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Mansfield, Katherine (1888-1923)  

Though Katherine Mansfield was reticent in the depiction of lesbianism in her short stories, she had close female friendships and was always deeply concerned with the status of women.

She was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, New Zealand. Her closest relationship was with her grandmother, who figures as the most sympathetic figure in her "New Zealand" stories. A chronological arrangement of those stories by Ian Gordon, entitled Undiscovered Country (1974), provides an insight into her own perspective on her childhood.

After attending Wellington Girls' High School, she was sent to Queen's College, London, as a finishing school. Back in Wellington, she became disenchanted with its intellectual life. Though her father helped her get some of her early stories published, she pined for London. She was allowed to return in 1908, with an annual allowance to supplement any income from her writing.

In London, she found her way into the literary scene, working principally with John Middleton Murry. Her personal life often got in the way of her writing career. Married hastily to an acquaintance, she was pregnant by another man. The marriage lasted barely days. Her mother sailed at once for London (after cutting Kathleen out of her will), hustled her off to a spa in Germany, then left her alone to go through the suffering of a miscarriage.

Although this episode has usually been seen as an attempt to conceal her pregnancy, it has been suggested plausibly by both Antony Alpers and Gillian Boddy that her mother was seeking the then fashionable water cure for lesbian tendencies.

That young Katherine had many close female friendships is beyond doubt. Some mystery still surrounds her relationship with Maata Matapuhu, a Maori princess and fellow schoolgirl. An interesting account of this bond is provided by Witi Ihimaera in his novella "Maata," part of his centennial volume, Dear Miss Mansfield (1989), in which he investigates the missing manuscript of an early novel. Mansfield's own unfinished manuscript "Maata," however, seems to record her close friendship with Ida Baker.

Separated from her husband, she lived with John Middleton Murry, whom she eventually married after her divorce. They traveled widely, mostly in the hope of improving her health, and much of her writing was done in Mentone, France. It seems clear that she suffered from syphilis as well as tuberculosis. At Gurdieff's health center at Fontainebleau, she finally succumbed to the disease that had ravaged her for years.

Her fiction is best read in company with her journals and letters, which throw light on the way her ideas for subjects formed and matured. A crucial episode was the death of her brother Leslie in World War I, which seems to have unblocked her New Zealand experiences, leading to some of her finest writing.

Although there is little openly lesbian writing, there is always a deep concern with the status of women. Most of her characters are women, and the few men are seen through unsympathetic eyes. "Frau Brechenmayer Attends a Wedding" has been cited by C. A. Hankin as an undisguised attack on male sexual dominance.

In the later New Zealand stories, Mansfield explores the world of feminine friendship and female sexuality. The only extant writing that is clearly lesbian is the vignette "Leves Amores," now published as an appendix to Clair Tomalin's critical study.

Mansfield employs a feminist approach to life and literature. She reveals with cruel clarity how male sexual and economic dominance has denied women an independent role. Only too often in her stories women reject the possibility of independence or are unable to take advantage of it, as, for example, in "The Colonel's Daughters." Mansfield was clearly critical of women's assigned role but unable to suggest a satisfactory alternative.

Although Virginia Woolf, with whom Katherine Mansfield had a close but uncertain relationship, dismissed her stories as minor, later critics agree that Mansfield played a critical role in redirecting the modern short story toward psychological exploration. She acknowledged her debt to Chekhov but made her own way, creating the first slice-of-life stories in English.

Murray S. Martin


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Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Viking, 1980.

Boddy, Gillian. Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer. Ringwood, VIC.: Penguin, 1988.

Hankin, Cherry A. Katherine Mansfield and her Confessional Stories. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Ihimaera, Witi. Dear Miss Mansfield: A Tribute to Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp. New York: Viking, 1989.

Tomalin, Claire. Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.


    Citation Information
    Author: Martin, Murray S.  
    Entry Title: Mansfield, Katherine  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 12, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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