Biography of Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp on October 14, 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand to Harold and Annie Beauchamp. Harold began his professional life as a clerk and eventually became partner at Bannatyne and Co., an importing firm. Later he went on to great success as Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand and was knighted for his services to the community. Annie was a devoted wife and socialite.

Katherine Mansfield was the fourth surviving daughter of the family; her sisters were Vera, Charlotte, and Jeanne. Mansfield’s grandmother and two aunts also lived in the small house in Wellington where she was born until the Beauchamps relocated to Karori, New Zealand. There, Mansfield’s beloved brother, Leslie, was born. She enjoyed the best years of her childhood in Karori and used it as the setting for several of her short stories including “The Doll’s House,” “Prelude,” and “At the Bay.” The family returned to Wellington in 1898 and lived in a much larger home to reflect their increasing wealth and social status. This setting was incorporated into “The Garden Party.”

After Mansfield graduated from Wellington Girl’s College, she joined her three older sisters at Queen’s College in London in 1903. While there Mansfield became a proficient cellist, published her first short stories in school newspapers and literary magazines, and decided on the professional name “Katherine Mansfield.” During her college years Mansfield was particularly interested in the works of Oscar Wilde and the French Symbolists. As editor of her college’s newspaper, Mansfield found her life’s work and decided to become a writer. While at Queen’s College, she met Ida Baker aka Lesley Moore, her friend and lifelong companion.

After three years abroad, Mansfield returned to New Zealand and her family. She began to write short stories in earnest and was first published in the Native Companion, an Australian publication. She also began a sexual relationship with two women at this time, Edith Bendall, an artist, and Maata, a Maori princess. Tiring of New Zealand, Mansfield wanted to return to leave the island and made her displeasure known to her family. She wrote in her journal that all she wanted from life was power, wealth, and freedom; she had no interest in love and marriage and resented that women were taught from a young age to seek them out. Her family finally relented and in 1908 Mansfield set out for Europe never to return to her homeland.

Mansfield led a bohemian life, rarely settling in one place for long and living from one hotel to the next. Her father continued to support her financially, sending her a hundred pounds a year while she traveled. She was always observing her surroundings and finding her characters in the people she met. Within the first year of her stay in Europe, Mansfield began a love affair with Garnet Trowell, a friend of the family and the brother of her former lover. Mansfield became pregnant presumably by Garnet but had married a man named George Bowden who she left on their wedding night to return to Garnet. Annie Beauchamp, Mansfield’s mother, arrived shortly thereafter and took her daughter to a Bavarian spa to have the baby. Annie returned to New Zealand and cut her daughter out of her will. In the meantime, Mansfield suffered a miscarriage.

Mansfield returned to London with the help of a loan from her friend Ida Baker and published several works of short fiction and articles for various literary magazines. In 1910, she began an affair with Beatrice Hastings, an English writer and critic, who took Mansfield to Germany where her experiences there influenced her first published collected work entitled In a German Pension in 1911.

In the same year, Mansfield met her future husband, John Middleton Murry, editor of the avant-garde magazine Rhythm who at first rejected Mansfield’s work but later published “The Woman at the Store,” a story of mental illness and murder. Mansfield began a relationship with Murry soon after they met despite Murry’s financial difficulties. They fled to South East England in the hopes of improving Mansfield’s sudden ill health and then moved to Paris in 1914. Murry left Mansfield in France to return to England to declare bankruptcy when his magazine folded. Although they considered themselves a couple, the two were frequently at odds with one another and had extramarital affairs. After a brief reconciliation with Murry, Mansfield returned to France during World War I and chronicled her relationship with Francis Carco, a French writer, in her story “An Indiscreet Journey.”

On her return to England, Mansfield spent time with her brother, Leslie, who had joined the army. Unfortunately he was killed in October 1915 during a training accident. Mansfield’s grief over her brother’s death greatly influenced her work and she used New Zealand as a frequent setting for many of her short stories, especially in The Garden Party and Other Stories in homage to their childhood memories.

Plagued with her own ill health, Mansfield returned to Murry and set up house next to fellow modernist D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. Their friendship with the other couple was often spoiled by a competitive jealousy between Mansfield and Lawrence, as was the case for Virginia Woolf, so often quoted on her friendship with Mansfield. They were jealous of her craft and her overpowering personality. Lawrence once famously wrote to Mansfield and told her that he hated her and wished she would die. Incidentally Mansfield may have contracted the tuberculosis that would later kill her from Lawrence who was already suffering from the disease in 1915.

Mansfield’s publication of “Je ne parle pas francais” and “Bliss” in 1920 secured her reputation as a writer and opened her social life to Europe’s literary elite. She married Murry in the same year and moved to Hampstead with Ida Baker in tow. Mansfield was also officially diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1920 and could no longer spent winters in harsh England. By autumn she went to Italy with Baker to convalesce. There she wrote “Miss Brill” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel.” The Garden Party and Other Stories was published in 1922 and her last of collection of short fiction. Constantly moving from one country to the next in search of a cure for her ailment, Mansfield continued to write of New Zealand until her death on January 9, 1923 in Fontainebleau, France after a brief stay in a spiritual commune.

Much of her work was unpublished before her death and her husband took charge of her finished work and set to publishing her remaining short stories, letters, and journals. Mansfield’s legacy as one of the most prolific short fiction modernists of the twentieth century endures to this day.

Study Guides on Works by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield penned The Doll's House in 1922 whilst suffering desperately from an advanced case of tuberculosis. It first appeared i the publication The Nation and Athenium periodical, and one year later was the title story in a collection...

Katherine Mansfield wrote “The Fly” in 1922 during a period of intense emotional stress. Still grieving over the loss of her brother resulting from a military training accident shortly before he was to deployed to France at the commencement of...