A stainless steel statue of New Zealand’s greatest short story writer, Katherine Mansfield, was unveiled the other week in a city park in Wellington.
It’s incised with words from her stories, and captures her with her classic hairstyle – a Louise Brooks-style blunt cut that Mansfield insisted made her look like a poodle.
Mansfield – real name Kathleen Beauchamp – was born in Wellington in 1889 and remains a remarkable figure, beloved of biographers. She was the main topic of a university course I did, many years ago as an undergraduate, on how to write biography – and for good reason.
Writers, as people, always seem to be somehow attractive to write about; perhaps readers want to know what makes them tick. Most are less interesting than we imagine (I’m pretty boring myself, for instance).
But not Mansfield.
She clashed with New Zealand’s tightening social values and fled to London, where after becoming pregnant to Garnett Trowell, indulging in a one-day marriage to George Bowden and finally seducing Floryan Sobieniowski, all interspersed with at least one miscarriage and one abortion, she met John Middleton Murry and slotted into the Bloomsbury set – a dissipated, hedonistic world of illicit chemicals, salacious conduct and lives built around expressed angst and unrepressed desire.
At one point, her mother rushed across from New Zealand – insofar as one could rush in the first decade of the twentieth century – to have her wayward daughter packed off to a German spa and literally hosed down, a physical washing that did little to dislodge what by period standards was moral soil.
Mansfield went on to marry John Middleton Murry, though the salaciousness continued; they spent extended periods with D H and Frieda Lawrence – who, shall we say, were all more than just friends.
For Mansfield the lifestyle carried a cost; she contracted tuberculosis – and in those pre-antibiotic days, that was a death sentence. It has been argued that one side effect was intense creativity. Perhaps. But it was all cut short in 1923.
Afterwards she was idolised by her husband, her lapsed lifestyle overtaken by a cult of virtue and writing. It was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that some of the deeper – and more interesting – realities of Mansfield as a person began to emerge. Today her love letters have been published, and she has emerged as a much more rounded, fascinating, and colourful character than we ever imagined.
Just last year, several previously unknown stories of hers were discovered – dark, wild tales that nobody imagined she might have been capable of writing.
Mansfield’s remains a wonderful, tragic, fascinating story. A statue to her, in her home town, is long overdue
Do I like it? I have to admit, I got the impression that she’d been hit by one too many Cybermites and ‘upgraded’. But hey…
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013