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Katherine Mansfield

Mansfield: Her Writing

KM's typewriter - one of the treasures in the Birthplace.
Photographer: Gabrielle McKone
Katherine Mansfield was a compulsive writer. Three volumes of her stories appeared in her lifetime. Her work has been translated into 26 languages, and in 1988, the centennial of her birth, five international conferences focused on her life and work. In addition to her stories, the letters and journals published by her husband, John Middleton Murry, reveal intimate details of her life and thoughts. He also published private papers, as well as unfinished stories and poems which KM had not intended for public scrutiny. More than ten volumes were published.

Early Writing
KM's first published stories were in the High School Reporter, the Wellington Girls' High school magazine, in 1898 and 1899.

While at Queen's College in London, she was described by a friend as “a girl of great vitality, impulsive and strong willed”. Other girls remembered her as greatly entertaining with her vivid imagination, flair for mimicry and ingenious sense of mischief. Her journal records “my mind was just like a squirrel. I gathered and I hid away, for that long “winter”  when I should rediscover all this treasure...”. KM wrote stories for the school magazine and became the editor.

Back in New Zealand in 1906, KM determined that she would become a writer. She had stories published in Australia in the Native Companion, her first paid writing. She rebelled against her family and New Zealand, “I feel absolutely ill with grief and sadness here - it is a nightmare...how people ever wish to live here I cannot think” .

The move to London
In 1908 KM left Wellington with its “singular charm and barrenness”  for the last time, and arrived in London intent on a literary career. Here she led an erratic, bohemian existence, which she later regarded as “a wasted shabby period”, and only published one poem and one story in the fifteen months after her arrival. She used her other talents to supplement her allowance by performing witty and entertaining skits at fashionable parties.

By 1910, she was writing for the New Age magazine, a weekly review of literature, politics, art and religion. In 1911, In a German Pension was published. Reviews spoke of “acute insight” and “unquenchable humour”. However, KM wrote in 1920, “I cannot have the German Pension republished under any circumstances. It is far too immature...it's not good enough” .

KM began submitting stories to Rhythm, a new quarterly edited by John Middleton Murry. The Woman at the Store was the first story published in this magazine.

In the journal entry for New Years day, 1915, KM resolved “this year I have two wishes, to write and to make money” . May saw her in Paris working on “my first novel”, The Aloe. (She never in fact wrote a novel, and said herself that she could never write “a whole novel about anything” ).

She also records at this time “Why haven't I got a real home - a real life...I'm not a girl - I'm a woman. I want things. Shall I ever have them? To write all morning and then to get lunch over quickly and to write again in the afternoon...”. And later “...I am a recluse at present and do nothing but write and read and read and write...” .

Early in 1917 KM was writing for the New Age again, and had a number of pieces published. She also worked again on The Aloe, renaming it Prelude, which was published by Hogarth Press. Virginia Woolf had at first considered KM “an unpleasant but forceful and utterly unscrupulous character”, but came to regard her as “the very best of women writers - always of course passing over one fine but very modest example”.  Bliss was also published in the English Review in 1918.

By the winter of 1918, ill with tuberculosis, KM knew she must again leave England, and although she briefly thought of a sanatorium, she rejected it as a kind of living death - i.e. she would be unable to write. In April 1919, KM returned to England, her last full summer there. She notes “I am writing... If only one can get ones stories written - if only one is allowed time enough!”  More stories were published in Athenaeum, as well as reviews and translations of Chekhov's diary. By this time, of course, she knew that time was running out.

After leaving England again for the winter, Bliss and Other Stories was published, by Constable. Some of her best stories were written during this time at Menton including Miss Brill and The Daughters of the Late Colonel.

Her final collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories, was published, and she had commissions for other stories. She knew now that her work was finally gaining wide recognition, but still felt that “life is only given once and then I waste it” . She dreamt of visiting New Zealand, and completed her last story, The Canary. In 1922 she recorded, “I cannot work...my spirit is nearly dead”.

In October 1922, KM went to Avon, and entered The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. She decided she would not write for three months. “I am at the end of my source for the time. Life has bought me no flow. I want to write, but differently - far more steadily” .

She died there on January 9, 1923.

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about this image

I want to work...I want to live with my hands and my feeling and my brain... I want to be writing.  Journal 1922.