Katherine Mansfield’s hair

The exhibition 'Death & Desire: Hair in the Turnbull Collections', currently on at the National Library, features the hair of Katherine Mansfield, weirdly undiminished by time.The exhibition Death & Desire: Hair in the Turnbull Collections, currently on at the National Library, features the hair of Katherine Mansfield, weirdly undiminished by time.

Dead famous

The Turnbull Library has not one but two locks of hair that once grew on the head of this country’s most famous – and perhaps most fetishised – writer. The cult of personality that surrounds Katherine Mansfield is remarkable, and 130 years after her birth it continues to intensify, the ripples she sent into the world growing and widening and taking on a life of their own.

You could argue that it is the stunning fact of her short, tragic life that provokes our fascination. But other of our women writers’ lives were no less devastating: Janet Frame (whose mother, incidentally, was once housemaid to the Mansfield family) certainly had her moments – her two sisters drowned in separate incidents, she miscarried a baby, and her imagination was misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, causing her to be sent to asylums where she received over 200 electric-shock treatments but narrowly escaped a lobotomy). And Robin Hyde’s life, too, was no less awful – addicted to morphine, she too lost a baby and had to give up another, her attempted suicide and nervous breakdowns led her to long periods of time in asylums, finally killing herself with poison. The shining works of these women, despite their hardships, outlives them, but it is only the body of Mansfield which is still fresh in the public imagination.

Lock of Katherine Mansfield's hair. ca 1913Lock of Katherine Mansfield's hair. ca 1913. Ref: Curios-018-1-012

The ponytail

Katherine’s ponytail came to the Library in a black tin trunk that was part of the Estate of her husband John Middleton Murry. Also in the trunk was a scrapbook of material relating to Katherine’s brother Leslie, a few letters, cheque books, account books, and copies of manuscript poems.

Katherine’s bobbed hair would become her trademark look. She cut off her ponytail (it’s almost half a metre long) some time between 1908 and 1911, in a bold act of defiance and a rejection of her Victorian childhood. They were turbulent years: she experimented with sexuality and with drugs, got married and left her husband the next day, got pregnant and deliverd a stillborn baby alone in a hotel room. She destroyed her writing, letters and photos from this period, but kept the ponytail – it was a part of her, after all, and perhaps a reminder of a more innocent time that was by then irretrievable.

The lock of hair

The second of the Mansfield locks was left in a cottage rented by John Middleton Murry after his wife’s death. He worked there, drastically cutting and restyling Katherine’s literary remains for publication. Why did he bring the hair with him? Did he leave it behind accidentally, or intentionally?

If he was trying to forget his dead wife, he could not. Although he quickly re-married, the resemblance of Violet le Maistre, his new wife, to Katherine was remarkable – similar in looks, with the same chestnut hair, also a writer, and also to die prematurely of TB. The two women converged in life and in death. During his courtship with Violet, Murry repeatedly dreamed of Katherine lying in her coffin, ‘swathed in black and white … with her head lifted. She was not dead, and she had been struggling (for life?) below’. When the couple had a daugher, she was named Katherine.

Fritz Eichenberg's depiction of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.A tormented Heathcliff digs up Catherine’s grave. Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg in the 1943 edition of Wuthering Heights.

This playing out of this gothic obsession brings to mind Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights. Maybe – and Murry was after all a literary critic – this was self-styled. Murry seems to be casting himself as a kind of Heathcliff character, haunted by the death of his soulmate, also, of course, called Catherine. If not quite the Yorkshire moors, a country cottage may have been considered adequately bleak and isolated, and there, with the lock of hair before him, he may have re-imagined the famous scene where Heathcliff digs up Catherine’s grave because he wants to hold her again.

The lock of hair is a vector for Katherine’s presence, both intimate and physical, and Murry’s feelings of guilt, grief, and his violent need for physical connection, which he had by then found in the body of his dead wife’s living surrogate. But given these intertwined identities, whose lock of hair is it? Is it Katherine’s – or could it be Violet’s?

Death & Desire: Hair in the Turnbull Collections is now showing in the Turnbull Gallery on Level 1 of the National Library of New Zealand, until 7 September. It is part of the exciting KM130 Festival programme, being held at venues around Wellington until mid-October.

By Fiona Oliver

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

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