Harold Beauchamp’s wealth and status at that time as a new member of the Wellington Harbour Board and the board of the Bank of New Zealand. From the years 1900 to the end of 1902, all three Beauchamp girls attended the exclusive private school, Fitzherbert Terrace School, where Kathleen’s teachers found her to be surly and ‘imaginative to the point of untruth’. Plump, ink-fingered and moody, she saw herself as somewhat a misfit and no topic she was asked to write upon interested her, and she became careless and untidy. However, not everything was dour, she found joy in music lessons, playing the Cello, and a teenage awakening with her new found friendship with fellow classmate, Maata Mahupuku.

Maata Mahupuku, originally from Wanganui and also known as Martha Grace, was the daughter of Kahungunu Chief, Richard William Mahupuku (who died when Maata was just three years of age) and her mother, Emily Sexton who remarried shortly after his death.

Maata and Kathleen’s friendship was intense and close, but innocent enough and typical of teenage girls. It came as no secret in later years that Kathleen enjoyed romances with both men and women, so Maata was most likely Kathleen’s first female lover and was the subject of many journal writings by both Kathleen and Maata herself. However, their relationship was concerning to teachers, and was also not favoured by Kathleen’s parents who disproved of its intensity, and perhaps, as Maata was Maori, racism may have been prevalent in Kathleen’s family circle. Maata and Kathleen’s friendship continued by correspondence as by 1903, she and her sisters were enrolled at the Queens College in London, where Kathleen reconvened her cello lessons and worked as an editor for the school’s newspaper. It was while at Queens College she became particularly interested in the works of Oscar Wilde and of French Symbolists (a late 19th century art movement) and was widely accepted among her peers for her vivacious and charismatic approach to life and work.

It was here that Kathleen met fellow writer, South African, Ida Baker. They would become lifelong friends, although it would always be a love hate relationship till the day Kathleen died.

During her three years at College, she travelled extensively throughout Europe, especially Belgium and Germany where she revelled in new and exciting adventures and gave inspiration for future writings. Reluctantly returning home to New Zealand in 1906 by request of her family, Kathleen was desperate to return to Europe, and spent her time reading, practising her art and thinking about her future. For several months after her return Kathleen became more discontent with life and her rebellious and obnoxious moods returned in full swing, much to the displeasure of her family. By now, she was eighteen years old and found her parents wealth, and status unbearable, feeling constricted to her intellectual capabilities that she felt was ‘idling uselessly in Wellington without stimulation’

In 1908, her father finally relented and let her return to England where she spent the first few years in a Bohemian chaotic search for experiences, selling her cello and supplementing her allowance by performing musical skits at parties. It was during this time she sought out the companionships of the prominent Trowell family and began a passionate affair with one of the brothers and became pregnant as a result in 1909. The Trowel parents disapproved of this relationship and the two broke up. Hastily, Kathleen then entered into marriage with a singing teacher, George Bowden, 11 years her senior, they were married on the 2nd March 1909 however Kathleen left him the night of the wedding, before the relationship could be consummated. Upon hearing of Kathleen’s unpredictable ways, her mother, Annie arrived in England and dispatched her to a spa town in Bavaria, Germany, where Kathleen miscarried, and her mother promptly cut her out of her will on her return to New Zealand without her.

It was her time in Bavaria that had a significant effect on her literary outlook, where she was introduced to the works of Anton Chekov, and upon her return to London in 1910, published more than a dozen articles in a socialist magazine, The New Age and became involved with the editor, John Middleton Murray, of a new Avant Garde magazine, Rhythm. It was a tumultuous relationship that culminated in another marriage in 1918, although Kathleen left him twice in 1911 and 1913.

Kathleen’s health began to decline in the early 1900’s so to better her health she and Murray moved to Paris where she only wrote one story during her time there, Something Childish, But Very Natural’ before Murray was called back to London to declare bankruptcy from his former magazine. Kathleen continued brief affairs with both men and women during her adult life, often hinted at in her poems and short stories and death once again entered her psyche with the passing of her beloved younger brother, Leslie, a New Zealand soldier who died in France.

It was at the beginning of 1917 that Kathleen and John separated and her long-time friend, Ida Baker moved into their apartment. Here, she entered her most prolific writing period with several stories, published, including one by friend, Virginia Woolf and their publishing house, Hogarth Press. The story published by Hogarth Press, Prelude, was a story Kathleen had started writing in 1915 about the Beauchamps move to Karori. It is regarded as one of her most important works and established her reputation as a master of short fiction. By December 1917, with Kathleen’s health in further decline still, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

During her last years, Kathleen sought increasingly unorthodox cures for her tuberculosis to no avail and finally in October 1922, moved to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France where she died of a pulmonary haemorrhage in January 1923 and was buried at Cimetiere d’Avon, Avon (near Fontainebleau), France.


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