A glimpse of Katherine Mansfield

This week, partly prompted by strong public interest, the Alexander Turnbull Library has put out for viewing a small selection of newly acquired items relating to writer Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923). A wealth of new material relating to Mansfield has recently arrived at the library, included in six boxes purchased from the family of John Middleton Murry (1889–1957).

Murry was an influential editor and critic, and Mansfield’s husband. He was also responsible for publishing and promoting her work after her death; however, his selective editing – some would call it censoring – of her letters and journals falsely cast her as a saint. Among the papers, in Murry’s fastidious hand, is a note explaining the difficulty of his self-appointed (and much criticised) role of literary executor:

I had the choice between doing entirely what I liked with her papers and destroying as much as possible. But what did “possible” mean? It was “possible” for me, in one sense, to destroy them all; it was morally impossible for me to do any such thing. Quite deliberately, I chose to preserve them all.

It is to our benefit that he did, despite the use he made of them. Although this was probably the last sizeable group of Mansfield papers in private hands and therefore might be considered a remnant collection, it is in fact an immensely rich survival.

Katherine Mansfield's sketch and note to John Middleton Murry: 'This is the kind of place that would be so nice…'. UndatedKatherine Mansfield's sketch and note to John Middleton Murry: 'This is the kind of place that would be so nice…'. Undated.

The papers offer very personal insights into Mansfield, Murry, and their relationships – both with each other and with their circle of friends and literary contemporaries. They show Mansfield not as a saint, but as painfully sensitive, witty, at times fierce, ribald and playful. There are little-known and unpublished letters, sketches, fragments of stories and poems, and notes in Mansfield’s hand. Other gems include photographs, pressed flowers from a holiday in France, a hand-painted box, and her passport.

Correspondence and articles by other writers are also there, particularly among the large amount of material relating to Murry’s editorial activities, and include those by D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Richardson. Three decades of correspondence from Frieda Lawrence to Murry have been preserved, providing intimate evidence of the personalities and complex friendship between the Lawrences, Murry and Mansfield.

There is also material relating to Murry’s wives subsequent to Mansfield (there were three of them). Mansfield’s most recent biographer, Kathleen Jones, tells us of the harrowing time had by Murry after Mansfield’s death, when he came to realise his terrible treatment of her. An emotional cripple, he nevertheless longed for romantic validation, to the peril of Violet de Maistre, his next wife, who was a young writer, the image of Mansfield, and who, in another eerie mirroring of her predecessor, died prematurely of tuberculosis.

Katherine Manfield casts a challenging look at her photographer, London , c. 1913. Photographer unknown.Katherine Mansfield casts a challenging look at her photographer, London , c. 1913. Photographer unknown.

In the last years of her life Mansfield had grappled with an idea for a novel – which to her constant regret she could not get down on paper – in which a couple live in a triangular relationship with the ghost of a past lover. It seems that her novel took form in reality rather than on the page.

The material in the new acquisition enriches what is already the world’s foremost Mansfield collection. The Turnbull holds hundreds of her letters, her notebooks, writings, and artefacts such as her typewriter, a lock of hair, trinket boxes and jewellery. The new material is presently being catalogued by a team of very expert librarians, and will be available to all by October.

In the meantime, come and see the intriguing selection of new items on display, including Mansfield’s recipe for sherry-drenched orange soufflé, an unsent letter to the father of her stillborn child, and rare photographs. You can view them in the Alexander Turnbull Library Reading Room, on Level 1 of the National Library building on Molesworth Street. Opening hours are 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday.

By Fiona Oliver

Fiona is Curator of New Zealand and Pacific Publications at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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