I discovered Katherine Mansfield at les fleurs bleues, a used bookstore in a medieval village in southern France. I was flying home to the States and wanted a book to read on the plane. You know the one. Not too large or bulky, but entertaining enough to get you through a boring flight.
On a high, dusty bookshelf stacked with English titles, I pulled out a slim, frayed book entitled A Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield.
Katherine Mansfield? Why did I know that name? Then I remembered a curious quote in Virginia Woolf’s journal: “Katherine Mansfield created the only writing I was ever jealous about.”
Perfect timing! I had a six-hour flight across the Atlantic to find out why Virginia Woolf considered this young author to be her only literary equal.
As I read through Mansfield’s short stories, like Miss Brill, The Fly and The Daughters of the Late Colonel, I understood Woolf’s jealousy. Every time I stopped to take a breath between stories, I asked myself again, Who is this extraordinary writer? I must find out.
Upon my return to Manhattan, I read several Mansfield biographies and then, even more fascinated by her sensational life, I turned to her voluminous diaries and letters. The more I learned about her, the more determined I became to resuscitate Katherine Mansfield so that others might be as inspired as I was by her remarkable story. So I read as much as I could about her and then got under her skin and told her story.
Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp was born in Wellington, New Zealand on October 14, 1888. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand, believed like all upstanding British “colonials” that his daughters should be educated in England. At age fourteen, Katherine and her two older sisters were sent to Queens College in London, a renowned progressive school for young women. They spent three years acquiring a liberal arts education. Katherine thrived on learning Latin and other languages, philosophy, literature, and music. She studied the cello, attended concerts, and frequented museums and galleries.
When her parents came to London to bring her home, she couldn’t bear to return to provincial New Zealand, but they wouldn’t allow her to stay in London without a chaperone.
On her unhappy voyage back to Wellington, she had a shipboard romance with a cricket player and back home she earned a reputation as a wild bohemian. She had brief affairs with both men and women, camped out with the Maoris in the jungle, and published scandalous stories under various noms de plume. Her explanation for what was considered then to be sinful behavior: Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare fiddle?
Finally, she persuaded her father to pay for her passage back to London. A bastion of upper class conservatism, her father believed poverty would drive Katherine back home and he gave her a mere pittance, just enough to cover her room and board. He miscalculated. She was more than willing to live in poverty, if she could fulfill her dream and become a famous author from the Colonies.
On July 6, 1908, at nineteen, Katherine, without a chaperone, which was unheard of at the time, embarked again from Wellington on a ship to England. She never returned to her homeland.