A close encounter with cyber Katherine Mansfield and her poodle hair

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.

Cyber Katherine Mansfield...I think...
Cyber Katherine Mansfield…I think…

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…

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


12 thoughts on “A close encounter with cyber Katherine Mansfield and her poodle hair

  1. Wow, quite a character! I guess I am way too boring even if I wrote the greatest story ever told no stature would ever be put up of me. But I kind of like my boring life because as a writer I can make up all kinds of fantasies of what my life could be.

    1. It took a while for the Mansfield statue to go up – she was too controversial in a variety of ways.

      Personally I’ll never be famous enough to have a statue put up for me – and it would be embarrassing. It’s not why I write. Besides, there are the awkward problems associated with pigeons… 🙂

  2. What an incredible statue! Somehow, I think she would find it amusing, at the least, and she might actually defend it. My impression is based upon your wonderful post as well as my very sketchy recollection of the story or two that I read by Katherine Mansfield. Like you, I read Mansfield during my undergraduate years. All in all, I am a true fan of the Bloomsbury group whose characteristics you describe quite accurately.Can you imagine their conversations?

    I really enjoyed this post, Matthew. I always learn something when I come to this blog.


    1. Thank you. I confess, as I’ve said, that I am not taken by this statue…maybe it’s that I am just so familiar with the real person – the abstraction of her, to me, seems too clinical, for someone of such colour. But looking at the statue from another perspective – isn’t it wonderful that the statue speaks so differently to different people! The essence of art is the way it can be received in so many ways – all of which is positive and underscores the fact that, as people, we should draw strength from our differences – as a way to also underscore our commonalities and help us all on what is, ultimately, a common journey, worldwide.

      As you say, I think Mansfield would have been piqued, at the very least, by the fact of it.

      I should add, in post-script, that when I did the course in 1983, a biography of her had just been published by Antony Alpers. A wonderful book – I still have my copy. My lecturer tried to get him up to Wellington from Christchurch to speak to the class about the methodologies. He couldn’t make it – because the university couldn’t afford to pay him, and as a writer, he couldn’t afford to simply jaunt up country, much as he would have liked to. A hard reality of the New Zealand scene – but, I think, realistically, of the scene anywhere in the world.

  3. Thank you for posting this. Mansfield is one of my favorite writers—in fact, I’ve made it my life mission to read all of her short stories. I seem to be stuck in the Modernist era, in particular Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, whose prose is as inimitable as it is vivid. Personally, I’m not too fond of the statue, but it’s good that she gets the acknowledgement she more than deserves. 😉

    1. I didn’t think the statue was too great either, it didn’t look a bit like her, except for the hair – and is something of an abstract interpretation. All I could think of was Dr Who. Her stories were just wonderful – and what a great aim to read them all! Though you’ll have to come to Wellington to capture all of them – the MS with her lost ‘dark’ tales, revealed just last year, is currently in Turnbull library. I haven’t got there to read them myself yet…

  4. I agree with you. I don’t particularly like the statue. First, it has no warmth or character. The rest, the writing etched on her looks weird. I think an open book with a few lines from one of her books would have looked better. For me, it has no artistic appeal.

    1. It’s a curious visual interpretation of her for sure, and certainly not to my liking either. As I mentioned above, all I could think of was Dr Who. But it’s bold, it’s shiny (for now) and I guess it’ll be around a while in central Wellington…And maybe it’ll pique passers-by to check out some of her stories, which is always a good result.

  5. I like it. Sleek, urban without being too out there!

    Welcome to the world of smartphones! You have joined the ranks of head-down persons who are addicted to their little devices. 🙂

  6. That is some statue! I love its striking uniqueness and, of course, the use of words. I can sense in it the tragedy and wonderfulness of her life you mentioned.

    Happy smart phone using! They’re groovier than I’d anticipated. 🙂

    1. Thanks. She was an extraordinary character, not least because of her ‘out there’ lifestyle. Uninhibited might be a better word, actually. And for all the way eyebrows were raised at the time, it gave her a worldliness that made her writing so wonderful. Real. Fantastic.

      My smartphone is still surprising me…still getting to grips with it. Groovy’s definitely the right word.

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