Katherine Mansfield lived only thirty-four years and in that short time produced but a modest body of work, mostly short fiction. Normally, such circumstances would almost guarantee obscurity, since very few fiction writers have been able to establish reputations without at least one significant novel. (Edgar Allan Poe and Anton Chekhov are among Mansfield’s few peers in this regard.) This being the case, it is particularly remarkable that Claire Tomalin is the third biographer in a decade to chronicle the short, tragic life of Katherine Mansfield. Jeffrey Meyers’ Katherine Mansfield (1978) and Antony Alpers’ definitive The Life of Katherine Mansfield (1980) would seem to leave little room for fresh information or insights. What can Tomalin claim to provide as justification for yet another biography?
To her credit, Tomalin faces this question on the opening pages of her study and offers as justification her reinterpretations of certain key events: Mansfield’s sexual experimentation, which led to gonorrhea in 1909; her being blackmailed in 1920 by the same man who gave her this disease; and her influence on D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Above all, in Tomalin’s words, “It could even be said that her story hinges on a single physical fact. By becoming pregnant during the first months of her passionately sought freedom in London, she set in motion a sequence of events which ran to her death fourteen years later. . . .” In addition, Tomalin is the first woman to analyze objectively Mansfield’s life and work. If Tomalin’s biography does not offer startling new revelations, the shift in emphasis her book provides is reason enough to commend it to anyone familiar with Meyers’ or Alpers’ works, and the lively and frank manner of her reporting are more than sufficient to recommend it to new readers. This is, in short, a fine if somewhat limited piece of work.
Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp was born in 1888, the third daughter of Harold Beauchamp, a successful New Zealand banker whose life was sufficiently interesting and accomplished to warrant its own autobiography. Mansfield’s mother was a typical woman of her time and class, determined to rear her daugthers as suitable wives and social ornaments. From the start, the chubby, bookish Mansfield was a rebel and outsider; eventually, she was written out of her mother’s will. After a series of schools in Wellington, Mansfield and her sisters were allowed to attend Queen’s College in Harley Street, London, from 1903 to 1906. Queen’s was unusually progressive for its time, stressing individualism, academic achievement, and self-motivation rather than the usual stifling regimen of an English girls’ boarding school. Here Mansfield met Ida Constance Baker, her devoted, almost slavish, friend, whom she alternately loved and mistreated for the rest of her life. This friendship and these years in London were crucial to Mansfield’s development, for they helped to form her intellectually, artistically, and psychologically, particularly by fostering an inability to remain for long in one place.
After the freedom and glamour of London and Queen’s, Wellington appeared provincial and dull. Mansfield tried to immerse herself in the local artistic life, but finally in 1908 she was able to secure a modest allowance of one hundred pounds a year and her father’s permission to return to London. Edwardian London was awash with anti-Victorianism, and Mansfield quickly caught the spirit of emancipation. When a brief affair left her pregnant with Garnet Trowell’s child, she hastily and duplicitously married George Bowden, whom she promptly left. The following year, Mrs. Beauchamp came from New Zealand to accompany Mansfield to Europe, where she miscarried. Shortly thereafter, she met Polish refugee Floryan Sobieniowski, who introduced her to Chekhov and swept her off her feet. Both actions were disastrous: The affair left Mansfield with gonorrhea, from which she suffered for the rest of her life, and from Chekhov she plagiarized her first successful short story, “The Child,” for which Sobieniowski was later able to blackmail her. (Wisely, Tomalin places the...
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