Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2011

Katherine Mansfield The Storyteller (2010), by Kathleen Jones

The first thing I thought when I picked up this book from the library was, how can anyone write a biography 524 pages long when the subject died aged only 34?

But any doubts I held that this might be a windbag bio padded out with banal detail were soon dispelled and I read on, enthralled, for nearly three hours before I was interrupted by The Spouse offering coffee and I realised that Sunday morning was half gone.  I had just reached the part where Katherine Mansfield had married George Bowden on an apparent whim and abandoned him the day after the wedding…

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)  is often said to be New Zealand’s finest writer and the inventor of the modern short story.  Her major collections, In a German Pension, and The Garden Party (see my review) are brilliant, but Mansfield contracted TB and never finished the novel she so dearly wanted to write.  Had modern diagnostic techniques and antibiotics been available, her legacy would have been much greater, but, desperate to finish what she could, Mansfield was extraordinarily prolific despite spending her last years in great physical and psychological distress.

She led an extraordinary life.  Even if you’ve never read anything by Mansfield, it’s a fascinating story which defies quick summary.  Rival biographers, including Mansfield’s second husband John Middleton Murry, are spoiled for choice with a rich repository of journals and letters and yet frustrated by the destruction of some material which would have revealed some of the more enigmatic aspects of the writer’s life.   This is presumably why the Wikipedia entry for Mansfield includes detail which conflicts with what I have read in Jones’s biography.

Ten years of scholarship and an intimate knowledge of Mansfield’s oeuvre makes this a stylish and authoritative biography.  She shows how the author drew on events in her real life and her imagined one, and she also explores the question of the author’s identity.  Today New Zealand claims her, and so do the English, but that’s not how it felt to Katherine Mansfield at the time:

Who am I?’ is a question she asks frequently in her journal.  She feels herself a permanent outsider, a little colonial, an exile from her country, no longer a New Zealander, but not English either, cast off by her family, a married woman not living with her husband – existing precariously outside the moral code of middle class society.  She has become adept at acting different parts, inhabiting other characters, concealing, pretending. (p128)

Sifting together a multiplicity of sources yet acknowledging that there are periods of Mansfield’s life that will forever remain opaque, Jones has fashioned a fascinating portrait of the woman and the writer and at the same time answered this question of identity.  Mansfield never lost her New Zealand sensibility as one living on the cusp of wilderness.  Her homeland influenced the way she saw the world: its turbulent geology and the fragility of its European settlements on the fringes of Maori culture gave a duality to her personality that never left her.  The distance from her homeland also impacted on her personal life: indiscreet adventures that affected her whole life might never have happened if a protective family had been nearby. It was Mansfield’s sense of being so far from her origins that put her at risk yet also empowered her with the freedom to write and to do as she pleased.

Jones does a fine job of recreating the life of this mercurial woman: her multiple and tortured relationships, her bohemian lifestyle, her struggle to be taken seriously as a writer and her appalling battle with the disease that would kill her.  I was astonished by her peripatetic lifestyle: how Mansfield ever managed to write anything when she was constantly travelling from England to the continent and back again I do not know.  Her emotional life was bizarre: her most enduring relationship, with John Middleton Murry was characterised by mutual dependence but an inability to live with each other.   They drove each other mad, and although Jones is even-handed, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Murry’s selfishness made Mansfield’s last years a misery.  While he was in England earning plenty of money, she was living in penury on the continent – stretched for money to buy the nourishing food she needed, camped in draughty villas in the European winter, and short of money to pay the doctors’ bills.  It was her lifelong friend Ida Baker who cared for her, not her husband, who was repelled by her hacking cough.

Jones does more than tell the story of Katherine Mansfield’s life, she also shows how Middleton Murry made her name.  Obsessed by her as he was (to the detriment of his subsequent marriages) he used her literary bequest to make his name and hers.  Jones says his style was hagiographic, sentimental and exploitative to some degree, but had he not published her work in his literary magazines Mansfield might well have been forgotten.

There are also revealing insights about other writers, especially Virginia Woolf (who was jealous of Mansfield’s talent and snooty about her behaviour) and D.H.Lawrence.  It seems as if Mansfield’s incomplete novel, ‘The Aloe’ was stymied in part by Lawrence.  Mansfield and Middleton Murry were installed at the Villa Pauline in Bandol (France) and after a long period of stasis she was making progress with the novel – when Lawrence wrote, insisting that they all live together in a kind of community in Cornwall. Murry, who was never keen on living in France anyway, agreed to go.  Mansfield (whose fragile health depended on a milder climate) reluctantly acceded even though she knew that she was better able to write where she was, and of course the entire venture turned out to be a disaster and the novel was never finished.

Hermione Lee at The Guardian has written a generally positive review but didn’t like the structure of this book.  Because Jones is also interested in Mansfield’s afterlife and how her legend grew because of John Middleton Murry’s manipulative approach to the papers bequeathed to him, she has interwoven sections about Mansfield’s life (in the present tense) with those covering the aftermath (in the past tense).  I felt that this interweaving of the legend and the life not only focusses on the facts that are known about the subject’s life but also engages the reader in Murry’s role.  How many of us would read on about him if this material had been placed chronologically at the end?  I had had enough of him and his narcissism by the time Katherine Mansfield died!  It is a measure of the biographer’s skill that she was able to tell Murry’s story as it impacts on Mansfield without alienating readers like me who initially were interested only in Mansfield.

Lee also characterises the use of the present tense as ‘fake-spontaneous’ but I think it achieves a sense of immediacy, as if Mansfield is still with us, especially when excerpts from the letters and journals are woven into the prose.  It also conveys the sense of urgency that Mansfield felt: in her youth she wanted to experience everything she could, to create a new and more sophisticated self after her dull life in provincial New Zealand, and towards the close of her life when she knew she was terminally ill, she was frantic to achieve what she could as a writer in the time she had left.  The technique works well, but it makes for harrowing reading towards the close of the author’s life.

Highly recommended.

© Lisa Hill

Readers may also be interested to visit the Katherine Mansfield Society’s website.

Author: Kathleen Jones
Title: Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2010
ISBN: 9780670074358
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library.

Fishpond: Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller


  1. I also found that this is such a fine work. One might think that after Alpers, Meyers, and Tomalin, there’d be nothing new to add, but that isn’t the case. The information on Bowden and Murry is well done, and Jones’s style adds a fresh approach to KM’s struggle. I agree that this biography is worth reading.


    • Hello RC, welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers! I haven’t read any of those biographies, only In Pursuit by Joanna Fitzpatrick (about which the less said, the better).
      I think that Jones’s biography is in the same classy league as Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin.


  2. Hi Lisa. I went to Katherine Mansfield’s house in Wellington a couple of years ago. It was really interesting, and there was some interesting displays on her short and tragic life, and death. I bought a collection of her short stories on that trip, but haven’t got to reading any of them yet. Thanks for reminding me about her. It does sound a fascinating biography, she’s a great subject for biography as you say.


    • That house is on my list of must-see places when I finally get to NZ – and must admit to being sorely tempted to do soon after seeing some enticing segments about their cuisine on Masterchef!


  3. […] (1888-1923) was a restless creature.  When I read Kathleen Jones’ superb biography Katherine Mansfield, The Storyteller I was struck by how often Mansfield changed residences.  Even as her body was wracked by the TB […]


  4. I hope this is still in print – sounds intriguing and readable.


  5. […] me of the selfish behaviour of John Middleton Murry, that I read about in Kathleen Jones’ bio Katherine Mansfield, Storyteller. Murry’s insistence on living in England forced Katherine Mansfield to return to its perilous […]


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