Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Journals are exquisite. These fragments capture her love of her native New Zealand, the ups and downs of her marriage to the critic John Middleton Murry, the exhaustion of train journeys in France during the First World War, and trying to write while she was ill (she had tuberculosis).
Katherine and her husband, John Middleton Murry. were close friends of D. H. Lawrence, but Katherine disliked his wife, Frieda, a German woman who, unaware of Katherine’s annoyance, sought Katherine’s company. Katherine was fastidious and private; Frieda blowsy and confiding. I give Frieda credit for trying to be friends with Katherine!
In the following journal entry, Katherine reacts to Frieda and Lawrence.
January 10, 2015. Windy and dark. In the morning, Frieda suddenly. She had had a row with Lawrence. She tired me to death. At night we went to the Lawrences’, leaving her here. It was a warm night with big drops of rain falling. I didn’t mind the going, but the coming back was rather awful…. L. was nice, very nice, sitting with a piece of string in his hand, on true sex.
Katherine was hyper-critical and had a sharp tongue: at one point she became so bored by Lawrence’s rants on sexual philosophy that she suggested he name his cottage Phallus.
Katherine was a voracious reader. In a letter to Murry she fulminates: “…I find the Oxford Book of English Verse is very poor. I turned over pages and pages and pages. But except for Shakespeare and Marvell and just a handful of others it seems to be a mass of falsity.” (N.B. I think I have this same edition – mine is edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch.)
Katherine loathes E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the great urban sprawl novel about the problems of moving house and inter-class sex. But Katherine is unmoved.
She writes, “E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming up the teapot…. And I can never be certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.”
Katherine and Murry remained close, though she was unfaithful to him. I enjoyed her passage about their reading poetry together. Murry adored Hardy’s poem to Swinburne, but Katherine admits, “I, an inferior being, was a little troubled by the picture of Sappho and Swinburne meeting en plein mer (if one can say such a thing) and he begging her to tell him where his manuscript was. It seemed such a watery rendezvous.”
As I read this volume, edited by C. K. Stead, I understood why Lawrence modeled his character Gudrun on Katherine. Gudrun in Women in Love is an artist, aloof, brilliant, whimsical, with a touch of cruelty – an exaggerated version of Katherine, the woman who resisted Rupert/Lawrence’s sexual philosophy.